LALIBELA, Ethiopia (Reuters) - As a stranger draws near, priest Mesganaw Tarkgn whips on an embroidered cape and raises an ancient cross in a picture-perfect pose. He is used to the demands of visitors to one of Ethiopia’s holiest sites.
Rather than a blessing, these days they want a snapshot of religious life in Lalibela’s red rock-hewn churches, said by many locals to be the eighth wonder of the world.
Ethiopia is the second oldest Christian country on earth and also possesses treasures from Muslim kingdoms, which the government hopes will help draw more travelers interested in faith.
Legend has it that these churches were carved below ground at the end of 11th century and beginning of the 12th after God ordered King Lalibela to build churches the world had never seen -- and dispatched a team of angels to help him.
“I’d be happy to welcome more tourists,” said Mesganaw, a Christian Orthodox who has been a priest for 32 years. “I want people to know about Lalibela.”
For centuries, devout Christians traveled by foot and donkey to see the churches perched in the northern highlands. The skulls and mummified remains of some lie even now in tombs chiseled deep into the cliff walls around one church, Beit Giorgis.
Today, the minivans of Americans, Britons and Chinese that motor along remote, winding highland passes suggest a growing number of foreign tourists are discovering what the pilgrims have always known.
“What we’re witnessing is a revitalization of the tourism sector in Ethiopia,” Minister of Culture and Tourism Mahmoud Dirir told Reuters.
Ethiopia boasts eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites but decades of hunger, conflict and political instability have kept the country and its fabled palaces, obelisks and castles off the beaten track for most visitors to Africa.
Tourism represents a mere 2.5 percent of its gross national product -- something the government is keen to change.
It has set the ambitious goal of attracting one million foreign visitors a year by 2010, quadrupling current figures.
Religious tourism may prove to be the answer.
“We are focusing on our comparative advantage, which is the diversity of the cultures of the Ethiopian people, and ... the faith aspect,” Dirir said.
Far from being a dead relic, Lalibela’s churches throng with local worshippers on any given day.
Wrapped in white Muslim robes, some read Biblical passages on parchment in Ge‘ez, a 2,500 year-old language. Others press lips and foreheads to damp walls, clustering round pillars or prostrating themselves to kiss the stone floors.
In a darkened chamber, musicians bang drums made of goat hide to the mournful singing of priests, shaking silver sistrum rattles to a slow and deliberate beat.
Last year, French archaeologists also uncovered what they say are three medieval towns at the heart of the Shoa kingdom, which straddled key trading routes between the Christian highlands and Muslim Red Sea ports between the 10th and 16th centuries.
But some worry about the impact of mass tourism on these historic sites, which have been largely untouched for centuries.
“Too many tourists can be a danger to the monuments, and also to the perception of the place. If there are too many tourists, others may not come,” said Valentina Resente, an architect working on a European Commission-funded project to cover five churches in Lalibela with temporary shelters.
Deepening cracks running the length of some church ceilings are also of concern to UNESCO, which is in talks with the government, religious authorities and locals on how to begin the painstaking process of restoration.
Until now, the state has largely left repairs to be carried out by the faithful as best they can.
“Since the churches are still very much alive for the locals, it’s understandable that they will make repairs as they know how -- using cement for example,” Resente said.
“So you’ll see restoration using technology that’s not appropriate for this most magnificent archaeology.”
UNESCO’s Ethiopia Director Nureldin Satti told Reuters there was no need for panic.
“Lalibela is not yet characterized as a site in danger. Nevertheless we are considering urgent action on churches under threat,” he said: “The situation is quite serious.”
Preserving its ancient monuments is just one of the problems the government must tackle if Ethiopia is to compete against the likes of Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa for tourists.
It desperately needs more hotels, better transport links, even banks in far flung towns for visitors to change their dollars, euros and pounds into birr.
At Lalibela’s small airport, a dog-eared ledger on which is scribbled an invitation for “Visitors’ Suggestions” offers an insight into the frustrations of some.
The most common criticism is about the flight schedule -- or rather, the lack of one due to delays, non-arrivals, cancellations and technical woes.
Others complain about widespread begging by children, “flea-infested” carpets in unnamed hotels, poor menus and being charged a room rate different from the one advertised.
Almost all, however, agreed on one thing: the view.
“My visit to Lalibela has reaffirmed the pride for my country. No matter where I go, no matter what I see I will never forget the beauty of this holy land,” one Ethiopian wrote last month.