Today I was lucky enough to enjoy a picnic lunch sitting by a wonderful old olive tree, estimated as 2000 years old, and claimed to be the oldest tree in Europe.
It sits majestically, and these days peacefully, in a village just outside the town of Bar in Southern Montenegro, just a few kilometres from the Albanian border.
But just think of the swirling currents of history a tree growing on this religious and cultural fault line has witnessed over the last 2 millennia! The birth of christianity; the split of the western and eastern roman empires; and then the split of the orthodox church; the rise and fall of the Venetian empire in the Adriatic; the arrival of the muslim Ottomans; and centuries of trouble while Montenegro became a flash point between the Austro-Hungarian Catholics to the North and West, the Russian, Bulgarian and Serbian Orthodox to the East and beyond to the Black Sea, and the Albanian and Ottoman muslims to the South and South East. And, at the beginning of the last century, the arrival and departure of its one and only King.*
And exactly 100 years ago this month (October 1912) the Montenegrins invaded Albania as part of a Slavic alliance with Serbia and Bulgaria, launching the first Balkan War in an effort to liberate the Southern Balkans from Ottoman rule. On this day (26th October) in 1912 the Serbians, recently victorious over the Turks at the Battle of Kumanovo entered Skopje in (Ottoman) Macedonia, effectively signaling the end of Ottoman rule in the Southern Balkans. Around this time the Bulgarians successfully advanced across Thrace and were re-grouping just 20 miles short of Constantinople…
Just two years later, an assassination in nearby Sarajevo would plunge Europe into a wider crisis.
Its twentieth century memories are scarcely less traumatic: betrayal by the allies at the end of the first world war and annexation by Serbia; axis occupation during WWII; the arrival of communism with Tito and the liberating partisans**; a devastating earthquake in 1979 (7.1 on the richter scale, with the epicentre no more than a few kilometres away) and bombing by NATO in the aftermath of Serbian aggression in the 1990s…
Today we flew into Podgorica unchallenged from Istanbul on a Boeing 737 and sauntered down towards the Albanian border courtesy of Avis rentals, stopping to picnic by this splendid survivor.
Montenegro achieved its independence from Serbia just 6 years ago. Who knows what the future holds for the oldest tree in Europe? We wish it and its local carers well.
* Norman Davies: Vanished Kingdoms – The History of Half Forgotten Europe. Chapter 12: Tsernagora: Kingdom of the Black Mountain (1910-1918).
** Fitzroy Maclean: Eastern Approaches.