Eight hundred years ago, Christians sought to build the New Jerusalem in north Ethiopia.

The saint had been carved in bas-relief out of the rock wall of the church nearly 800 years ago. The features were strong and simply rendered and bore the unmistakable planes and lines of the African.

The saint had been carved in bas-relief out of the rock wall of the church nearly 800 years ago. The features were strong and simply rendered and bore the unmistakable planes and lines of the African. It was a life-size standing figure, which meant that the saint looked me straight in the eye. This was unnerving, because our Christian tradition places those we revere on high and we don't expect them to descend to our level and admonish us face to face. His left hand was concealed beneath the folds of his robe and his right hand held a staff that was surmounted by a plain crucifix. All this was revealed in a couple of seconds as the light from our guide's torch played down the figure. It was pitch dark inside the church, and I couldn't help but be reminded of how Howard Carter must have felt as his flickering match illuminated the interior of Tutankhamun's tomb. I, too, was gazing upon "wonderful things".

Lalibela, in northern Ethiopia, is a short flight from the capital Addis Ababa. The journey is memorable in itself as it offers a vivid panoramic glimpse of Ethiopian rural life. Ethiopian Airlines operates a scheduled flight to Lalibela via the towns of Bahir Dar and Gonder. The daily run is like a village bus service. On the way you get a spectacular view of the Ethiopian highlands, which rise to higher than 7,000ft, and if you're lucky and there's a break in the clouds, a view into the Blue Nile Gorge. The Blue Nile rises in Lake Tana, and for thousands of years it has carved a ravine of imposing grandeur through some of the most remote and rugged highlands in the world.

Lalibela is shrouded in mystery, but what it lacks in historical fact is more than compensated for by legends. The town gets its name from King Lalibela who, we are told, was lifted to heaven and instructed by God to return to earth and build the town's churches. The world's greatest artists and craftsmen were assembled from all over Africa and the Mediterranean. They laboured by day and, so the legend would have us believe, a host of angels continued the work at night. Today, the churches are a World Heritage site. They are arranged in two groups, separated by a dirty stream called the Jordan River.

Lalibela abounds in references to the Holy Land, and Ethiopia can justifiably claim to be the oldest country in the world to have Christianity as its official religion. One theory holds that the churches were built to establish Lalibela as the New Jerusalem, and some believe that the lost Ark of the Covenant resides in northern Ethiopia in the ancient city of Axum.

Most of the churches are monolithic, or free-standing, which means they have been carved out of the rock on all four sides. Others are still attached by one wall umbilically to the surrounding landscape. The churches are linked by carved channels and tunnels, which give the site the layout of a vast catacomb. Some stand more than 35ft high and have been carved entirely below ground level. Each is unique in design, both inside and out, the interiors having been hollowed out and lined with sculpted reliefs and religious murals, and they all stand in their own cavernous courtyards. But what makes the churches truly remarkable is that they are not only some of the world's finest buildings, they are also some of its most dramatic sculptures. It has been estimated that 40,000 people must have been needed to carve them.

We began at the church of Bet Medhane Alem, which means Saviour of the World. This is the largest rock-hewn church in the world, standing in a carved courtyard 20ft deep. To get an idea of its scale, imagine hewing out of solid rock an Olympic-size swimming pool to twice its usual depth, and in the middle of it carving out a scaled-down version of the Parthenon in Athens.

We walked down a series of rough stone steps and as we descended the shadows deepened and the sounds of the town, above and beyond, were muffled into silence. The church towered majestically over us. Thirty-six pillars support the roof from the outside and another thirty-six line the walls of the interior. It was almost impossible to imagine that every square inch of the structure, both inside and out, and every lovingly rendered architectural detail and motif, had been carved by hand all those hundreds of years ago.

A short tunnel led to another courtyard in which stood three smaller churches, more like chapels. The one held in the highest affection is Bet Meryam, the House of the Virgin. The interior was exquisite in its detail and possessed a richly decorated painted ceiling. Windows were shaped in the form of stelae, the monumental pillars of the ancient Axumite Empire that flourished in the time of the Queen of Sheba.

