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Ancient Egyptian plants: Trees
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Grove of trees along canal; Source: J. Bodsworth     Trees performed a number of functions: they were cut down for timber, broken off branches were gathered as firewood, their fruit was collected and eaten, their leaves fed to animals or woven into mats, their bark, leaves, seeds, or resin were used in making medicines, and their shade was welcome to all creatures in the hot climate.
Hathor, tomb of Sennedjem; Source Hathor
Tomb of Sennedjem
    Local tree cults were early on identified with deities, at first local and later national gods and goddesses and their temples. Some gods emerged from, others sheltered in trees, generally sycamores (nh.t in Egyptian which, with the house instead of the tree determinative also meant shelter) [2] or acacias. The body of the murdered Osiris was sheltered by a tree. This god is connected with a number of Egyptian and foreign trees: the sycamore and the tamarisk, but also the cedar and pine. Some trees, like the ished-tree were divine prognosticators of the future.
    Ineni, a high official serving at the beginning of the 18th dynasty planted many trees in his garden on the west bank of the Nile, some species of which have not been identified. From pictures of the jSd-trees one knows only that they were deciduous and bore fruit.
Sycamores (nht)73 nbs-trees5
Persea (SwAb)31 twn-trees5
Date palms (bnr.t)170 Dum-palms mAmA bearing xAnn.t-fruit1
Dum-palms (mAmA)120 "Saw-wood"-trees (xt-ws)2
Fig-sycamores (nht nt db)5 jSd-trees///
"Hair-wood"-trees (xt n Snj)3 jH-trees///
Olive trees (bq)2 jAm-trees3
Grapevines12 Willows (trt)9
Pomegranate trees5 Tamarisks (jsr)10
ksb.t-trees8 Carobs (nDm)16
Source:  [3]

Fruit trees

    A number of fruit trees have been grown in Egypt since prehistoric times: fig trees, sycamores, date, dellach and doum palm trees, mimusops, the shrublike jujube (Chinese date, Zizyphus jujuba), the drought resistant balanites, and the carob, (Ceratonia siliqua, L.), which yields edible pods. The ished tree with its egg-shaped fruit and small leaves was also called the Tree of Life.
    Some were imported like the apple tree (tebekh), olive tree (djet) and the pomegranate which were brought to Egypt during the reign of the Hyksos. Mulberry trees, originating in eastern Asia, and almonds were brought from Armenia or Persia before or during the New Kingdom. Cherries were occasionally grown in the Faiyum by Greek settlers. Pears and peaches were not introduced until the Roman period.

Timber trees

    Egypt had few large straight growing trees. The longest planks and beams measured less than four metres in length. This imposed constraints on builders who had to support ceilings with pillars if the width of the rooms exceeded three metres, and on shipwrights who had to import cedar wood from Lebanon if they wanted to construct a sea-worthy ship laid on a keel.
    The main indigenous timber trees were the sycamore and the acacia. The wood of the persea (Mimusops laurifolia), a 20 m tall evergreen, was used by carpenters, as were willow, tamarisk and Christ's thorn.

Other kinds of trees

    Europeans imported the lime-tree during the Graeco-Roman period, a popular shade tree the flowers of which are still used for making tea [1].
    The willow was useful for basketry and its leaves and bark formed part of the ancient pharmacopoeia.
    From the seeds of the horseradish tree, (moringa aptera), the Ben oil was pressed and its flowers and bark can serve medicinal purposes [1].
    Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) grows to a height of a few metres. Its leaves have been used for flavouring at least since Greek times [1].
    Incense had to be imported from Punt and on at least two occasions, under King Sahure and queen Harshepsut, myrrh trees were brought to Egypt and apparently unsuccessful attempts were made to grow them there.
    Some trees referred to in ancient sources have never been properly identified. In the following extract from his Natural History Pliny may refer to the balanites, the baobab - not known to have grown in Egypt, and the mimosa, on the other hand - maybe not:
Here we find, too, the Egyptian plum-tree, not much unlike the thorn last mentioned, with a fruit similar to the medlar, and which ripens in the winter. This tree never loses its leaves. The seed in the fruit is of considerable size, but the flesh of it, by reason of its quality, and the great abundance in which it grows, affords quite a harvest to the inhabitants of those parts; after cleaning it, they subject it to pressure, and then make it up into cakes for keeping.
There was formerly a woodland district in the vicinity of Memphis, with trees of such enormous size, that three men could not span one with their arms.
One of these trees is remarkable, not for its fruit, or any particular use that it is, but for the singular phaenomenon that it presents. In appearance it strongly resembles a thorn, and it has leaves which have all the appearance of wings, and which fall immediately the branch is touched by any one, and then immediately shoot again.
Source: [4]


Jan Assmann, Death and salvation in ancient Egypt, Cornell University Press
Marie-Louise Buhl, The Goddesses of the Egyptian Tree Cult, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2 (April 1947)
Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, Macmillan and Co 1894
Gerald Massey, Ancient Egypt the Light of the World, Kessinger Publishing 2002
Pliny, Natural History, (eds. John Bostock, H.T. Riley)
Kurt Sethe, Urkunden der 18. Dynastie Band I, J. C. Hinrich, Leipzig, 1914
Lewis Spence, 1915, Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends , Courier Dover 1991

[1] It is uncertain whether the ancient Egyptians did use them for these purposes.
[2] Buhl, p.80
[3] Sethe, p.38
[4] Pliny, Book XIII, chapter 19

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