In 2006 I made a long winter trip through Russia by train for the first time. In January 72 hours from Moscow in ‘platzkart’ – a hard board for a bed in a carriage with about twenty Russians as chatty neighbours – to Novokuznetsk and from there on to Gorno-Altaisk and Koch-Agatch on the border with China and Mongolia.

It was my first confrontation with the endless expanse of Russia. I remember the strangely oppressive feeling of looking out of my bunk at night from my bed at a white, empty, flat landscape and waking up in the morning with an exact copy of that image in the window. The next day the train again made its way through an almost identical landscape. The monotony was only interrupted by the occasional sleepy town where the train stopped to refuel. I was on my way to the ‘Shor’, a nomadic people who were brutally ‘settled’ by the Russians in the 1930s because their traditional lands, unfortunately, turned out to contain coal and other ores.

I vividly remember two encounters during that trip, one with a “forest pathologist” and another with a Shor man trying to rediscover and preserve the heritage of his people. The two encounters are deeply etched in my memory because they taught me to look at a landscape differently. Both were called Alexander, (Sasha for the friends) and were well acquainted with the “taiga” of Siberia. The forest pathologist was dropped there in the Soviet years with his team for periods of three to six months to examine patches of forest. They lived in tents and self-built huts in complete autonomy. I still sense pride and melancholy in the stories he tells about it, as we sit in the kitchen of his Moscow apartment. In his quest for the heritage of his people, Shor Alexander repeatedly comes across the landscape as a source of stories, traditions and customs.

Travelling with them, it turned out that this ‘empty white plain’ had much more meaning for them and was full of life, events dictated by the rhythm of the seasons, memories and imagination intertwined with time. All of which passed me by because this landscape was so foreign to me. Later I would read the book ‘Landscape and memory’ by Simon Schama about how we fill in and colour landscapes with our past and imagination. And how landscapes indeed influence, inspire and nourish the life, culture and stories of people.

It is in this context that we should see the concept of ‘desert’ in the spiritual tradition of the ‘Siyaha’. Just as in the Christian tradition where the Hebrew word ‘midbar’ actually refers to the desert as an ‘inhospitable, wild region’, Ibn Arabi speaks of the ‘wild land where there is no soul (or breath – nafs/nafas in Arabic) in sight. falls’ (‘the land far from civilization’). “Wild” here is very specific “without human presence or intervention.” When the believer ends up in this environment, he no longer feels the basic loneliness he had in the civilized world, because “nothing distracts him from the presence of God’s Breath” and he feels the oneness with God fully. Once on the road, the believer goes into the “wild”, uncultivated landscape to see signs, wonders and lessons that invite him to reflect on the place of God in his life.

This is essentially why the ‘siyaha’ is mystical and fundamentally different from a ritualized pilgrimage. There is a distinction between ‘siyaha’ and ‘rihla’, a term that we could translate as a pilgrimage. The ‘rihla’ is more of a spiritual journey with a predetermined goal and schedule. In a ‘Siyaha’ mystics consciously seek the unknown to break free from their own human paradigm that only distracts them from oneness with God. In the presence of others, they are constantly reminded of their own shortcomings. The others are a mirror of themselves. So, as it were, they want to leave their past, memories and entire cultural baggage behind in order to find their own (Divine) essence and to be able to open up better to unity with God.

‘Therefore he flees with his soul/self to those deserted places where he sees no one like himself, frequenting the mountains and the depths of gorges. And this is the spiritual state of ‘solitary wandering’ (siyaha)’ (from ‘the Reflective Heart, Discovering Spiritual Intelligence in Ibn ‘Arabi’s ‘Meccan Illuminations’ by James Winston Morris)

Ibn Arabi sometimes speaks very specifically about landscape elements and the emotions that accompany them. About ‘towering mountains’ that remind of the ‘spiritual dignity’, about ‘the depths of a gorge’, which remind the believer of his nothingness before God. The texts of Ibn Arabi always have a very high density. Almost every sentence is full of meaning and thought, but it is fascinating to see how this text from Ibn Arabi’s 13th century ‘Meccan Revelations’ about mysticism and nature touches on familiar concepts. You immediately see the parallel with 18th-19th-century Romanticism, where it is just as much about the mystical experience of experiencing nature.

Ultimately, the way we think and talk about nature today is still rooted in that Romantic tradition. But we no longer refer to this as a ‘religious’ concept. It is catalogued under leisure activities. Something for when we want to relax and enjoy ourselves. But we still use a vocabulary reminiscent of mysticism and transcendentalism when talking about nature experiences. The ‘overwhelming nature’, feeling ‘connected’ to the elements, ‘impressive’ landscapes, we seek out ‘tough’ conditions that make us suffer, but at the same time we find it ‘fantastic’...

What we are describing here is pure, unadulterated Romanticism, and is per se about a religious experience. Not surprisingly, if you look at the (Latin) origin of the word religion: re-ligare (to bind), it is about something that both mystics and all of us are looking for: connection. Modern man has desacralized this, but the basic need remains the same; for mental health, we want to feel connected to our environment and to each other. As this becomes more and more difficult in an urban environment, in our spare time we look for it in distant mountain landscapes where nothing reminds us of the human presence.

so all on siyaha, I’d say…