Everywhere we looked we saw crosses. The cross is the most revered symbol in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In Lalibela they can be seen rendered in many forms: Latin, Greek, and even Maltese crosses, which suggested the influence of the crusading holy orders. This posed an intriguing question; did the Crusaders journey to Lalibela, or did Orthodox Christians from here go on crusade to the Holy Land? Gazing at the churches, one slowly began to realise that this almost totally forgotten corner of North Africa was once one of the most influential religious crossroads in the ancient world

We approached the church of Bet Giorgis across a rocky outcrop. At first all we could see was a gaping hole. The church slowly revealed itself to be a perfectly symmetrical crucifix that dropped sheer for about 30ft, a huge cross-shaped peg in a square hole. Legend has it that St George was so impatient to see the church that had been dedicated to him that he rode his horse down the walls. The holes in the walls are said to be his horse's hoofprints.

Bet Golgota lay at the end of another steeply carved ravine. The walls rose sheer on each side and the footpath was only wide enough for one person at a time. As we neared the church the sky darkened dramatically and it began to rain, giving the church a setting straight out of a Gormenghast novel. Inside, the rock floor, walls and ceiling were anthracite black.

It was here that the carving of the saint revealed itself, and it was accompanied by six other life-size figures carved into the walls. They jumped out at us in stark relief each time the torchlight played across them, like holy jack-in-the-boxes. They contrasted sharply with the rich, vibrant colours of a large religious painting, which depicted St George slaying a dragon, and the intricately illustrated pages of a goatskin Bible that would have taken two men to lift.

King Lalibela himself is believed to be buried somewhere under the cold floor of Bet Golgota and a visit to the church is said to assure the visitor a place in heaven. The resident priest disappeared behind a screen and reappeared a few moments later bearing the church's most sacred relics ­ King Lalibela's personal hand cross and prayer stick.

As we left the churches I noticed a monk sitting wrapped in homespun, his weather-beaten features bowed low over a copy of a dog-eared Bible as he worshipped silently in a corner of one of the courtyards. The sight of him served as a vivid reminder that as well as being a place of massive historical and architectural importance, above all Lalibela remains a living religious centre, as sacred to the people of Ethiopia today as it was when the churches were carved, and that for many Ethiopians religious life here has changed little in more than eight hundred years.

Top Ten Attractions

1. Addis Ababa

The Ethiopian capital's name means New Flower. Home to a number of pan-African and Western organizations, parts of the city have a very cosmopolitan feel, while the Sheraton Hotel wouldn't look out of place in Las Vegas. Contrastingly, the mercato is the largest market in Africa and a truly in-at-the-deep-end introduction to African life. The National Museum celebrates the centuries-old and colourful history of the nation and houses the remains of 'Lucy', the world's oldest human being.

2. Axum

The Queen of Sheba ruled this ancient city during the 10th century BC. You can visit the ruins of her palace as well as a wealth of other ancient sites including the stelae field. Stelae are the monoliths commemorating the lives of Axumite rulers. Visit the well-preserved 3rd century tomb of King Rahma and the 6th century ruins of King Kaleb's palace.

3. Gonder

The Royal Enclosure houses the ruins of several medieval palaces dating back to the time when Gonder was the capital. The palaces are arranged in the heart of the city and can be explored in a two-hour stroll. Stay at the Goha Hotel (00 251 8 11 06 03) just outside town for spectacular views of Gonder and the Simien mountains.

4. Bahir Dar

The town itself is unremarkable but it lies on the shore of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, and home to numerous island monasteries, which can be visited by boat. An hour and a half's drive takes you to Tis Isat, the spectacular Blue Nile Falls, and the second highest falls on the African continent after Victoria Falls.

5. Lalibela

Arguably the most important historical site with 11 rock-hewn churches carved out of the mountainous landscape in the 12th century (see article left).

6. Simien Mountains National Park

Many writers have described the Simiens as the most spectacular mountain range in Africa, and they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

7. Awash National Park

The National Tourist office organises four-wheel drive safaris to the park, half a day's drive from Addis. The landscape is in parts volcanic and features dramatic hot springs, lakes and rivers. The wildlife includes warthog, gazelle, lions and leopards.

8. Blue Nile Gorge

Carved by the Blue Nile on its way to Sudan and Egypt, this dramatic gorge is known as Africa's Grand Canyon. The nearby site of Debre Libanos is one of the holiest shrines in Ethiopia and the former site of a monastery founded by the priest who spread Christianity in the 13th century.

9. Omo Valley

The wild and remote region to the extreme south of the country is home to a wide diversity of ethnic tribespeople whose lives have remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. You'll see amazing body decoration, hairstyles, jewellery and traditional dress.

10. Harer

The walled city of Harer is the fourth holiest city in the Muslim world and dates back to the time when the rock-hewn churches were being carved in Lalibela. The city walls define an area no larger than a square kilometre, so the mosques, markets and traditional houses can easily be explored in a day.