According to the hotel staff, Saturday night would be a special occasion to visit the rock-hewn churches. Instead, I woke up early on Sunday morning and descended to the entrance of the northwestern cluster. While Lalibela had seemed quiet the previous days, there was a busy atmosphere around the entrance. People were selling candles, people were whispering to each other, and the delicate sound of the long white robes filled the air as worshippers flocked to the ancient group of churches. I descended to Bet Medhane Alem, but was not allowed to enter, unlike previous days. It would prove the best that could happen to me.
As I came through the tunnel leading to Bet Maryam and reached the open space in front of it, I noticed praying people everywhere: in corners, on the edge of the trenches, leaning against the wall of the church and the pit. They were reading small books, bowing with their head directed towards the wall, or just sitting on the floor, covered in their white robe. Murmuring of worshippers filled the air and engulfed me, and although I was the only foreigner, I seemed to go unnoticed. I went up and sat on top of the trench, from where I could look down not only to Bet Maryam, but also to Bet Mikael and the trench leading up to it.
I remained here for a long while, in fascination of the scenes unfolding right under my eyes. While morning light was gradually seeping onto the landscape and the worshippers, more and more people in white robes arrived for Sunday morning mass in Lalibela. What had been white-dressed shadows before, became people with faces, faces with expressions, people fumbling the pages of their small holy books, sometimes fanatically or desperately praying worshippers. The always increasing crowd obediently followed the instructions of the priests whom they could not see, bending forward, standing up, praying, being silent. The sun popped over the edge of the horizon behind me, and the warm light of its rays fell over the crowd like a soft blanket.
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