In the dawn gloom, among throngs of pilgrims in white clutching burning candles, Hailu Abera gave special thanks on Friday as Orthodox Christmas celebrations unfolded at Ethiopia’s stone-hewn churches in Lalibela. Just weeks ago, the UNESCO-listed site and its astonishing houses of worship were under rebel control, Lalibela having changed hands once more as Ethiopia’s war dragged into a second brutal and unpredictable year.

But with the holy site and its 12th-century icons retaken by government forces in late December, Hailu joined tens of thousands of devotees flocking to Lalibela to mark the day for orthodox Christmas. “The vibe was very bad, and I did not expect to come and celebrate the holiday here,” Hailu told AFP, wrapped in a white shawl beneath one of the towering walls of a 12th-century rock-carved church. “When I heard the town was freed, then I decided to celebrate Christmas in Lalibela and also wanted to fulfill my pact with God.”

Among the towns captured during a sweeping rebel offensive in the middle of last year, the fall of Lalibela made headlines around the world as the war arrived at one of Ethiopia’s holiest and most storied places. There were appeals for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the rebels who occupied Lalibela as they marched south, to protect its cultural heritage that includes, most famously, centuries-old churches carved out of rock. Lalibela would change hands twice more before pro-government forces drove the TPLF back into their stronghold of Tigray.

Pilgrims walk and rest in one of the pilgrimís camp sites during the eve of the celebration of Genna, the Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas, in Lalibela, northern Ethiopia. — AFP photos

Heavy security

But there were no chances being taken on the holy day, with the army out in force for Christmas as seas of worshippers made the pre-dawn pilgrimage to pray before Orthodox priests in full regalia chanting and swaying. “I am very happy to celebrate this holiday here after going through war and suffering,” said Yohannes Mekbib, an Orthodox deacon wearing a white turban. “It makes this year’s celebration special.”

There were few of the foreign tourists who regularly flock in droves for the spectacular event. But there were Ethiopians from among the global diaspora peppered among the crowds. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had issued a call for Ethiopians from abroad to return home in huge numbers for Christmas as a show of faith in the country’s unity and stability.

“We answered the call to the diaspora,” said Solomon Gadisa, who made the journey from the United States. “We will assess the situation here in our country, and brief those back home who couldn’t make it.” Ethiopia’s President Sahle-Work Zewde, who holds a largely ceremonial role, was among the higher-profile worshippers in attendance. Lalibela’s UNESCO-listed churches and other heritage appear to have been spared any scars of war. But the town and its wider infrastructure have suffered. Power and water supplies remain patchy and the airport has been damaged.

Abiy sent the army into Tigray in November 2020 to oust the TLPF, having accused the region’s dissident ruling party of staging attacks on army camps. He promised a swift end to the war but 14 months later Tigray remains under TPLF control and the region’s six million people lack food and medicine under what the UN calls a de facto aid blockade. Some among the crowds in Lalibela prayed the country would be spared any further pain. “I came here to celebrate the holiday in faith that God will save us if something bad happens,” said devotee Achashmar Dereje.— AFP