The Forgotten Forests of Egypt

By Joannah Otis for NWNL

This is the sixth of our blog series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, sophomore at Georgetown University. Following her blogs on the Nile in Ancient Egypt, this essay addresses the importance of trees and indigenous flora to Ancient Egyptians. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the main stem of the Nile.]

2nd blog 2Willow Tree

Trees played a symbolic role in early Egyptian life as they were associated with both Ra, the sun god, and Osiris, god of the afterlife. Sycamore trees were thought to stand at the gates of heaven while the persea tree was considered a sacred plant. According to ancient myths, the willow tree protected Osiris’s body after he was killed by his brother Set. These trees and others served as physical manifestations of the gods that Egyptians worshipped. Their importance speaks to the dependence this civilization had on the indigenous flora of the Nile River Basin.1

Historic records indicate that Ancient Egypt developed a forest management system in the 11th century CE, but later tree harvesting eliminated much of these forests. This, along with the gradual transition to a dryer climate in Egypt, spelled the demise of the sacred persea tree.2  Sometimes referred to as the ished tree, it was first grown and worshipped in Heliopolis during the Old Kingdom, but later spread its roots in Memphis and Edfu. It is a small evergreen tree with yellow fruit that grew throughout Upper Egypt. Egyptians held that the tree was protected by Ra in the form of a cat and closely associated it with the rising run.3 The persea was believed to hold the divine plan within its fruit, which would give eternal life and knowledge of destiny to those who ate it. To the Egyptians, the tree’s trunk represented the world pillar around which the heavens revolved. It was also considered a symbol of resurrection and many used its branches in funerary bouquets. The persea tree no longer grows in Africa, likely because the climate is dryer today than it was in the time of the Ancient Egyptians.4

EGDP007693Persea fruit pendant from Upper Egypt c. 1390-1353 BCE

 

The willow tree has grown in Egypt since prehistoric times and is usually found in wet environments or near water. Today, its timber is used for carving small items, but centuries ago, its branches were strung together to form garlands for the gods. Willow leaf garlands in the shape of crowns have also been found in the tombs of pharaohs, including Ahmose I, Amenhotep I, and Tutankhamen, to align them with Osiris.5 After being murdered by his brother Set, Osiris’s body was placed into a coffin and thrown into the Nile River. Around this coffin, a willow tree sprang up to protect the godly body. Towns with groves of willow trees were believed to house one of the dismembered parts of Osiris and thus became sacred spaces.6

Although of lesser importance, the sycamore tree was also considered a sacred plant. It was generally thought of in relation to the goddesses Nut, Hathor, and Isis who were sometimes depicted reaching out from the tree to offer provisions to the deceased. As a result, sycamores were often planted near graves or used to make coffins so the dead could return to the mother tree goddess.7 Other significant trees include the Tamarisk, which was sacred to Wepwawet, and the Acacia tree, which was associated with Horus.8 Each of these trees contribute to the great biodiversity of the Nile River Basin and served religious purposes for the Ancient Egyptian people.

2nd blog 3Model of a Porch and Garden with Sycamore Trees from Upper Egypt c. 1981-1975 BCE

Sources

1 “Tree (nehet).” EgyptianMyths.net. Web.
2“Country Report – Egypt.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Web.
3“Ancient Egyptian Plants: The Persea Tree.” reshafim.org. 2002. Web.
4 “The Tree of Life.” LandOfPyramids.org. 2015. Web.
5“Ancient Egyptian Plants: The Willow.” reshafim.org. 2002. Web.
6Witcombe, Christopher. “Trees and the Sacred.” Sweet Briar College. Web.
7Witcombe, Christopher. “Trees and the Sacred.” Sweet Briar College. Web.
8“Tree (nehet).” EgyptianMyths.net. Web.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.

Nile River Flora

By Joannah Otis for No Water No Life (NWNL)

This is the 5th blog in the NWNL series on the Nile River in Egypt by NWNL Researcher Joannah Otis, a sophomore at Georgetown University. This essay addresses the history and uses of the most prevalent types of flora growing in the Nile River Basin. [NWNL has completed documentary expeditions to the White and Blue Nile Rivers, but due to current challenges for photojournalists visiting Egypt and Sudan, NWNL is using literary and online resources to investigate the availability, quality and usage of the main stem of the Nile.]

