The Landscape and Tradition

This essay was commissioned by the Market Photo Workshop, a leading photography school based in Johannesburg, to accompany the Social Landscape Project. This project was a partnership between the Market Photo Workshop and Rencontres d’Arles of France and consisted of a travelling exhibition and publication.

It has been written that landscape is a connector of the soul with being and throughout history; features of the landscape not only have been an inspiration for worship but also integral as spaces for worship. The Egyptians worshipped a personification of the Nile River and used the river as the vehicle for an annual religious festival, while the Celts in ancient Ireland believed that the mountain Croagh Patrick was the dwelling place of deity Crom Dubh and this mountain was the focus of an annual harvest festival.

The integration of natural landmarks did not end with ancient times and nowadays Irish Catholics have claimed Croagh Patrick, stating that St Patrick fasted at its summit for 40 days before banishing all the snakes from Ireland. Today it is the site of the most important Catholic pilgrimage in Ireland with almost one million visitors climbing it a year.

The statue of St Patrick at the base of Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo, Ireland

The statue of St Patrick at the base of Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo, Ireland

Yet, why is it that throughout history, humans have felt it necessary to integrate the landscape so firmly into their traditions? In the case of the Nile River, it could be argued that the Egyptians realised that the Nile sustained their survival in the bone-dry deserts of Egypt and attributed this to the divine. The Celts were not alone in believing that deities lived on mountain tops and worshipping these mountains. The ancient Greeks believed that Mount Olympus was home to the twelve Olympians, and the Japanese took it one step further with a religious sect believing that Mount Fuji itself had a soul and so revered the mountain as sacred. Throughout the history of mankind, we have believe that there were deities above looking down upon us. This is evidenced by the reverence of various ancient religions for the sun and the moon.

And such beliefs could account for the significance of occasions in religious histories when men climbed to the summits of mountains to commune with the divine. Moses climbed to the summit of Mt Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments, and in South Africa Isaiah Shembe, the founder of the Shembe Church, climbed Mount Nhlangakazi to receive instructions on how to lead his people.

Members of the Nazaeth baptist Church climb up on the final day of their annual three day bare-foot pilgrimage from the church headquarters near KwaMashu to the holy mountain of Nhlangakazi, KwaZulu Natal, January 1998. The pigrimage traces the footsteps and pays homage at shrines of the founder Isaiah Shembe's 1913 journey of enlightenment. Photo Greg Marinovich

Members of the Nazaeth baptist Church climb up on the final day of their annual three day bare-foot pilgrimage from the church headquarters near KwaMashu to the holy mountain of Nhlangakazi, KwaZulu Natal, January 1998. The pigrimage traces the footsteps and pays homage at shrines of the founder Isaiah Shembe's 1913 journey of enlightenment. Photo Greg Marinovich

A Chinese academic Yi-Fu Tuan felt that much of this bond to the landscape and to particular features of the landscape could be attributed to what is called Topophilia. This word describes the bond that forms between people and place. Tuan suggests that this feeling is built upon pride and memories. That many sacred places, such as mighty rivers and majestic mountain peaks, are prominent features of the landscape, and have inspired feelings of deep awe and practices of reverence means it is probable that the reverence the communities surrounding these features feel toward them was built upon pride and awe.

Building on the role that memory plays, a religious theorist, Belden C. Lane, wrote, ‘Sacred places are storied places.’ He says that in the creation of sacred places it is the construction of the imagination that affirms the holy. Yet what are stories if not the distillation of memories? For a space to become sacred it first needs to capture the imagination and from there it is small step to gaining a prominent space in folklore and often the sacred.

One of these storied places in South Africa is Motouleng Cave, or ‘the place where the drums keep beating”, in the mountains of the Orange Free State. The cave, which is more than one hectare long and is one of the biggest overhanging caves in the Southern hemisphere, plays an essential role in the Basotho and Christian traditions of that region. Traditional healers, herbalists and initiates have visited the cave for hundreds of years. It is also known, as ‘Fertility Cave’ as in the past young girls who were unable to fall pregnant would come to the cave to pray to the ancestors. That people of such different faiths could feel the pull to this same cave is remarkable. That people of such different faiths could feel the pull to this same cave is remarkable. The Romanian philosopher Mercia Eliade felt that physical space was not continuous, that it also consisted of breaks and interruptions and that a religious person could feel for these disruptions much like a person would feel a rock face looking for a fissure. For the Basotho, Motouleng cave is one of those places.

