ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian plants: Fig trees
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Fig trees

The sycamore

Gathering figs     The sycamore, Ficus sycamorus, a large, evergreen tree reaching a height of twenty metres, grows throughout Egypt. It is the only Egyptian tree of significant size and is modest in its requirements as concerns soil and water. Its wood had great economic importance, though the wording of Pliny's explanations is somewhat misleading:
The wood, which is of a very peculiar nature, is reckoned among the most useful known. When cut down it is immediately plunged into standing water, such being the means employed for drying it. At first it sinks to the bottom, after which it begins to float, and in a certain length of time the additional moisture sucks it dry, which has the effect of penetrating and soaking all other kinds of wood. It is a sign that it is fit for use when it begins to float.
Pliny, Natural History, Book XIII, chapter 14
    For its fruit to ripen they each have to be incised manually a few days before harvesting. Figs grow from spring to early winter, but only the spring harvest yields sweet tasting fruit.
    Physicians used the fruit for calming the vessels (pHearst #100) or against the bite of a hippo (pHearst #243). Latex, the milky sap of the sycamore referred to as jrT.t nh.t - sycamore milk was collected and used (for removing hairs from any body parts - pHearst #155), as were sycamore seeds (setting bones - pHearst #221), while the of the sycamore was good for treating the nails of toe and finger (pHearst #187).
    In mythology, sycamore and acacia are the most important and most frequently mentioned trees:
  • The sycamore was closely associated with Isis and with Hathor, who was called Lady of the Sycamore.
  • Re emerged from the sycamore.
  • In Heliopolis a sycamore was venerated in which life and death was decided.
  • On the eastern horizon there stands that tall sycamore on which the gods are seated. (Pyramid text #916)
  • Two sycamores of turquoise stand by the eastern gate of the heavens from which Re emerges every morning. (Book of the Dead, chapter 109)
  • The sycamore is identified with Nut, (Hail, thou Sycamore tree of the goddess Nut! Give me of the [water and of the] air which is in thee. - BoD) a heavenly tree protecting the dead Osiris and rejuvenating his soul in its branches.
  • A late Period cult centre of Sukhos was called House of the Sycamore.

The common fig tree

    The common fig (ficus carica) seems to have originated in western Asia, and was grown in Egypt since early times. Its fruit often served as offerings, its wood on the other hand was rarely used for timber.
The fig of Mount Ida is red, and the size of an olive, rounder however, and like a medlar in flavour; they give it the name of Alexandrian in those parts. The stem is a cubit in thickness; it is branchy, has a tough, pliant wood, is entirely destitute of all milky juice, and has a green bark, and leaves like those of the linden tree, but soft to the touch.
As to the fig of Alexandria, it is a black variety, with the cleft inclining to white; it has had the name given to it of the "delicate" fig
Pliny, Natural History, Book XV, 19 - (eds. John Bostock, H.T. Riley)
Some fruits in Egypt are esteemed for their skin; the carica,10 for instance. This skin, which in the green fig is thrown away as so much refuse peeling, when the fig is dried is very highly esteemed. In the papyrus,11 the ferula,12 and the white thorn13 the stalk itself constitutes the fruit, and the shoots of the fig-tree14 are similarly employed.
Pliny, Natural History, Book XV, 34 - (eds. John Bostock, H.T. Riley)

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-Ancient Egyptian Botanical
© 2002
Update: February 2007