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Tree formations around places of worship
in the Near East

A. Daoud

Ali Daoud is Director of Forests, Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic.

Trees planted or preserved around monasteries, shrines,
cemeteries and mosques came to be viewed
as part of the sanctity of these places
and are protected to the present day

The Near East is the cradle of ancient civilizations such as the Babylonian, Assyrian, Phoenician, Sumerian, Pharaonic, Aramaic and Arabian. Many religions appeared with the development of ancient civilizations in the region. The presence of these civilizations brought about reciprocal effects between humans and nature – including forests and trees.

Out of forests and trees ancient peoples built their boats, temples and palaces. For example, in ancient Egypt, temples, the houses of the gods, were built using the same elements as normal houses. Their columns were originally made of papyrus, reeds and palms; only later was stone used to imitate the natural materials.

Forests in the Near East retreated under the impact of civilization and numerous invasions. They have further retreated in contemporary times in the face of agricultural and residential expansion until they are now confined to remote mountainous areas. Yet in many locations, old individual trees or tree formations are observed in gardens and around monasteries, monks’ cells, holy shrines, cemeteries and sometimes mosques.

How have monasteries, shrines and mosques secured protection for these trees for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years?

Heavenly revelations have on the whole called for the cherishing of trees and forbidden inflicting harm on them. Monks, priests and mystics planted trees in the gardens of their premises and protected relic tree stands around them. With respect for these holy people and religious values, people continued to protect and care for these trees, which became almost sacred. Trees came to be viewed as part of the sanctity of these places, besides being environmentally, culturally and spiritually connected to the saints that the sites commemorated. In the coastal mountains of the Syrian Arab Republic, for instance, forests have retreated from the mountains or become degraded through years of grazing and cutting. However, these mountains still have old, small forest patches, surrounded by bare or agricultural lands, which usually mark a saint’s burial ground. The trees have remained despite the people’s need for wood for heating, building or other uses. Even the dead trees or parts of them are barely touched, as if the souls of the saints have formed a spiritual fence around them.

The evergreen oak Quercus callebrinos is the most common tree around Islamic mausoleums in the eastern Mediterranean. It gradually starts to merge with deciduous oaks such as
Q. infectoria
and Q. cerris. Brutia pine (Pinus brutia) is encountered as individual trees or stands around monasteries in Greece, the islands of the Aegean Sea, Cyprus, Turkey, the Syrian Arab Republic and northern Iraq. A number of other old trees of the Mediterranean basin such as Pinus pinea, Cupressus sempervirens, Juniperus drupacea and Juniperus oxycedrus also form part of the tree mosaic around places of worship and mausoleums.

The ages of trees around places of religious interest is largely indexed to the ages of these places. It would be interesting to investigate the exact ages of these native or planted trees.

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