The Palestinian Connection: The Tale Of An Old Olive Tree

An olive tree stands as a living testament to a historical bond between Pakistan and Palestine. Planted by a 19th-century missionary, the tree has endured the test of time in Sheikh Badin, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, becoming a symbol of solidarity.

The Palestinian Connection: The Tale Of An Old Olive Tree

When observing the strong emotional connection that many Pakistanis feel toward the brutalities faced by the Palestinians under the Israeli government, it's important to understand this sentiment for several reasons. Firstly, Palestine holds a special place in the hearts of Muslims worldwide, as it is home to Baitul Muqadas, the first Qibla of Muslims. This historical and religious significance forms a profound bond between the people of Pakistan and the Palestinian cause due to their shared faith in Islam.

Yet, what few Pakistanis may be aware of is an additional, albeit non-human, connection that further ties these two nations together. This unique bond takes the form of an olive tree, which, though not in human shape, stands as a living symbol of solidarity and shared values.

This olive tree, originally transplanted from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem by a 19th-century English missionary, Rev Thomas John Lee Mayer, continues to thrive to this day in Sheikh Badin, a former hill station nestled in the southern region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The tree was discovered and recognized by Faisal Amin Khan Gandapur, the former Provincial Minister of Local Bodies from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. He has dedicated significant efforts to reviving Sheikh Badin as a hill resort.

Situated at an elevation of 4,200 feet, Sheikh Badin is nestled between Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan. Originally founded as a hill station in the mid-19th century, it served as a retreat for missionaries, as well as civil and military administrators who sought respite from the scorching summer heat."

Rev. Thomas John Lee Mayer, also known as T.J.L. Mayer, dedicated his years of service to the Bannu Mission from 1874 to 1889, where he played a prominent role as one of the most senior missionaries of his time. His significant contributions continued until he was succeeded by Dr. Theodore Pennell. Rev. Mayer lived to an advanced age and passed away in July 1918 in Thandiani, where he now rests, buried on a serene hillside.

Dr. Alan M. Guenther, a history professor at Brier Crest College in Canada, explained, "According to Christian belief, Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives, a significant event that occurred forty days after his resurrection from the dead." He further noted that the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed prior to his capture and crucifixion, as described in Christian tradition, is situated at the base of the Mount of Olives. Additionally, it's documented in the New Testament that Jesus delivered some of his teachings from this very mount.

Dr. Guenther elaborated on the historical and spiritual significance, stating that any Christian embarking on a pilgrimage to Palestine would likely include a visit to the Mount of Olives. Therefore, if Reverend Mayer or someone in his circle had undertaken such a pilgrimage, bringing back a cutting from an olive tree would have been a cherished memento. Given that olive trees can live for over 2000 years, they might have believed that the cutting they obtained originated from a tree that might have been alive during the time when Jesus walked and taught on the Mount.

In an interview with The Friday Times, Faisal Amin Gandapur provided insights into the fascinating discovery of a significant tree. He recounted that his journey began when Dr. Ali Jan, a close friend of his, shared a page from the 1918 Christian Diocese Magazine. This page featured an excerpt from the obituary of T.J.L Mayer (1844 - 1918), a Christian Missionary who had dedicated numerous years to the Christian Missions in Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan. Within this obituary, there was a notable reference to T.J.L Mayer's act of bringing a cutting from an ancient olive tree originating from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and subsequently planting it at Shaikh Badin.

Expanding on this, he explained that while the reference didn't specify the precise location, it ignited his curiosity. He delved into the notes and literature penned by various British officers who had been stationed in Dikhan and Bannu. This was especially significant because Shaikh Badin served as the summer headquarters of Derajat, prompting all officers to relocate there to escape the scorching summer temperatures. Simultaneously, he initiated a photographic documentation project for the ancient olive trees.

Faisal Gandapur remarked, "I stumbled upon the novel 'Sahib Log' by John Travers, and I found it to be extraordinarily true to life in its portrayal of Shaikh Badin. It was so authentically detailed that one would find it challenging to produce such an account without firsthand experience of the place."

Mr. Gandapur explained that he initially discovered references to the olive tree from Jerusalem and meticulously narrowed down his research to a specific area, where he eventually identified three olive trees situated in front of the Colonial-era houses. Subsequently, a team of experts from the Pakistan Olive Institute was engaged to employ scientific methods for aging and precise identification, leading to the conclusive discovery of the tree's origins.

Remarkably, this olive tree stands as perhaps the sole "living being" to have embarked on a journey all the way from Jerusalem and endured the test of time. Faisal Amin Gandapur expressed his profound appreciation for the local residents of Shaikh Badin village, who have safeguarded the legacy of these trees planted by the British, preserving a unique piece of history.

Shaikh Badin was once an overlooked national park, and my initial concern was centered around the preservation of its precious and unique biodiversity. In my capacity as a member of the KP Wildlife and Biodiversity Board, we commenced collaborative efforts with the local community to rejuvenate the deteriorating forests.

The remnants of the colonial-era structures consistently pique one's curiosity, as they beckon you to envision how the British, in the 1860s, erected these edifices, only to see them gradually succumb to the ravages of time. As Mr. Gandapur aptly noted, we have allowed these historical relics to crumble and fade away.

He mentioned that he actively advocated for the approval of an access road through the government of KP. Given its elevated location, Shaikh Badin offers a cool and inviting environment, making it a potential attraction for local tourism, especially for residents of the scorching hot Southern districts.

A substantial project with a budget of Rs. 3.2 billion was sanctioned by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led government. It commenced with the majority of the physical work successfully completed. Unfortunately, the flow of funds came to a halt when the government was dissolved, resulting in a suspension of the project's progress.

The project encompassed the construction of a road to Shaikh Badin, serving as a catalyst for economic growth. The plan aimed to incentivize entrepreneurs to invest in the revitalization of the colonial-era ruins, repurposing them into guest houses and restaurants. This adaptive re-use strategy was designed to stimulate economic activity in the economically disadvantaged southern districts, while also fostering the development of eco-tourism and the preservation of the National Park's diverse flora and fauna, as emphasized by Faisal Amin Gandapur.

The author is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad.