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Agold-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.

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.

It had taken only 50 minutes to fly up there from the ramshackle capital Addis Ababa (it would have taken 20 bumpy hours by bus). 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 freestanding, 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.

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. …