SSouth of the Sahara and just north of the Great Rift Valley in landlocked Ethiopia, the Blue Nile flows from Lake Tana, the country’s largest lake. Radiating from the sacred spring is a scattering of forest islands, strewn across the dry highlands like a handful of emeralds. At the heart of each circle of forest, crouching under the ancient canopy and shrouded in lush foliage, are saucer-shaped churches – otherworldly structures that almost seem to radiate life force. And in a way, they do.
Ethiopia is today one of the fastest growing economies in the world and the second most populous country in Africa. The vast majority of the population lives in rural areas, where the expansion of settlements and agriculture is slowly reducing the forest edge by livestock and the plow.
Over the past century, 90% of Ethiopia’s forests have disappeared. In Amhara province, the only native forests remaining are those surrounding the buildings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
Preserved as an act of faith for centuries, these forests are proof of the power of spiritual ideas to create sustainable landscapes. Seen from above, the forests are delimited by the sharp border between the sacred and the profane, the church and the field, work and rest. They are places detached from everyday life but central, informing human work and relationships within society. Like other objects in Orthodox traditions, forests encourage the devotee to look beyond what is visible.
As you enter, the arid silence of subsistence farmland gives way to the fresh, fragrant forest air, filled with a cacophony of living songs. The sounds of insects, birds and monkeys rise with human voices in the canopy and up to the sky. Generations come and go under the same hundred-year-old trees as their ancestors.
The symbol of the tree is central to Christian history, from the tree of life standing in the Garden of Eden in Genesis to its redemptive role in Revelation, bridging the river of life and carrying fruit for the healing of the nations.
The story of Eden has been shared in Ethiopia for millennia – long before the Aksumite kingdom adopted Christianity around AD 325, and even before a tree symbolized world faith. Today in Ethiopia, every forest church is considered by its keepers to be a miniature Garden of Eden.
The religious importance of the forest is matched only by the importance of its ecological function. These sacred oases raise water tables, lower temperatures, block destructive winds, and harbor pollinators generating yields essential to surrounding agriculture. Forests are therefore genetic repositories vital for the future survival of human life in Ethiopia. Priests who fail to protect these natural resources are deemed to have failed in their mission, and since they understand the global importance of the forests they care for, priests have become even more involved in the cause.
The vast network of church forests, covering an area the size of England and Wales, has the potential to provide a significant barrier to desertification in this region. For now, the task is to reinforce what is left with the simplest possible solution: building conservation walls around forests that prevent livestock from grazing and allow vegetation to regrow. Only 20 churches, all supported by church forestry experts Dr Meg Lowman and Dr Alemayehu Wassie Eshete, have walls, and only a few hundred out of thousands are viable habitats. Everyone needs to be protected.
Yet as unique as they are, these forest churches are not simply a localized cultural novelty: Ethiopia’s grassroots and spiritually motivated conservation efforts are part of a global context of efforts to resolve our ecological crises. .
In the secular West, we can easily ignore spiritual views as we seek ways to restore and protect the environment, despite the fact that the roots of the modern environmental movement are spiritual. As these photographs show, spiritual beliefs still have the power to hold and heal.
The Church Forests of Ethiopia, by Kieran Dodds, is available from November 15.