Lalibela, the country’s holiest city, is the principal place of pilgrimage for Orthodox worshippers in Ethiopia, and is famous for its unique churches: monolithic and hollowed out from solid rock they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the most important annual celebrations is Christmas on January 7. Throughout the night before, the “Nativity Vigil” is held with Christmas day marking the end of a 40 day fast (another such fasting period comes before Easter) and the faithful can now enjoy a family feast. Young people in local dress play a game called “Genna” (Christmas in the Ge’ez language), as a tribute to the rejoicing shepherds who are said to have done the same outside the stable on the night Christ was born.

On Christmas Eve, thousands of pilgrims throng the Beta Maryam Church and the nearby hills. Priests sing hymns, beat drums and rattle sistras all night long. As day breaks, the church empties and some hundred priests climb up to form a line along the edge of the precipice surrounding the church. Their chanting is answered in antiphony by the ululating voices of another group of clerics in the courtyard below.