Christmas Church Service, Mautse Cave, 2000. Photo Santu Mofokeng

Christmas Church Service, Mautse Cave, 2000. Photo Santu Mofokeng

In the 1890s this deep connection between the Basotho and the Motouleng Cave was intensified even further when the bones of the prophetess Mmantsoupa were interred in the caves. In this way Motouleng has managed to bridge the divide between physical and spiritual history. It is this duality that lies at the very heart of religious landscapes. It is also what Santu Mofokeng examined so adeptly with a body of images entitled, ‘Chasing Shadows’. Eschewing documentary realism, the black and white images, at times clear and distinct and at others blurred and indefinite, seem to hover on the polarity between the real and the mystical. This feeling of duality is best illustrated by the image entitled ‘Eyes-wide-shut’ where Mofokeng has photographed his brother, Ishmael, in such a way as to allow his eyes to be opened and closed at the same time. It is a simple trick of photography but in context it allows the image to transcend what would have been a striking but simple portrait and to become an eloquent statement on spirituality in modern South Africa.

The heritage of the Romantic era has led one to imagine that the sacred landscape should be marked by excessive grandeur. Yet this is often not the case. The American theologist, Belden Lane, listed places that he experienced as sacred. These sites range from the grandeur of the Avalanche Trail in the Rocky Mountains to a cluttered office in an American University. It is said that our identity is fixed by our bodies, the naming of the spaces we occupy and the environmental objects that beset our landscape and in turn it is within these objects and spaces that the faithful can find spiritual connections.

Theologists have explored this line of thinking and it is argued that since the Age of Enlightenment technologies have greatly affected societies. The speed and ease of transport has unseated us and alienated our selves from our surroundings. Perhaps this is why there is still such interest in the religious acts that anchor the experience to the physical landscape. As an example of this, the fastest growing church in Kwazulu-Natal, the amaNazarites (the followers of the Shembe Church), undertake a yearly pilgrimage up their sacred mountain, Nhlangakazi, and since 1990 they can regularly be seen holding baptisms along the Durban coastline.

Isaiah Shembe, as was stated earlier in this article, founded this church, in 1911. The church is the largest of the African independent churches, with a membership of almost four million people, and is viewed as a blend of Zulu tradition and Christianity. As well as the yearly pilgrimage, this religious movement is closely bonded to the landscape with Shembe advocating traditions, which hold animals and nature in great regard. He is credited with saying that one should not cut off the branches of a tree, as this would be akin cutting off a finger from your own hand. In many ways this blending of religious tradition, the ancient and the modern, means that Shembe stands out as somewhat anachronistic in a modern world of television preachers and Rhema Churches.

This certainly is visible in many of the images that have been created by photographers documenting this religious group. Images of an amaNazarite pilgrimage feature the barefoot faithful enveloped in white robes marching en masse up dirt roads, followed by, as well as images of the same white robed figures erupting, soaked, from the dark pools of water or the Indian Ocean, their faces a mix of relief and rapture. These photographs provide an engrossing window into faith and community.

Yet it is the contemplative images of this group, large portraits of the young male members of the church as they prepare to take part in the religious ceremonies that form part of the pilgrimage that allow the viewer a fascinating view into both the community’s relationship to the landscape and the role that history has played in their development. The subjects all gaze at the camera, some standing in tall grass, others perched on the branches of trees, but it is the curious blend of the sartorial that marks these images. The tartan kilts, bow ties and pith helmets acknowledge the presence of the Scottish Highlanders that were based in the area when the church was first founded. The pink skirts and frilly white shirts combine with playful and sometimes coy poses gesture towards both the masculine and the feminine.

The uniform also indicates the movement from individual to group identity that these youth will soon take as they participate in the day’s religious performances and as they move to sacrifice their personal freedom in the service of this religious community.

As can be seen, the landscape has long played a dominant role in tradition and religion.  Yet it must be acknowledged that the overriding meaning of the landscape is social. The great travel writer Lawrence Durrell once wrote, ‘The important determinant of any culture is after all – the spirit of place.’ This thought is maintained by the notion that as we grow up we are nurtured by both the soil and the ambience of landscape and one learns to revere the sight which has become the anchor of memory.

As was stated earlier in this piece, it is this sense of memory and the storied nature that so often accompanies memory that frequently propels the landscape into the realm of the sacred. Yet what are stories other than myths? Once man reached the top of Mount Olympus and found that there were no divine deities living upon its summit, did the mountain lose its reverential status? Would Mount Fuji, as iconic an image of Japan as the cherry blossom, lose its status for the Fujiko sect if it were proved that it was not a sacred being and did not have a soul? That a myth ceases to be a myth once it is understood is undeniable but the power of the landscape is that it is able to be a part of a myth and, at the same time, to transcend those very myths.