The first story.

A tree was cut down in the Iranian city of Kashmar in the year 861. A cypress. A holy cypress, revered by the faithful Zoroastrians of the region because they considered it once having grown from a branch that Zarathustra himself had brought down from Paradise and planted there. One of the many signs of the Divine that Zoroastrians saw and still see in nature, one among many of the sacred mountains, sacred springs and, of course, sacred flames that for centuries were places of pilgrimage for people of the Iranian Highlands. The holy cypress of Kashmar was cut down on the orders of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil who also had ordered that the wood of the sacred tree should then be used for the construction of his new palace in Iraqi Samarra. 

Al-Mutawakkil was someone who had no sympathy for the nature-worship of his Zoroastrian subjects. In general, his religious policies were not characterised by tolerance and leniency. He had abolished the pro-Mu’tazilite ‘Mihna’ inquisition of his ancestors and had freed imprisoned traditionalist scholars such as Ahmad ibn Hanbal; but only to initiate his own anti-Mu’tazilite inquisition. He ordered his Jewish and Christian subjects to publicly wear clothes that would distinguish them from Muslims, a policy that had also been practiced by some other Muslim rulers before but that today ominously reminds us of the ‘yellow star’ that Jews had to wear under German Nazi rule. Al-Mutawakkil also re-introduced the long-forgotten Umayyad practice of publicly cursing ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and his relatives and descendants from the pulpits of  all mosques, a practice meant to curb Shi’a sentiments but also considered very offensive by a number of Sunni scholars of the time. All in all, al-Mutawakkil wanted to make sure that a tight regime of both politics and religion was firmly in his hands and that all religious minorities would know they had to bow to that regime. As the cypress of Kashmar fell to the ground, he probably hoped that the Zoroastrians of his realm would likewise bend and fall prostrate. And they did, ostensibly. But they also may have seen no need to rebel because they knew that someone who ordered such a terrible blasphemy, as the felling of a sacred tree was to them, would not continue to rule for long. And indeed:  before the wood of the holy cypress reached Samarra and before it could be used for the construction of the new palace, al-Mutawakkil was murdered in a palace conspiracy. 

The second story. 

I have a thing about trees. Wherever I go, wherever I live. In fact, wherever I live for a significant amount of time, a tree always accompanies me. One of those indoor dragon trees that almost everybody has. Someone gave it to me when I was a teenager and it grew, from a small shoot, in my room when I was still living with my parents. That must have been more than 25 years ago. I had other plants in my room at that time. But none of them remained with me. But this tree I have taken with me from move to move, flat to flat, apartment to apartment. And it is still with me now. Which amazes me because I have not been treating it particularly well. I have often been away for months on my travels and would never get around to finding someone who could water my plants during those times. So, the tree just waited there for me in a dark room, until I came back. I have also never bothered to repot this tree and give it fresh, new nutritious soil. Each year I swear that I will eventually do so because the tree really deserves better. But it never happened. More than 25 years and that poor tree is still surviving on that bit of soil that it received back then and the water that I give it only occasionally. And still it survives. Sometimes it looks as if it is almost about to die. But then it always renews itself. And it still keeps me company. 

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