|Feast time: Pilgrims at the Church of St George, Lalibela|
A gold-robed deacon stood in front of a makeshift altar at the shadowy heart of the nave, clutching a staff as he led the mournful chanting.
Surrounding him was a cluster of white-shawled priests, some holding bibles and candles, others ornate crosses and icons.
Around them were throngs of pilgrims, also robed in white, lost in a reverie of chanting and praying.
All I could do was sit transfixed in a darkened corner, my back against the stone wall of the ancient church carved out of the mountainside.
Not only was I in one of the most astonishing cultural sites in the world, but also in one of the most sacred places in Christendom during Easter.
It was as if I was watching proceedings from centuries past.
The Orthodox Christian pilgrims had flocked here to Lalibela from all corners of Ethiopia to take part in ceremonies like these.
The second-oldest Christian country in the world is still deeply pious and Easter is a serious business.
Followers eat a vegan diet for the 55 days leading up to the Orthodox Easter Sunday (May 5 this year), then everyone spends Easter eve at the church praying until 3am when it is announced that Christ has risen. After that, the party begins.
|Thoughtful: Priests studying at Lalibela|
But the Unesco world heritage site of Lalibela is a marvel at any time of the year – as is most of Ethiopia.
Despite still being blighted by its past and ongoing poverty, the East African nation is rich in culture and diverse natural wonders and it’s finally beginning to realise its potential as a tourist destination.
The population of more than 80 million is made up of around 80 ethnic groups, with 90 languages spoken and many religions practised.
The Rift Valley gouges through the country and there are savannas, plateaus, great lakes, deserts and game reserves.
But its most well-trodden tourist trail is the northern highlands – the traditional heart of the nation and its Orthodox Christian faith.
The jewel in the crown is Lalibela – an incredible labyrinth of 11 monolithic churches, tunnels and catacombs carved out of the red volcanic rock.
|Bed rock: Bet Abba Libanos church|
The morning air was still quite cool on arrival, but by early afternoon it was scorching and as I made my way down into the churches, it was the shade and respite from the heat I first noticed.
Then, as my eyes adjusted to the lower light, I saw the first of the worshippers wrapped in white robes paying their respects.
It wasn’t long before I was amid them with the play of shadows and diffused sunlight accentuating the ethereal atmosphere.
Many of the churches are free-standing, one is intricately shaped as a cross, while a few are still quite cave-like.
Their construction is attributed to King Lalibela who reigned until 1221 and is said to have wanted to create a “New Jerusalem” after the old one was captured by Saladin.
But how they were built has been lost in the fog of time.
|Treasures: At Marayam|
Even though I was left in awe by the ancient architecture, what struck me most was the ancient culture.
These weren’t mausoleums like other historical sites around the world, but were very much alive with powerful ceremonies and rituals probably far older than the churches themselves.
Walking around the pretty cobbled town built around the churches also felt like time-travelling.
The poverty may be stark at times, but the decades of under-development has also preserved charm and traditions long since lost in other countries.
That said, there are plenty of decent options on where to be lodged and fed. The Seven Olives hotel, at the very heart of town, is one.
So is the surprisingly futuristic Ben Abeba restaurant, run by a very hospitable and quite eccentric Scottish woman.Food is rarely an issue as Ethiopian cuisine is tasty and diverse.
|Touring: Chris in Lalibela|
The local liquor can be a bit harsh, but tej, the honey wine, can be delicious and therefore quite dangerous.
One morning, I went up to the Ashetan Marayam monastery on a mountain just behind town.
I stopped for a breather in the cool air of a surprisingly lush plantation, taking in the panorama.
Surrounding me were endless tiers of rocky mountains rippling off to the horizon, but the valley from where I’d just climbed was also very green considering it was the end of the dry season.
Ethiopia was a land far from the stereotypes ... it was somewhere that was certainly defying my expectations.
Continuing on, the monastery was far simpler and no match architecturally for the churches in town, but the atmosphere – quite literally due to the altitude – had a much more peaceful and spiritual quality.
|Simien escarpment landscape, Chenek|
Returning to Addis Ababa, I checked back into my hotel, the Semien. It’s a fairly small and laid-back capital and, being relatively new, lacks history.
There isn’t much to see other than a few museums and cathedrals but I loved watching the sunset from my balcony – mountains in the distance and a sprawl of concrete and treetops bathed in a rich amber light.
The highlight of my time there was visiting the Entoto mountains behind the city.
The church and the “palace” at the top aren’t very interesting, but the easy walk back down is.
Passing through the beautiful eucalyptus forests – with sweeping views over the city, and rural settlements merging into urbanity – there was green as far as the eye could see.
The last of my assumptions about Ethiopia were pleasantly swept away.
Lufthansa flies from Heathrow via Frankfurt to Addis Ababa from around £479 return. www.lufthansa.com.
Ethiopian Airlines flies to Lalibela from Addis Ababa in May from around £123 one way. www.ethiopianairlines.com.
The Seven Olives Hotel in Lalibela has double rooms from £24pn. www.sevenoliveshotel.com.
The Semien Hotel, Addis Ababa, has double rooms from £40pn. www.semienhotel.com.