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


1 “Tree (nehet).” Web.
2“Country Report – Egypt.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Web.
3“Ancient Egyptian Plants: The Persea Tree.” 2002. Web.
4 “The Tree of Life.” 2015. Web.
5“Ancient Egyptian Plants: The Willow.” 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).” Web.
All photos used based on fair use of Creative Commons and Public Domain.

Charcoal burning destroys Kenya’s forests


Africa:  Kenya; North Rift District, Turkana Land, bags of charcoal for sale
Africa: Kenya; North Rift District, bags of charcoal for sale

How many trees are cut down to make one bag of charcoal? This illegal trade destroys endangered animals natural habitat and puts pressure on the entire ecosystem.

Fact – In Kenya, charcoal provides energy for 82% of urban and 34% of rural households. Source:

– Posted by Jasmine Graf, NWNL Associate Director

Columbia/Snake River system is #1 in West Coast wood exports

Timber ready to be loaded onto barges for a ride down the Snake River to the mouth of the Columbia River in Portland. Photo by Barbara Folger.
Timber ready to be loaded onto barges for a ride down the Snake River to the mouth of the Columbia River in Portland. Photo by Barbara Folger.

The Columbia Snake River system is a vital transportation link for the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. The economies of these four states rely on the trade and commerce
that flows up and down the most important commercial waterway
of the Northwest.*

Pulp that can be used to make paperboard, for items like juice boxes, is loaded onto a barge on the Snake River at the Port of Wilma. Photo by Barbara Folger.
Pulp, used to make paperboard for items like juice boxes, is loaded onto a barge on the Snake River at the Port of Wilma. Photo by Barbara Folger.


*See Fact Sheet from Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

– Posted by Jasmine Graf, NWNL Associate Director

White Nile River Basin Expedition – Bwindi NF

Welcome to #5 in a series of blogs written by Alison Jones before her departure to Uganda and Kenya as NWNL’s lead photographer.


Mountain gorilla chewing on a vine

Date: Mon–Wed, 29–31 March 2010 /Entry 5
Reporter: Alison M. Jones
Location: Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest

Today I arrive at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest in the southwest corner of Uganda for a couple days. This World Heritage Site is a dense rainforest still intact from the last ice age. On these Albertine Rift Valley ridges, with elevations ranging from 3,805 to 8,553 feet (1160–2607 m), there are many gorges, streams and waterfalls, habitat to 90 mammal species, 100 fern species and 23 endemic forest bird species. The world-renowned highlight of this forest is its relatively large population of mountain gorillas. Bwindi has more than half of the world’s remaining population (about 330 of 600) of this endangered species. What must they think of the human footprint?

From the field, 29 March: It’s the rainy season here in this 40 mile long chain of volcanoes. Mist hangs over the montane forest ecosystem, which include bamboo forests and hagenia-hypericum woodlands. The flight here from Mburo NP over “the Switzerland of Africa” revealed lush green farmland made fertile by abundant rain and rich volcanic soil. First – bananas, bananas, bananas, and then on arrival in Kyonza we noted tea plantations, similar to land cover around the perimeter of Kenya’s Mau Forest. Tomorrow we will visit the local Bwindi Community Micro Hydro Power Project on the Munyga River and trek to see the gorillas here in the 25,000 years old Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. We are hoping all of today’s rain will mean clear skies for tomorrow, but we are told it rains daily here.

1 April: Yesterday I spent 9 hours in a gruelling chase up and down vine-filled, muddy ravines in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to finally find the group of 18 gorillas. Interesting to learn the “value” of both this tropical forest and the gorillas. The forest is the faucet of the White Nile River Basin. In Rwanda, 80% of the country’s water supply comes from the forests the mountain gorillas inhabit. Without the tourism dollars of those wanting to see these primates, the forest would be cut down to make room for more crop fields. So the gorilla’s presence is a great conservation tool for the forests. As well, every night each group of gorillas settles down in separate new “nests” after breaking branches and clearing an open spot. This allows cleared space for new forest vegetation to grow. I think of the parallel role of wolves in the upper reaches of the Mississippi River Basin where their presence helps keep elk away from riverine vegetation, as NWNL documented a year ago.