Tucked inside the Amhara region of Ethiopia is a town that draws pilgrims from around the world, to its incredible Ethiopian stone churches.
Lior Sperandeo was initially intrigued by this place because of these churches, rock-hewn from a single large piece of stone. But once he arrived, he found so much more.
I recently caught up with Lior to hear more about his experience in the town of Lalibela, and to discuss the photos he took in the place known as “the Jerusalem of Ethiopia.” Here’s what he had to say.
What drew you to Lalibela, and how long were you there?
Ethiopia is one of my favorite countries; I’ve visited two times before and loved everything about my experiences. On my last trip, I heard of a rural northern town that’s famous for its cave churches. Unfortunately, at the time, Lalibela was too far off my path to add to my itinerary, but I knew I had visit at some point. So, I dedicated five days of my next trip to Ethiopia to seeing Lalibela for myself.
Tell me about what you experienced in Lalibela. What was it like there?
Lalibela is located deep in the Amhara hills. The winding country road that leads to the town is just like any other in the region, but once you enter the area, you realize that the beauty of Lalibela is found beneath your feet.
Before my eyes were 11 beautiful churches that had been carved and hewn from solid rock. Stepping into the churches was like entering a time machine — an intricately carved window that provided insight into what life was like many, many centuries ago. Of course, the crowds of tourists and other visitors immediately brought me back to reality, so wandering the sites in the mornings before the bustling tour groups was especially important. Those hours were precious to me. The harmony between the ancient place and those who went to pray there was incredibly vivid.
What things stood out to you about Lalibela?
I expected the UNESCO Site to feel like a museum, but in reality it was alive and active. Every morning, worshippers would attend services in the many churches, and everywhere you looked, people were praying quietly or reading holy books. This served as a constant reminder that Lalibela is not only a tourist site, but also a home and a place of pilgrimage for millions.
The fact that we, as outsiders, can revel in the magic of this holy site is a great honor.
What were you trying to capture in your photos?
Even in a historically rich place like Lalibela, what interests me most are the people. Who goes there? Who lives there? What do they seek in this place? Whether it’s a man who walked barefoot for hundreds of miles or a pilgrim who arrived on a plane — it’s the mix of people that go to Lalibela that keeps the city alive.
So, I didn’t just want to show a place that is rich with history in my photos; I wanted to highlight the life that continues to sustain Lalibela’s magic to millions across the region and around the world.
Your photos from Lalibela seem very personal in nature. Was this intentional?
People have always been the nature of my work, and photographing them is my way of sharing what I see.
In Lalibela, the thought of photographing people entering a holy place felt too personal, maybe even invasive. So, in the beginning, I simply asked people if I could take their photographs to see their response. I wanted to ensure that those around me felt comfortable, first and foremost. Much to my surprise, the response was increasingly positive.
I’m happy that these encounters didn’t just produce pretty photos, but were able to instill a personal sense of connection too.