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Every Christmas, which in the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar falls in the first week of January, the population of the remote hilltop village of Lalibela swells to five times its normal size, accommodating up to 100,000 people. Many have travelled on foot, often walking miles, to be blessed at the sacred hand-carved churches of this “new Jerusalem”. Christianity in Ethiopia dates back to the 1st century AD and for centuries believers would make the dangerous pilgrimage across the Sahara to visit Jerusalem. Following the capture of Jerusalem in 1187 by Muslims, the Ethiopian leader King Lalibela ordered a second Jerusalem to be built in the town that now bears his name. Eleven interconnected churches were excavated out of the mountains by hand in the 12th century, in order to create a place of worship that would remain hidden from invading Muslim armies from the North. For the 32 million Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, Lalibela is as significant as Jerusalem and must be visited once in a lifetime.

All of the churches here have been in use ever since they were first built and in 2008, UNESCO, which made Lalibela one of its first ever heritage sites in 1978. As the ancient rock churches continue to draw in tourists and pilgrims alike, locals in the nearby village are being provided with steady work. In 2015, Ethiopia was named the World’s Best Tourism Destination, and although visitors are growing by 10% each year, the country hopes to increase valuable tourist dollars. After years of brutal civil war and recurrent famine in Ethiopia, Lalibela is a site of hope and salvation, in more ways than one.

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