“We’re doing what?” I challenged my boyfriend. “We’re getting on that plane,” he asserted. I was 27 years old and far from my regular habitat. Precisely 6,929 miles as the crow flies, if a crow were inclined to fly from New York City to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Out on a dusty runway, the friendly crew of a well-used turboprop was eager to transport us for about an hour to Lalibela. Upon arriving there, we would tour 11 rock-hewn churches chiseled out of the Earth during the 12th century.
I was not yet a globetrotter and I was nervous about small aircraft. Plus, at this stage of my life, I identified as a post-Presbyterian-now-atheist who was hardly interested in Christianity. But the explorer in me could not pass up the opportunity. This unofficial “wonder of the world” promised buildings carved into solid rock with the help of angels.
A fellow traveler advised me that each church contained an Ark of the Covenant. To which I responded, “Not the real one, I hope. It can melt faces off, right?” Brushing off my cheeky reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark, she stressed these were replicas. The real Ark was rumored to be 150 miles away in Axum.
Soon I was peering over a gigantic hole down onto the roof of Bet Giyorgis, which was miraculously level with the ground on which I stood. Staring down at the church of Saint George, something cracked open inside me. Architecture awoke what sacred texts and rousing sermons at my church back home had not been able to. I felt a sense of divinity engulfing the area.
Colorful frescoes still clung to the walls within one of the cool, slightly damp, cave-like buildings. Their peeling paint illuminated scriptural insights all around me. I was flooded with reverence for these stories, ones I had heard for decades. Somehow they now seemed more rooted and plausible. I suspected the imagery would be quite distasteful to the Protestant reformers and 1980s architects who I can blame for my childhood church's bare interior with its single, unadorned cross.
While most religious buildings strive to reach straight up into the heavens, Lalibela’s churches ground themselves in the earth, intimately birthed from their habitat. Some now crumble back into the dirt, their 800-year lifespan coming to its end. As humans rush to save them, the structures seem unbothered, as if heeding Ecclesiastes 3:20, “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (KJV)
High above me, a lammergeier—also known as the bearded vulture—soared, unique in her own right as the only known animal whose meals consist primarily of eating bone. Domesticated goats wandered to and fro on the outskirts of the space. So did tiny donkeys with rough manes that stood straight up off their necks. I recalled donning a similar punk rock hairstyle a decade or so before. Rural Ethiopia bore itself into my heart. Her people were remarkably friendly and generous, her politics confounding, and her churches otherworldly.
I returned from that trip with a lot of questions. Why do some locations feel more sacred than others? Is it the land? Is it our mindset? Can the act of architecture create opportunities for the divine to enter our realm? Or, perhaps, are there thin spaces—as my pagan Celtic ancestors suggested—where heaven and earth are closer to each other? Moreover, do the animals feel more connected in these spaces, too? Or are sacred spaces solely a human construction?
Over the years, I’ve headed out to other holy habitats seeking answers to these questions, from the grassy steppes of Peru’s Machu Picchu to the healing spaces of Sedona, Arizona. I have envied the Eastern Orthodox monks in Meteora living atop 1,000-foot high rock pinnacles, a geological phenomenon that humans are still trying to decipher. Precisely because their buildings were difficult to reach, they kept monks safe when the Turkish invaded the area in the 14th century. These days, myriad birds find refuge here, including the largest population of Egyptian vultures in Greece, peregrine falcons, honey buzzards, and black stork.
Although global health concerns and localized violence have quashed some of my hoped-for itineraries, I still dream of venturing into Vietnam’s cavernous Huyen Khong. Deep in the Marble Mountains, this sacred space is lit naturally by the sun through overhead vents and air conditioned by nature. And I imagine visiting Bali’s sea temples, perched on the rocky coast, guarded by monkeys, and teeming with bats. I wonder what it was like to be a wildcat padding through the Cambodian jungles before tourists overran Angkor Wat.
Admittedly, I’m romanticizing. With a bit of idealizing. Not to mention I’m altogether avoiding the ethical quandaries of ecotourism and sacred pilgrimages. In my visions, I act as if these sacred locations are pristine, idyllic spaces available to further my spiritual expansion.
Sadly, these holy habitats are subject to heart-breaking losses of biocultural diversity as companies and governments assert their perceived ownership or management rights. The ecological integrity of some is threatened by agricultural practices like overgrazing cattle, poison baits used to “manage” unwanted animals, and polluted water sources. Conflicts regarding land use abound, displacing both Indigenous people and species.
Further, the pressure of infrastructure development built to satisfy tourists threatens the very ecosystems they have come to visit. It seems that holiness may not be enough to save all of these spaces from those of us who want to see them. Some conservationists suggest that the key to restoring habitats is to retreat from them.
And so, I ponder a new question these days. Is it time to pivot to internal pilgrimages? Perhaps we could sightsee off the precipitous vistas deep inside us, traipse joyfully through our unique landscapes, and unload our inner baggage in favor of small daypacks. What might happen if, instead of flying off to distant locations in search of lions and tigers and bears, we paid more attention to the ten thousand different species of microorganisms that call each of our human bodies home?
Indeed, each of us can be a holy habitat, too.
Read on for more on how travel can be a sacred, transformative experience.