Return to Stories


Hierotopy, from Ancient Greek for 'sacred' and 'place', is the study of sacred spaces, examining the relationship between art and altar, architecture and dress within Byzantine churches. The forest in Ethiopian churches has a similar function in creating the sacred beyond the physical boundary of the church building. Kieran's latest personal work - Hierotopia - explores the relationship between people and their environments, considering the untapped power of spiritual beliefs in transforming the ecological crisis. From the biblical notion of Eden found in the Book of Genesis, the tree of life appears as a recurring theme and and stands at the centre of Christian theology. The tree of death becomes a tree of life for those who believe. This tree is the very symbol of Christianity. Documentarians have long fixated on myths surrounding so-called primitive tribes living in harmony with their environments, as a reaction to the disconnect found in the industrialised world. In Hierotopia Kieran focuses on echoes of Eden rippling out upon the physical landscape, where the enduring power of ancient ideas offers us a new approach to solving the ecological crisis.

Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in the world with an average of 10% per year over the last decade. The population is growing too and will double in 30 years making it the second most populous country in Africa with 80% of people living in rural areas, placing further pressure on the natural environment. In the last 100 years, 90% of Ethiopia's forests have been lost. The expansion of land use for agriculture is an almost imperceptible phenomenon that accompanies gradual population growth which pushes the demand for farmland ever upwards.

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.

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. To its guardians, each forest resembles a miniature Garden of Eden. In Ethiopia, nearly half of Orthodox churches and three-quarters of monasteries are surrounded by forests. Priests who fail to protect these natural resources are deemed to have failed their mission.

The religious significance of the forest is equalled only 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.

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 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 doctrine of environmental stewardship is a powerful religious belief which, if extrapolated from the world's 2.3 billion Christians and applied globally, could transform the world for better.
powered by