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HOLY ROCK | Lalibela, Ethiopia

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

Ethiopia is one of my favourite places to be in; rich in history, fabulous cuisine and coffee, exceptional music, welcoming people, and striking geography.

Due to the nature of my work - focusing on the struggles of humanity - usually keeps me away from usual tourist attractions. Therefore, I have never got the chance to visit some of Ethiopia's wonders.

Finally, I got the opportunity.

I heard of Lalibela on one of my first trips to Ethiopia, a rural northern town, and its famous ancient cave churches. On my last trip, I dedicated a few days to go and see for myself what all the fuss is about. Located deep in the Amhara hills, driving up the winding country road to get there seems like the way to any other town in the region. However, once you enter, you realize that the beauty of Lalibela is found beneath your feet.

Before my eyes, 11 beautiful churches that have been carved and shaped out of solid rock.

Stepping into the church was like entering a time machine, an intricately carved window providing insight into life, many many centuries in the past. Of course, the hordes of tourists and visitors will bring you back to reality.

So wandering the site in the very early hours of the morning before the bustling tour groups arrived was of great importance.

Those hours were precious.

Lalibela rock churches priest, Ethiopia Photo by Lior Sperandeo

The harmony between this ancient place and the faithful who came to pray was so vivid.

As the congregation grew, the spiritual connection became increasingly palpable, creating an almost biblical atmosphere as I've never experienced before.

I must admit I expected this UNESCO site to feel like a museum, but on the contrary, it was incredibly alive and active.

Every morning worshippers would attend services in the many churches. Everywhere you look, people were praying quietly or reading holy books. It was a reminder that Lalibela is not a tourist site, but a home and a place of pilgrimage for millions.

The fact that we, as outsiders, can revel in the magic of this holy site is a great honour.

Lalibela rock churches, Ethiopia Photo by Lior Sperandeo

People have always been the nature of my work, and photographing them is my way of sharing what I see. Even in a place of rich history like Lalibela, what interests me the most are the people.

Who comes here?

Who lives here?

What do they seek in a place like this?

If it's a man who walked here barefoot for hundreds of miles or a pilgrim that came here on a plane - this unique mix of people is what has kept Lalibela alive since its construction.

I didn't just want to look at a structure with immense history. Through my work, I wanted to highlight the life that continues to sustain Lalibela's magic to millions across the region and around the world.

Lalibela churches, Ethiopia Photo by Lior Sperandeo

Growing up in the ''Holy land'' I have always experienced sacred places to be challenging to document. The thought of photographing people entering a holy site feels too personal, even invasive.

To overcome this, I started by approaching people kindly and asking them to be photographed to see their responses. I wanted to ensure that those around me were comfortable first and foremost.

Much to my surprise, the answer was always yes.

Lalibela churches, Ethiopia Photo by Lior Sperandeo

I'm happy these encounters didn't just produce photos, but embodied a genuine connection to the place through the people I met.


Story originaly published on Passsion Passport

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