The faith built on a rock

In the first of a new series on journeys with a religious theme, James Daunt visits Ethiopia's Christian churches, hewn from the rugged hillside
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THE URGENCY of faith, the pivotal relevance to daily life that raised the great monuments of the world, has all but deserted them. The Haghia Sophia no longer echoes with the prayers of the living; the Taj Mahal and the Alhambra seem inert and col dly isolated from the cultural fervour that inspired them. Europe's cathedrals, even the great mosques of the Muslim world, exist as museums of architectural splendour, but lack the intensity of experience found, for example, in the devotion of Tibetan p ilgrims at Lhasa.

The Christian churches of Ethiopia are different. At Imrahana Christos, in violently rugged central Ethiopia, the murmur of prayer rises from the church through the thin mountain air. This was the first thing I noticed as I approached from the nearby town of Lalibela. Entering, I discovered the chanting to be a young deacon reading the Bible to a gallery of older priests. Two girls genuflected in strenuous private prayer. Old women sat silently together while young boys ran around them.

This is a church that remains at the heart of the daily life of those who live near it, just as a European monastery would have before the Reformation. The visitor will marvel not only at this, but at the grandeur of its architecture and the beauty of the surrounding landscape. For the most part, the path from Lalibela hugs a tortuous line between ranges, abruptly opening a succession of views across the spectacular sweep of central Ethiopia. As you approach Imrahana Christos, the chanting draws you down through a scented juniper forest to emerge, quite suddenly, before a towering slate-grey rock-face and the church itself, nestled in a deep cave.

The building is impressive, with alternating layers of black beams and white-plastered stone, cruciform windows of great variety and a richly carved interior. Though its architecture dates from the 12th century, the roots of this church reach back to theconversion of Abyssinia to Christianity in the 4th century. As all its neighbours fell to the seemingly irresistible spread of Islam, this Christian kingdom alone held out, curtained off from the outside world.

So it has remained until modern times. For whenever, over the ages, the curtain has been briefly drawn aside, Ethiopia has remained independent and Christian. Its emperors, who claimed descent through 225 forebears to the bastard son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, presided over a faith closely linked to the Coptic Church of Egypt, but one that evolved a distinct character. In its liturgy, festivals and iconography, this Church is unique.

At Lalibela itself, the sense of this being a living religion is all the more striking for the splendour of the complex of churches. The most extraordinary are carved from the living rock, uniquely by digging down from the flat surface of a gently sloping hill. They sit, therefore, in deep pits, their carved roofs barely higher than the surrounding land, invisible until you are almost at the edge of the trenches that separate them. Their interiors are hollowed with remarkable skill, soaring pillars leftto support the roofs, conjuring quite miraculously a sense of light harmony from this dense mass of rock. The first European visitor, a Portuguese priest in the 16th century, concluded a short description with the lament that further words were pointless; no one would believe them.

To attend a service in one of these churches is to understand the force of conviction that carried through their construction. Seeing those bodies prostrate in prayer, transfixed by the transcendental beat of drums and the high singing of boy deacons, I found myself hurled back into the medieval past. The silhouette of an ancient nun, the noble bearded face of a priest leaning on his stick, reminded me I was seeing the practice of a faith unchanged since the days when these churches were built. It is for this that Wilfred Thesiger writes of Lalibela in his autobiography that "no other place in the world has so profoundly impressed me".

Most travellers will arrive in Lalibela by air, a small plane wobbling over the jagged riot of ridges and chasms that is the highlands. Ethiopian Airlines will efficiently whisk you in this way between the main centres: to the roaring majesty of the BlueNile Falls; north to the ancient capital of Aksum - home, it is said, to the Ark of the Covenant, but more striking for pre-Christian stelae of enormous size; to the curious 17th-century palaces of Gonder; then back to the modern capital, Addis Ababa. All but the shortest visit, however, allows at least some exploration of territory beyond this standard tourist itinerary.

The northern province of Tigray presents a quite different landscape to the central mountains. Flat plains, intensively farmed, are violently interrupted by jagged ranges. In these peaks further rock-hewn churches are to be found, individually less spectacular than those of Lalibela, but collectively every bit as interesting. They date from as early as the 4th century, painstakingly chiselled from rock faces to achieve elegant basilica structures. Many are strikingly painted; bold murals depict legends of the Ethiopian saints. There is a strong Byzantine influence in the art, but it is less rigid and stylised.

The best churches are the most inaccessible. Lost on the way to Abba Yemata, a particular favourite, I was lucky enough to be helped by a priest who deserted his ploughshare to show me the way. The path ended before a sheer rock face, which the priest nimbly began to scale. Safe arrival at the summit for me seemed less likely. As I climbed, though, I found with relief that the ascent of generations before me had worn deep footholds. The view was exhilarating, the church - with its vivid 9th-century frescoes - exquisite. More often than not, travellers will pass some time with those gathered at the church, sharing their home-brewed beer (an acquired taste) and gentle jokes at the expense of the foreigner.

You confront Ethiopia's immediate past at the main base for exploring the rock churches. Hausien, a bustling market town, was bombed with terrible savagery by the Marxist government at the height of the 19-year civil war that followed the overthrow of the Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The scars remain to this day. Elsewhere, the war can seem distant to the traveller; certainly one feels at all times safe.

From the air you snatch only an impression of the scenic magnificence of the region. It offers marvellous walking country, nowhere better than in the Simien National Park, a few hours drive north of Gonder. Here the central massif rises to its highest point to end with dramatic abruptness at the wall of Great Northern Escarpment. You walk or ride through a constantly changing landscape - the dappled shade of groves of giant heather, undulating grasslands not unlike the Sussex Downs except for an incongruous smattering of giant lobelia - along a ridge from which scrub falls precipitously, putting to flight game, baboons and, if you are very lucky, the rare walia ibex goat. The escarpment, however, is the most famous feature

of the park. A staggering sight, it falls sheer for thousands of feet to the forest below, the jumble of fractured land then receding from view towards Sudan.

Perched on the heights of the Simien you understand how, in its mountain fastness, this Christian kingdom preserved its independence. The lands all around fell first to Muslim invasion, then to European colonialists. Its unique customs, art and traditions developed in isolation. The country remains an extraordinary mixture of ancient, medieval and modern. They are intermingled not only in the landscape and the architecture, but in the minds of the people.