Ethiopia’s Church Forests

Emergence Magazine is an online publication featuring innovative stories that explore the threads connecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. They recently published an essay and a film combination entitled The Church Forests of Ethiopia: A Mystical Geography.

I would encourage readers to follow the link and watch the film and read the accompanying essay. Here we can see a beautiful relation between the sacred geography of the church and the need to have an integral ecology that protects the beauty of nature.

100 years ago the highlands of Ethiopia were covered by one a continuous forest. However little by little land was cleared for agriculture.  Today only 3% of the original forest remains. Surprisingly most of this 3% is preserved by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  Thanks to an ancient theological requirement that every church be surrounded by a mini Garden of Eden, the churches have preserved the ancient forest. In the highlands there are nearly 20,000 churches, many preserving 8 or 10 hectares of forest.

Since 1992 Dr. Alemayehu Wassie, a forest ecologist, has been working with the Church to preserve the forests. Traditionally the churches have a stone wall around them within the forest to mark off the church precinct. Both the church and the wall are within the remnants of the forests, which are the Garden of Eden within which the church is built.  But today even these remnants of the forests are being destroyed. So Dr. Wassie has been working with the local parish communities convincing them to build a second outer wall that they can encompass both the church and the forest and preserve both for future generations. Initially these walls will also include some deforested area at the edge to allow the church forests to regrow and gradually gain back some of the land they lost.

The film by Jeremy Seifert has some beautiful images of the churches and their forests. The accompanying essay by Fred Bahnson of Wake Forest University School of Divinity, provides a lot of material for theological reflection.

In this year when we mark the fifth anniversary of Laudato Si’, many of us are trying to find new projects for theology and ecology to meet. However, this Ethiopian Orthodox example shows us how we might find even better wisdom in earlier Christian tradition!





6 responses to “Ethiopia’s Church Forests”

  1. Joshua Vas Avatar
    Joshua Vas

    Truly fascinating article, thank you so much for sharing!

    (I hope PT will have more articles from these peripheries of Christian experience in the developing world)

    1. Joshua Vas Avatar
      Joshua Vas

      Unfortunately, the editor does not seems to be working, so I hasten to clarify that what I meant was Christian experience (vigorous, growing and even ancient as in this case) in the developing world but which is often ‘peripheral’ and unfamiliar to many in the developed world, around which many issues seem to revolve.

  2. Brian Duffy Avatar
    Brian Duffy

    Yes, thank you for sharing this interesting article for I’ve always been enchanted by the Ethiopian Church’s Hebrew influences.

    A friend who lived in Ethiopia told me about the Ark of the Covenant kept in churches as well as other Hebrew customs connected with the liturgy, but he never mentioned churches surrounded by a forest in imitation of the Garden of Eden.

    I’ll send him this article because I think he still paints Ethiopian as well as the usual eikons. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled. Again many thanks not only for this article but also for your other Informative postings, dear Father!

  3. Devin Rice Avatar
    Devin Rice

    Out of curiosity, is there anyway for an American to help with this worthy project through donations? If so it would be nice to share it for September 1 and the World Day of Creation.

    1. Fr. Neil Xavier O'Donoghue Avatar
      Fr. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue

      Devin, to be honest I have no idea. I would say that if you reached out to Fred Bahnson at Wake Forest University School he might be the best person to advise you.

  4. Dr.Cajetan Coelho Avatar
    Dr.Cajetan Coelho

    The Church Forests of Ethiopia: A Mystical Geography – a fine documentary. There is much food for thought and action. Indeed, green is the way forward.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: