Churches in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition inherited many of their ideas of sacred space from Judaism. The center of their church, like the metaphorical center of the Jewish temple, is called the qidduse qiddusan, the Holy of Holies. In that center rests the tabot, a replica of the biblical Ark of the Covenant, another borrowed symbol. Only priests can enter the Holy of Holies. Enclosing this sacred center is a larger circle—the meqdes, where people receive communion—and outside that lies a still larger circle called the qine mehelet, the chanting place. All three spheres are contained under the round church roof, but those circles ripple outside the church itself.
Beyond the church building lies the inner wall, which forms a circular courtyard around every church. According to tradition, the proper distance this wall should stand from the church is the armspan of forty angels. During my visits to different churches, I watched many people enter these inner courtyards. Before crossing the threshold, they performed various gestures of piety—crossing themselves three times, dipping a knee, perhaps kissing the wooden doorframe. It was clear to everyone that when you crossed the inner wall, you were entering holy ground.
The brilliant move the priests made was to take the idea of the inner wall and replicate it. Using the same design, they built a second wall of dry-stacked stone just outside the forest boundary, thereby extending the invisible web of sanctity to include the entire forest. Suddenly the holy ground surrounding the church expanded from the size of a backyard to a vast tract of ten, fifty, or even several hundred hectares.
Fred Bahnson writes about the remnants of Ethiopia’s highland forests, and how the Orthodox Church is preserving them. The companion film is gorgeous and well worth a look too.