A sacred tree stands in the village of Jandari, in Georgia's Marneuli region.
Ethnic Azerbaijanis travel to the village from across the region to pay respect to a local plane tree and make a wish on the first day of Novruz. The event is festive – traditional music is played, people dance, red ribbons are festooned on the tree's branches as wishes are made.
But the tradition is serious. Plane trees (think sycamore trees in the US) as well as ironwood, oak, willow, apple, cherry plum, mulberry and cranberry are considered sacred. The places they occupy are known as “Pir” and “Ojak” and have been viewed as sanctuaries for dozens of generations.
For centuries – the tradition even predates Islam – Azerbaijani communities have believed in the power of these trees and protected them.
A cut tree is said to bleed and the person who cuts it is considered to be damned. Even now the wish tree and other rare tree species are protected as the belief in their sacred power is passed from generation to generation.
Samaya Abdullayeva, 76, lives near the tree in Jandari (also spelled Jandar by Azerbaijanis). She says she has seen people's belief in the tree all her life. “No one knows exactly how this place became sacred. But everyone believes that it is beneficial for people. According to legend, in the past a serviceman wanted to cut down the tree and take it, but he died on the road. Due to such kind of stories it is said that this tree is sacred, it must not be cut down.”
That belief has protected groves of trees for centuries, according to Kerem Mammadov, an archaeologist and ethnographer.
“According to ancient beliefs, the destruction of ancient, single-standing trees outside the woods was inadmissible. It would be possible to cut down trees in some small part of the forest, but cutting down a tree in the middle of the plain was forbidden,” he says, noting that this culture of protecting trees predates Islam.
“Today, most of the tree sanctuaries are from single trees. After the spread of Islam, they Islamized the practice to protect these beliefs… During the Arabic conquest, Abu Bakr, the Arab Caliph, ordered his own army to not harm places that were sacred to the indigenous people, such as a temple or a tree,” he says.
Despite the eventual adoption of Islam and, later, the atheist policies of the Soviet government, the tradition remains strong.
And, while some of the ancient beliefs about the wishing tree run contrary to Islam, there is ample proof in Jandari that the local population has embraced it as part of their Shia faith. For example, in addition to Novruz sweets placed at the base of the tree, there are also pictures of sacred Islam figures, like Imam Ali and Imam Hussein.
Some people call it “God's sanctuary” and others ask Islam's holy 12 Imams to grant the wishes they make at the tree. Prayers, like “Ya Ali, Ya Hussein, Ya 12 imams, make my dream come true,” could be heard on March 23 when people gathered at the tree in Jandari.
Georgian Azerbaijanis as well as Azerbaijanis living in Azerbaijan and Russia traveled to Jandari this year on the first day of Novruz (March 23) and visit the plane tree. They tie red ribbons on the tree's branches and wish each other good fortune.
According to tradition, the red ribbon will break and fall from the tree if a wish is granted. Also, people who have made wishes will take a branch from the tree and, if their wish came true, they will bring the branch back the following year.
This year Sakine and Nariman, an elderly couple from Baku, came to Jandari, bringing with them a small branch from the wish tree. Nariman, a teacher in Baku, says he came here last year and made a wish for his son to find a job. His wish came true so he returned to give thanks.
Nariman's generation has held on to their people's ancient belief in the power of the tree, despite efforts by the Soviet government to end the tradition.
Manaf Suleymanov, one of the well-known Azerbaijani writers of the 20th century, wrote about the tradition of holding a feast in honour of the tree and tying fabric to its branches: “Once upon a time there was a magnificent ‘Tekagac’ [a single sacred tree] in the foothills of the Niyaldag Mountain. Ever since I was a child, I have heard that the temple of ‘Tekagac’ has healed many elderly, young and infant patients. They brought children who have trouble, who cannot walk or who cannot speak next to the tree, swinging them on the branches of the tree, praying for the children and wishing for them to be healed. Most of them have reached their goals. Although there were other reasons for their wishes to come true, everyone sees it as a miracle of the ‘Tekagac’ sanctuary.”
When Suleymanov wrote the book, religious places such as mosques and churches were being destroyed by the Soviet government. When the author asked a local elderly woman about the fate of the ‘Tekagac’, he learned that it had been cut down. “God punished the man who cut the tree. He died during the arrests (mass repressions in 1937). Witnesses said that every time he hit the ax, blood flowed from the body of the tree. The tree was crying blood. People mourned the “Tekagac" for three days.”
Philologist Vahid Namazov, who lives in Jandari, says that while no one really knows when the tradition began, at some point it became a way to teach people the value of nature. From generation to generation, people were taught not to cut down the sacred trees – not just the sycamore tree; they did not dare chop down fig, walnut or other fruit trees.
“It seems like people established this custom in the past to protect nature, especially mature, fruit bearing trees. A long time ago, if you spoke [about protecting nature] to illiterate villagers, who did not have any real concept about ecology outside their land, they could not understand you. However, such a system [of preservation] was created by linking these customs with religion,” he says.
Namazov added that over time, these traditions have served as a guard for the local environment. “The preservation of these customs has served to protect these old, precious trees until today.”