By Angus McDowall
ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - A mantle of gold smothers Aleppo's ruins, hiding the rubble and filling the craters with wild flowers that for a moment seem to transform a landscape scarred by war, destruction and death.
After an unusually wet winter, the warm days of spring have suddenly brought an abundance of colour and life to a weary Syria, blooming in city and desert.
But they blanket a scene of war. The hummocks and dells are piles of debris, barricades, craters and trenches. The flowers grow where people once lived, fought, died.
Eight years of conflict have killed perhaps half a million people, destroyed whole towns and city districts and made half of all Syrians homeless.
In most parts of the country, the fighting is now over - at least for now. President Bashar al-Assad holds most of Syria, including the city of Aleppo, taken after months of bitter fighting in 2016.
However, Kurdish-led groups hold northeast Syria, and, in the northwest near Aleppo is the frontline with the last big rebel stronghold, where there has been bombardment in recent weeks.
The war destroyed much of Aleppo's beautiful Old City and many poor eastern districts, leaving neighbourhoods of rubble and fallen stone.
In the remains of the Attariyeh section of the souk, where the stone roof collapsed, a young couple sat on a pile of stones courting in the warm evening air, the sun illuminating the yellow flowers and picking out the woman's red headscarf.
The steep sides of the ancient citadel's round hill in the centre of the city are thick with blooms and families gather at sunset to stroll or sit.
"It's God's message to make everything beautiful after mankind destroyed everything," said Majd Kanaa, 35, standing at the end of a souk alleyway where he was repairing his late father's shop, ready to reopen.
BUTTERFLIES, SWALLOWS, FROGS, STORKS
Clouds of butterflies, russet, black and white, flutter from the undergrowth and bees hum round the flowers. Flocks of swallows flit from the sky to roost in the ruins.
At night, in the fields and olive groves just outside the city, a cacophonous croaking of frogs drowns out the noise of cars from a road lined with cypress and pine trees.
Along the road from the south, precariously held for years by the army with rebels on one side and Islamic State on the other, the fighting left a chain of fortifications.
The war has moved far from here and these are now mostly deserted. Grass and flowers grow thick between the oil drums, sandbags and stacked tyres guarding the old gun emplacements and concrete boxes.
Yellow broom, purple thistles and fat red poppies spring from the desert floor and paint it a psychedelic swirl of colour. In one place, a huge patch of ground seems to bleed with thousands of poppies springing from the softly undulating earth.
"In Syria we believe that poppies are the blood of the martyrs," said Aleppo lawyer and historian Alaa al-Sayed, explaining that their Arabic name comes from a dead king. "There are so many martyrs," he added.
In the hills beyond the poppies are the pretty pointed mud domes of traditional "beehive" villages and young shepherds watching flocks of sheep and goats.
When the strong west wind ruffles the ground in the late afternoon, it makes the grass shimmer. Flocks of small birds suddenly rise from the ground and bob in the air. Migrating storks beat their wings in the distance.
Little electricity means little light, and at night the heavens are lit by a sharp crescent moon and brilliant constellations of stars. A fox slinks across the desert road in the light of car headlights.
But from time to time they also illuminate the burnt-out wrecks by the roadside, the remains of battles past, while two heavy trucks bear tanks onwards to today's front line.
(Editing by Alexandra Hudson)