Sacred forests and the role of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity in the protection of nature

Ethiopia: a land of historical milestones.

Ethiopia is a fascinating and diverse country that has claimed its place in global history because of the discovery of Lucy (one of the oldest humans), two large-scale monotheistic religions (Christianity and Islam), and its imperial power and colonial expansion. Ethiopia has had several historical empires, the first of which can be dated to before Christ and the last of which only lost power in the twentieth century. During the European colonial period, Ethiopia was the only African country that was never fully colonized. After holding off the Italian invasion they were officially recognized as an independent state by the European powers in 1896.

Ethiopia has a tremendously rich history in which self-sufficiency, independence and imperial power were central. It is a pride history, and it is the foundation for the country we see today. Ethiopia has played a central role in Africa on multiple levels. Politically, Ethiopia is the center of the African Union and has geopolitically influenced East Africa both in positive and negative ways. Economically, the country is the center of air transportation for the entire continent. They are also known for their global exports of coffee, teff (local grain for making injera) and khat (a local drug that is chewed).

Currently, the country is at a tipping point where different ethnic groups are opposing the central government. This conflict has already led to many known and unknown war crimes. It seems to be an exact repeat of the 1991 conflict when the TPLF (Tigray People Liberation Front: the nation’s principal enemies today), one of the many rebel groups in Ethiopia, seized power and retained it until 2018.

Throughout the centuries a unique form of Orthodox Christianity has emerged as a result of a long isolation from the rest of the world. After the church was introduced from Syria in the 6th century, it quickly attached itself to political power. Religious and political power consequently provided legitimacy for one another throughout the centuries. The close connection to political power and a history of isolation has molded Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity into a unique and locally specific religion. For example, they fast up to 250 days a year and do not eat pork.

I could finally breath

Through a unique composition of religious beliefs, Orthodox Christianity has played an important role in protecting animal and plant species throughout the country and more specifically in the capital city where I conducted research for my master thesis and PhD dissertation.

I had been aware for some time that there was such a thing as a “sacred forest” in Ethiopia. However, I had not paid much attention to this phenomenon because my focus was on the relevance of an urban environment in religious experience. For my research, however, I spent a lot of time in these sacred forests. They are located in the middle of one of the fastest growing cities in the world. It often brought me a moment of relief and serenity in a city that I personally experienced as very overwhelming. Nature is where I feel most at home and where I have the most magical experiences. Similarly, I could feel the energy around the churches where the sacred forests grow. It also contributes to the spiritual experience for Orthodox Christians (read more). This is contrasted to the immediately surrounding city where dirt and busy city life create a very different experience. This caught my attention, and I began to adjust my research questions to explore how nature played a role in the faith experience of Orthodox Christians.

I was already looking for the relevance of the environment (squares, buildings, other city spaces) on the everyday religious experience. The role of nature in this religious experience in an urban context seemed like an interesting addition. I aimed to explain why nature is protected on these church squares while this protection does not apply anywhere else. I found the answer in a kind of general religious lens used to explain the surrounding world. Following Yael Navaro-Yasin’s theory, I named it the “Make-Believe City.”

The physical environment is characterized in two categories by Orthodox Christianity: that which is of the devil and that which belongs to the sovereignty of God. Without getting too lost in the details, let me say that urban space is divided into spaces and inhabitants that belong to the sovereignty of God or of the devil. These two metaphysical entities are constantly in a Biblical power struggle over this urban space and its inhabitants. When a church is built this space and its immediate surroundings fall under the influence of God. When someone is possessed by the devil, when witchcraft takes place, or it is a space for sinful behavior (such as prostitution) these urban places belong under the purview to the devil.

Orthodox Christianity, an unlikely ally of the natural world

Trees and animals also fall under these religious categories, for example, dogs and hyenas are directly associated with the devil. One informant told me that “dogs can be possessed by demons and certainly hyenas are a bad sign.” As a result, one can often observe dogs being mistreated in the city: they are locked in small cages, or they are aggressively chased away. Dogs are certainly never allowed in the churchyard. Small forest animals such as birds, on the other hand, often appear in the Bible as messengers of God and enjoy an unhindered presence in churchyards.

Trees in turn play a crucial role in the experience of Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia. When you visit an Orthodox church, you immediately notice how much biodiversity is present compared to the surrounding area. Especially if you are in an urban context, like Addis Ababa.

The reason for this can directly be traced to the central role of nature in the religion. Orthodox Christians consider trees crucial to their religious experience. For example, they provide much-coveted shade for believers as well as saints and angels. One priest told me that “According to scripture, Jesus gathered the angels under a tree because shade helps them to stay near”.

Trees take center stage because they have the potential to house saints and angels. One believer stated, “Trees around the church have room to accommodate angels. The angel can rest in the tree or can choose to stay there”. Thus, some trees fall under the sovereignty of God. Finally, trees can also become sacred as a result of their proximity to a religious building: “The trees also contain sacred words. Trees standing around the church are continuously immersed in sacred vocabulary”.

Because of the many religious functions of these sacred trees, they are indirectly protected. It is forbidden to cut down a tree in the churchyard unless it falls down by itself or if the tree directly threatens the church itself or the worshipers. Abiyou Talihun at the Ethiopian University of Debre Birhan stated that “many species of flora and fauna that are extinct elsewhere in Ethiopia can still be found around the Orthodox churches”.

However, trees can also have a negative connotation because they can also be the stage for demons, devils, and witches. Within the city there are several trees that are globally recognized as dangerous trees. These trees are avoided and in exceptional cases cut down. A friend told me, “I and my family believe that when lightning strikes a tree it is God driving out a devil”. It is clear that for Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia, nature and more specifically trees are important parts of the religious landscape.

The categorization of nature within a religious landscape has thus indirectly helped to protect tree and animal species that would otherwise be removed for economic, social, or political reasons. The Church and Orthodox Christians are thus at the forefront of conservation in Ethiopia a country where there is generally little systematic or individual natural conservation.


Also see:

Other relevant sources:

  • Malara, Diego Maria. 2017. “Geometry of Blessing: Embodiment, Relatedness, and Exorcism amongst Ethiopian Orthodox Christians in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,” November.
  • Tilahun, Abiyou, Hailu Terefe, and Teshome Soromessa. 2015. “The contribution of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church in forest management and its best practices to be scaled up in North Shewa Zone of Amhara Region, Ethiopia.” Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries 4 (3): 123-137.
  • Kent, Eliza F., and Izabela Orlowska. 2018. “Accidental Environmentalists: The Religiosity of Church Forests in Highlands Ethiopia.” Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology 22 (2): 113–42.