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Photos: The rock churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia


This is a photo series from photographer, Darren Ornitz. He is based out of Brooklyn, NY and working as a freelancer for Reuters, his work has been published in the New York Times, Travel + Escape, Afar, and by various other publications and NGO’s.

Settled 2,600m high in the Lasta Mountains of Northern Ethiopia and home to eleven rock-hewn monolithic churches, Lalibela is revered as one of the world’s greatest and most magnificent architectural achievements. These churches were all carved down into the earth out of a single block of red volcanic rock.

It is said in local history that after seeing Jerusalem taken by the Muslims in 1187, King Lalibela commissioned these churches to be built with the intention of having Lalibela serve as a new Jerusalem. They are still in use today, home to a population of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and as a religious sanctuary for pilgrims who come every year from all over the world.


Worshippers return home after attending Sunday Mass in Lalibela, Ethiopia.


A priest gives the Sunday liturgy to worshippers outside of St. Mary’s Church in Lalibela, Ethiopia. The priest spoke about the need to respect all of the different nationalities of people who came to visit Lalibela, to welcome them, and treat them with kindness.


A monk poses in his mountaintop Ethiopian Orthodox monastery in Lalibela, Ethiopia. In addition to the 11 famous rock-hewn churches, the countryside surrounding Lalibela is filled with actively used churches and monasteries.


Worshippers attend Mass inside of St. Mary’s Church.


A young Amhara shepherd poses for a photograph in the town of Lalibela, Ethiopia.


Worshippers collect their shoes outside of St. Mary’s Church after Sunday Mass in Lalibela, Ethiopia.


Residents walk through the maze of paths and corridors that link most of the 11 rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia.


A woman roasts coffee in preparation for an Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony in Lalibela, Ethiopia. The ceremony, which usually lasts between two and three hours, is an important Ethiopian tradition and is customarily performed when welcoming visitors or respected guests.


Women clean Bet Giyorgis (Church of St. George), which is the most popular of the 11 churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia. The church is carved 15 meters down into the rock, its cruciform roof at ground level.


A monk walks in the streets of Lalibela, Ethiopia. The monks stay in retreat throughout most of the day.


A man prays outside of the church of Saint Emmanuel in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Want to see more of Darren Ornitz’s work? Check out his website and follow him on Instagram!

Darren Ornitz, born in 1985, studied at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University before graduating from Fordham University in 2008 with a degree in African Studies and Fine Arts. His interest in documenting the human condition has taken him all over the world both independently and on assignment.  He has traveled extensively throughout Africa and Asia, to more than twenty-five countries, including Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Yemen, Nepal and Oman. Darren is currently traveling back and forth to Panama where he is working on a long-term documentary on Esperanza Social Venture Club, an organization that facilitates gang intervention and reintegration programs in Casco Viejo.

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