The Nile River is home to thousands of species of flora, many of which were vital to the livelihoods of Ancient Egyptians. Aside from growing crops for consumption, Egyptians have long grown plants like cotton, papyrus, and flax for commercial purposes. The diversity and extent of plant life in Egypt is a tribute to the Nile River’s incredible life-giving capacity.

Egyptian cotton is perhaps the most well-known plant product to emerge from the African continent, although the modern variety was not cultivated in Egypt until 1821 when ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha discovered that his country’s climate was perfect for growing cotton. It should be noted, however, that the native variety (G. herbaceum) was first cultivated by Pliny in first century CE Nubia. By 1869, cotton production had expanded significantly to meet the demands of European textile factors in the wake of the American Civil War. Both the completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970 benefitted the cotton trade. While the canal made trade easier and more accessible, the dam protected the cotton from flooding and allowed for the expansion of its cultivation by providing regular irrigation. Today, Egypt remains a significant exporter of cotton to countries all over the world.1

800px-Cotton_field_kv17Cotton Field
Attribution: Kimberly Vardeman

In Ancient Egypt, the linen made from flax was a universal fabric that every citizen wore regardless of class. Linen is still grown in Egypt, although it is no longer the sole clothing material worn. Considered to be a symbol of purity and divine light, linen was a sacred cloth used to mummify the dead. It was also used to make sails and as a form of payment. The earliest example of Egyptian linen dates from 4500 BCE. Towards the end of the Egyptian civilization, the government established linen production centers staffed by slave laborers. Since everyone wore linen, class was differentiated by the fineness of the weave and the number of layers worn; the more important the person, the finer the weave and the more layers they wore. Flax was not only a source of wealth, but also a signifier of it.2

Although papyrus no longer populates the banks of Egypt’s Nile River due to human overexploitation, it was once a plentiful crop that served several purposes for the Ancient Egyptians. Papyrus thrives in shallow fresh water or water-saturated areas, so the Nile Delta marshes and low-lying areas of the Nile Valley were home to dense thickets of the plant. It was harvested to make skiffs used for hunting, pilgrimages, local transport, and funerals as well as to make writing surfaces. This early form of paper was created under heavy pressure from layers of pith found inside the stalk. Fortunately, Egypt’s dry climate has preserved many early papyrus documents, which indicate that the surface was used for letters, legal texts, religious narratives, illustrations, contracts, and administrative documents. The earliest of these dates from c. 2500 BCE and was discovered at Wadi el-Jarf, a Red Sea port. A blank roll of papyrus dating from c. 2900 BCE was also found in the tomb of a high official named Hemaka. These preserved papyri are significant because the surface was often erased and reused several times.3 The cultivation and use of papyrus for writing material ceased in the 9th century CE when paper from other plant fibers became more popular.4

799px-Cyperus_papyrus_(Kafue_River)Papyrus thicket
Attribution: Hans Hillewaert

Papyrus also played a significant role in the Ancient Egyptian religion as the marshes where it grew were considered fertile areas containing the seeds of creation. According to Egyptian myth, the goddess Isis hid her son in the papyrus thickets of Lower Egypt after her brother Seth murdered her husband Osiris. This infant, Horus, was raised amongst the papyrus by the goddess Hathor who was depicted as a cow emerging from papyrus thickets and was worshipped in the Shaking of the Papyrus ritual. Wadjet, the protector goddess of Lower Egypt, was similarly shown carrying a scepter made of papyrus. The ceilings of temples and tombs were often supported by columns whose capitals resembled the tops of papyrus plants. To the Ancient Egyptians, papyrus thickets were symbolic of chaos surrounding and threatening their world as the tickets often hid dangerous creatures such as hippos and crocodiles. Nonetheless, papyrus played an indispensable role in early Egypt.5

Papyrus marsh c. 1427-1400 Upper Egypt

Aside from flax, cotton, and papyrus, Ancient Egyptians grew numerous other crops. These included barley, fava beans, lentils, lettuce, peas, onions, cucumbers, melons, radishes, emmer, wheat, barley, wheat, leeks, grapes, chickpeas, dill, and sesame. Present-day Egyptians continue to harvest these crops with the exception of emmer, which was not grown after the Roman Period, and barley, which also declined after the Roman Period as a result of the popularity of wine over beer. The wide variety of flora found in Egypt speaks to the lushness of the Nile River Basin.6

