“If you see a forest in Ethiopia,” ecologist Alemayehu Wassie once told Nature, “you know there is very likely to be a church in the middle.” Conversely, if there isn’t a church, it’s very unlikely you’ll see a forest. Over the last century, agricultural development has winnowed away at Ethiopia’s once verdant woodlands, leaving only five per cent of the country covered in forest. In this vast expanse of grazed land, Ethiopia’s ‘church forests’ remain as besieged strongholds.
Edinburgh-based photographer Kieran Dodds travelled to some of the country’s 35,000 oases, which are maintained by the Tewahedo Orthodox Church, the country’s dominant religious group. “For years I have been looking at how indigenous ideas have preserved the environment and seeing how this can be scaled up,” he explained to The Scotsman. The resulting series, Hierotopia, mostly shot using drones, captures these miniature Gardens of Eden, described by one priest as “the clothes of the church.”
Symbols of heaven on Earth, as well as spaces for contemplation and prayer, the church forests also serve a range of important ecological functions, ranging from conserving water and lowering temperatures to combating soil erosion and destructive winds. Ecologists like Wassie are helping some churches with their conservation efforts, which include constructing protective walls around the forests, while other churches are going so far as to actively expand their footprint. More than just holding their positions, Ethiopia’s forests are reclaiming lost territory.