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.]
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
Persea 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.
Model of a Porch and Garden with Sycamore Trees from Upper Egypt c. 1981-1975 BCE