Sacred Forests: The Dialogue between Religion and Environmental Protection in Ethiopian Churches
“And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, where he placed the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God caused every tree to grow that is beautiful to the sight and good to eat.”
This is how the Garden of Eden is depicted in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, which describes the origin of the universe and the heavenly place where Adam and Eve were placed. Such a paradise, although little characterized in the original words, has inhabited the imagination of believers and other enthusiasts of the matter for centuries. The scenes of this idyllic place, reinforced by the paintings and sculptures created over time, represent a landscape that is considered ideal, a paradisiacal nature that is often expressed through the vivid and contourless color – just like a painting by Monet – and probably the depiction of emphasizes the spiritual world where the picture is seen through the contrast of colors, shadows and lights.
In this sense, it is possible to see that it is no coincidence that religion and nature have walked together over the centuries, understanding the natural environment as a sacred and sovereign space, the closest God one can reach.
However, while some religions preserve nature only in the imagination of the sacred books, one particular religious group in northern Ethiopia establishes an intrinsic relationship with the natural environment that necessarily surrounds each of their churches. According to the World Council of Churches, Ethiopia’s dominant Tewahedo Orthodox Church has about 40 million followers, and their faith has been instrumental in protecting the country’s remaining native forests.
Its sacred structures, composed largely of materials found in nature itself, are surrounded by forests—crucial components of religious rites. According to belief, for the building to be a church, it must be surrounded by a forest, which in turn would materialize the Garden of Eden, where every plant, every animal is a blessing from God. This living ark of biodiversity would symbolize paradise and welcome all believers, but not only that, its importance is also attributed as the abode of hermits, sacred spiritual figures who live hidden in the forests and intercede in their prayers for all humanity.
It is estimated that around 40% of Ethiopia was covered by trees in 1900, but as agriculture expanded, the forests were replaced by cultivated fields. Today, only 5% of the vegetation cover remains across the country, and its location coincides with the fragments of forest scattered around the 1,500 or so small patches of green that shelter these churches.
These patches of forest vary in size according to the agreement between the parish and the priests. Churches of the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition have inherited many of the foundations of the sacred spaces of Judaism in their formal organization. Therefore, at the center of the Church, as well as at the metaphorical center of Jewish times, rests the Tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant described in the Bible as the object in which the tablets containing the Ten Commandments and other sacred elements would be preserved remained. The sacredness of the Tabot radiates outward, so the closer you are to the church, the holier the space. Forests are therefore part of this sacred radius of varying dimensions, which can span hundreds or even thousands of hectares.
The volume that houses the taboo, the church itself, usually has a round roof with door frames and juniper beams. Beyond the central building, another circle winds towards the exterior, forming a circular courtyard delimited by a wall. According to tradition, the proper distance between this wall and the church must be the span of forty angels. This type of patio already heralds approaching holiness, so many believers make gestures of reverence as they cross this boundary.
Finally, the sacred aura is complemented by native vegetation, which allows the chirping of birds, the rustling of leaves and the moisture of the earth to flow into the religious rites. Entering the forest means entering an ethereal place with a peaceful and tranquil atmosphere. Sensations experienced not only in the mind but also in the body itself, as the hot climate of Ethiopia is instantly soothed when walking through the forest.
However, this sacred nature is threatened by the increasing encroachment of agricultural plantations that insist on taking the remaining 5% of the native forest. This situation was confirmed by a closer look at images of forest areas, which drew attention to the decrease in green space. Eshete was a child who attended one of these churches weekly, so his work reflects the emotional connection to the stories he experienced among these trees. With a delicate work of community awareness – in his opinion the most difficult part of the project – Eshete and his team have already managed to protect 20 church forests with a very simple solution: build small stone walls that delimit the forests, including, in some cases, will the perimeter is slightly expanded and allows vegetation to naturally take up more space. The idea caught on mainly because it uses and mimics the shape of the sacred circular inner wall, thus extending the invisible web of sanctity to the entire forest.
According to Fred Bahnson in a lengthy essay on Jeremy Seifert’s film The Church Forests of Ethiopiathis conservation effort involving scientists, priests and the community arises not only from a belief in the spiritual power of nature or from the importance it has as a place of refuge, a source of natural medicines and water sources, but beyond all of those Power that forests have to make us dream, to be part of our imagination, our idyllic vision of paradise where we can see beyond the visible.
As an example of resilience, these churches and their forests stand the test of time in a context of unbridled exploitation of nature. In this moment, when much is said about the importance of conservation, they testify to the power of faith to create sustainable landscapes through the encounter between man and nature.