07.230.34Inlay depicting a bunch of grapes c. 1479-1458 BCE Egypt

Sources:

1 “History of Egyptian Cotton.” Cotton Egypt Association. Web.
2 “Flax in Ancient Egypt” North Dakota State University. 2007. Web
3 Kamrin, Janice. “Papyrus in Ancient Egypt.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web
4 “Egyptian Papyrus.” Egyptain-papyrus.co.uk. Web
5Kamrin, Janice. “Papyrus in Ancient Egypt.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web.
6“Agriculture and horticulture in acient Egypt.” Reshafim.org. 2000. Web.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.

 

White Nile River Basin Exped. – Kidepo Valley NP

Welcome to #9 in a series of blogs written by Alison Jones before her departure to Uganda and Kenya as NWNL’s lead photographer.

Pregnant Karimojong girl carrying baby and water, Kidepo Valley, Uganda

Date: Wed–Fri, 7–9 April 2010 /Entry 9
Reporter: Alison M. Jones
Location: Kidepo Valley National Park

The last of the six national parks to be visited on this expedition is the 556 sq mi (1,442 sq km) Kidepo Valley National Park, with its views of Alekilek Volcano, Labwor Hills and Bar Alerek Rock.

This park is located on the Sudanese border. It is comprised of savannah landscapes ending in the rugged horizon formed by Mountain Forest. Along its Lorupei River, there are Acacia geradi forests, kopjes – quite typical of arid Kenya. Its huge latitudinal range, and thus climate variety, accommodates a high diversity of flora as well as fauna. Carnivores here include lion, bat-ear fox, striped hyena, aardwolf, caracal, cheetah and hunting dog. Ungulates include the lesser and greater kudu, reedbuck, klipspringer, bright gazelle, Rothschild giraffe and oribi, and kavirondo bush baby. The tree-climbing lions are found in Narus Valley. There are 58 birds of prey in this park.

This park is known for its giant kigela trees, big sand rivers, unusual fox kestrels and fascinating walks. We will also visit the Kanangorok Hot Springs, located 11 km from Kidepo River Valley, and a local village. The Karimajong manyattas and kraals will offer interesting cultural perspectives.

From the field: Abutting southern Sudan, this dramatic open savanna valley in Karamoja district was the “lomej” (the meeting point) where Karimojong, Ik and Dodoth pastoralists gathered for their hunting. Otherwise the scarcity of rain kept them nomadic and well dispersed, since Karamoja gets only 600–800 mm of rain per year, far below what is needed to sustain people and their herds. The rule of thumb is that at least 1,000 mm is needed to sustain people in a land without infrastructure.

In this valley where dry season dust-devils can rise up to 50 m high, three seasonal rivers that run north to meet the Nile in Sudan and deep, hand-dug and -shelved wells in sand beds have provided water for these people and the wildlife. In 1962 the Uganda Wildlife Authority gazetted Kidepo National Park and moved the indigenous people out beyond the park boundaries.

Traditionally, both the women and the men who lived here had rain ceremonies. The male elders slaughtered and read the intestines of a cow to predict when rains would come. The women would travel as a group, singing and dancing, to seek those who might have angered the gods by unethical practices, such as stealing a neighbor’s crops. When the women found the likely perpetrator, they would denounce him for causing the gods to withholding rain. With justice served in this raucous fashion, the gods would be willing to release the rain again.

However, recently rain has become scarcer according to Faustino, the 100-year-old Karimojong chief interviewed by NWNL. Since the longest-running civil wars in Africa have surrounded and spilled into Karamoja, automatic weapons have proliferated. Thus – as in Ethiopia’s Omo River Basin – fatal conflicts over access to water and cattle raiding have risen with the increased frequency and severity of drought and environmental stress in turn causing severe famine. Recently the government has established a policy of disarmament in this region, which has reduced the killing and is applauded by many, including Chief Faustino. Yet, still, his people’s well has gone bad and their cattle have been raided. Fortunately, the village is sustained today by tourism income and a badly-needed health clinic and accompanying well are about to be built.