THE olive branch has long been associated with peace.
I heard recently an explanation: an olive tree needs many years to grow and mature and this can only be achieved in a prolonged peace. Driving from Turkey into Syria a couple of years ago our tour bus passed through grove upon grove of thick-and-gnarled-trunked olive trees, obviously specimens that had been around for some centuries. Ironic given the current tragic situation in Syria.
As each new atrocity, air strike, ambush or assassination is daily revealed I wonder who among the charming and hospitable people who welcomed us to their hotels, restaurants, showed us invaluable treasures their nation is guardian to, or served us in shops and markets, has been victim to this violence. The human toll has been staggering – at a recent count 20,000.
What about our delightful guide Ihad with the long, sleek black hair drawn back casually in a ponytail? We had asked him what he thought of Bashar al-Assad and his reply had been positive. Ihad was Druse so may have enjoyed the pro-Shiite Assad regime’s tolerance of religious minorities. What would happen if the rebels were infiltrated by Sunni extremists who would show little tolerance for the many strands of Islam, and other religions?
Syria is home to six UNESCO World Heritage Sites all of which have reportedly been damaged. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city is one. Located at the crossroads of several trade routes since the second millennium BC, Aleppo was ruled successively by the Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Mameluks and Ottomans. Dwarfing other structures in Aleppo is the monumental Citadel. The Citadel and the minaret of the Grand Mosque in Aleppo have suffered damage as have other antiquities elsewhere in Syria including the Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers, and the ancient town of Apamea dating back to the third century BC, while fears are held for important sites in the old Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
And if what is happening in Syria is not enough trouble is brewing in the magical city of Istanbul in neighbouring Turkey, another treasure trove of the ancient world. My main memory of Taksim Square in Istanbul is one of flower stalls offering an abundant array of colourful blooms, including blue roses, not of riot police dispensing tear gas attacking demonstrators seeking to save trees from the bulldozers of a developer.