Images of the Invisible

From the biblical description of Eden in the Book of Genesis to the final chapter of Revelation, the tree of life acts as the great inclusio of the Christian story rooting all that comes in between. At the centre of the narrative is a tree of death that becomes the tree of life for those who believe in the Christ’s substitution on the cross. This tree is the very symbol of Christianity.

My latest personal work - Hierotopia - maps out a new geography as we explore how the invisible world is manifested in the visible, tracing echoes of Eden in the landscape.

In the last 100 years, 90% of Ethiopia’s forests have been lost. The country is one of the fastest expanding economies in the world with an average growth of 10% per year over the last decade. The population will double in 30 years making it the second most populous country in Africa where the vast majority of people live in rural areas, mounting further pressure on the natural resources. The expansion of land use for agriculture is a creeping and almost imperceptible process that accompanies population growth. The last native forests surround church buildings.

Hierotopy, from the Ancient Greek for ‘sacred’ and ‘place’, is the study of the relationship between objects within Byzantine churches as they seek to display invisible realities. The forests surrounding Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox churches have a similar function to other physical objects within the church building- the murals and icons, chanting and incense- in the way they direct the worshipper to look beyond what is visible.

To its guardians, each forest resembles a miniature Garden of Eden and essential to the dignity of the building, as one priest described the trees are the ‘the clothes of the church’. Thousands of forest fragments have been identified by scientists across Northern Ethiopia resembling green islands in the vast sea of agriculture yet the numbers do not reflect the health of the ecosystems that are under threat.

The work focussed on the area around Bahir Dar, a large university city on the shores of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. A cursory glance east of the Lake on a map will reveal the tell-tale pattern of green forest islands scattered across arid landscape. Zooming in we discover a circular roof of the church that appears to emit a protective force on the the surrounding vegetation. In a sense it does.

In Genesis 1&2, the writer displays God’s transcendence (God up there) and his imminence (God down here) from which the whole story unfolds holding these two aspects in tension. These two perspectives have been employed in this work to see the landscape created by the hand of both human and divine. The curation by John Silvis unfolds likewise across two separate but complimentary spaces within the gallery. 

Seen from above, these forests are demarcated by the stark boundary between sacred and secular, church and field. The forests create a sacred environment that, when combined with vibrant, sacred murals and icons, with chanting and incense, encourage those gathered in them to look beyond what is visible. 

On the ground, generations come and go in a ghost-like mist under the same canopy of ancient trees as their ancestors. The trees stand as more permanent witnesses to our brief existence. The air inside the forests is cool, fragrant and filled with a cacophony of life compared with the arid silence in the surrounding farmland that is showing the strain of centuries of human activity. This is a place not detached from life but central to it and informing human work and relationships within society. 

The religious significance of the forest is equalled by its ecological function, having an impact far beyond its walled boundary. These sacred oases raise water tables, cool temperatures, block destructive winds and are home to yield-boosting pollinators that are essential to surrounding agriculture. These forests are genetic repositories which are vital for the future survival of human life in Ethiopia. Priests who fail to protect these natural resources are deemed to have failed their mission. 

The Anthropocene age is defined by the mass extinction of species because of human activity and the momentum seems unstoppable. Each extinction story begins with the arrival of a new people or technology that creates more efficient ways to denude the abundant riches of the environment. Razed forest and polluted seas are the summation of a thousand individual decisions based on beliefs of what we deem to be valuable. Consumption drives our economies and is a core tenet of market economics. And yet, there are deeper emotions that drive our lives linked to the question of existence and destiny. In theory, the core Christian belief in stewardship for the environment is a powerful concept and, if applied globally, could transform the world for better. 

In Ethiopia these biological treasures have endured the rushing tide of global change but they are under increasing pressure today. The church’s resolve has not lessened, indeed the priests become more committed to the cause when they discover the global importance of the forest they guard. For now the task is to strengthen what remains by the simplest solution possible- building a conservation wall that keeps grazing cattle out and allows vegetation to regrow. Abune Kudis is a photograph that displays this new life. The pressure of a growing population has seen a new church building planted in the landscape and the community has given this land to provide the church’s clothes- a new forest canopy. A symbol once again of new life being planted in an arid land, trees that will one day bear their fruit in season.


My first visit to the forests around Bahir Dar was undertaken in 2016 with the support of a Royal Photographic Society Environmental bursary to gain access in the lives of these deeply private communities. The friendship of Dr Alemayehu Wassie was invaluable in opening doors. The priest-turned- research scientist understood how science and Christianity work fruitfully together. He has been the champion of the forests- modelling a respectful and successful mode of working with local communities who are motivated to strengthen what remains. Ever since reading Zoology at the University of Aberdeen I have been perplexed by our disconnect from nature and seeking answers to the ecological crisis. In Ethiopia we find a story of hope at a time when it is not too late to act.

Essay adapted from ‘Hierotopia: The Living, Sacred Landscape’ exhibition catalogue. Exhibition runs at the Ahmanson Gallery, Irvine, CA until 15 January 2019 by appointment but open to all.

This essay is also available as a video presentation.

subjects: behind the photo  motivation  stories