Abstract: The tree as symbol and object of worship was important in pre-Islamic Central Asian cultures, as in many pre-modern societies. Trees, whether real or iconographic representations, are vibrant matter; actant and powerful, performing actions, producing affects and causing change. This short paper investigates some ways in which Central Asian living trees may have retained their sacredness and remained part of Upper Zarafshan Valley religious iconography, in spite of two transformative religious and socio-political changes: Islam and Communism. In some ways beliefs and practices surrounding trees were an anathema to these orthodoxies. Are sacred trees found at mazars (saints grave or shrine) across Central Asia today continuing ancient traditions or postcolonial inventions? PreIslamic imagery can be seen in the Obburdon wooden column (9th-10th century), a three dimensional representation of a sacred tree; trees and vases are also still depicted above the mihrab in the rural mosque at Obburdon today. It is proposed that these images of trees and life-giving water draw on the power that living trees still hold for people.
Keywords: sacred tree, Zoroastrian, Tajikistan, mazar, Islam, pilgrimage
[The tree] draws the entire landscape around it into a unique focus. . . by its presence it constitutes a particular place. The place was not there before the tree, but came into being with it. (Ingold, Landscape, 167)
The ‘sacred tree’ is a powerful and multivalent motif, almost universal in scope and well-known in ancient myth and iconography. Some of the earliest beliefs about sacred trees come from Mesopotamia, where a holy cedar forest is mentioned in the Gilgamesh epic1 and later in Assurnasirpal II’s reliefs at the North West palace in Nimrud,2 where the tree stands metonymically for the ruler; preserving the land’s fertility through ritual.3 This connection between ruler and tree may have continued into the Islamic period, where artificial trees covered in jewels and automata were found in Abbasid throne rooms.