Trees

The establishment of large trees could only be aimed at in high places, or at the edges of the valley where the waters of the stream did not reach during the inundations. Trees could only succeed from the very start through man’s diligent care. Watering and the provision of nourishment for the land and its crops needed skill and artifice. The waters of the Nile were brought to the higher and more distant parts of the country by an elaborate network of canals, regulated by dams, terraces, and sluices, and were then drawn up by the help of a well-sweep (shadoof or shaduf). On one arm of the pump-handle hung a weight, on the other a bucket, and the water was poured out on plants, trees, and fields. Just as we see it in pictures, thousands of years old, so can it be seen now (Fig. 1 Fig 2).

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FIG. 1 A WELL-SWEEP IN ANCIENT EGYPT

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FIG. 2. A WELL-SWEEP IN MODERN EGYPT

 It is obvious that with so much labour entailed, the only such trees and plants to be considered were those found useful enough to repay a man for his trouble. It was precisely from the profit-making care of plants that all horticulture arose. Edible fruits, timber, and shade—these the Egyptian demanded and obtained from his garden.

Though it is only the New Period that has given us pictures of a systematic arrangement and grouping of different plantations in one, that is, of enclosures which can be considered gardens in our sense, there is yet undoubted evidence in the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties, and still more in the Middle Period, of plots laid out for trees, vines and vegetables. These pictures show the individual work of the garden. They show how the gardener waters the land, how he plucks the fruits from the trees, how he gathers the ripe bunches of grapes, and how he pours libations to the gods for a blessing on his work.

First among the trees which belonged to the earliest form of Egyptian garden is the sycamore [EDITOR’s NOTE: Or sycomore, for doubtless the sycomore of Luke xix.4 is meant. The “ sycamore fig “ is Ficus sycomoros. The common foliage sycamore, or “ false plane,” is Acer pseudoplatanus].

It is very often mentioned, and in the old records the hieroglyph for Sycamore often stands for Tree in general. It seems that, according to a very ancient belief, a sycomore stood under the canopy of heaven beside both the rising and the setting of the sun; it was supposed to be of malachite, perhaps to indicate its imperishable green hue, The fruit and the wood of this tree are both of use; in its shade the living rejoice as well as the dead, and the peasant honours it as especially sacred, and sacrifices to it the fruits of the earth (Fig. 3). 

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FIG, 3. PEASANT DOING HONOUR TO A SYCOMORE TREE

There is a feeling of close sympathy between the dweller in the Nile Valley and this tree, expressed in a little poem, below, which depicts the tree as the friend of lovers. On the day when "the Garden holds its festival,” and the tree is in all the glory of its flowering, it sends a message to the maiden:

The little sycomore,
Which she planted with her own hand,
She moves her lips to speak.
How fair are her lovely branches!
She is laden with fruits
That are redder than the jasper.
Her shade is cool,
She lays a little letter in a girl’s hand,
The head gardener’s daughter,
She bids her hasten to the well-beloved:
"Come and stay among thy maidens.
We are drunken if we would go to thee,
Ay, before we have tasted aught.
The servants who obey thee
Are coming with their vessels;
Beer of every kind they bring
And every kind of bread,
Many flowers of to-day and yesterday
And all refreshing fruits.
Come, and make it fine to-day,
To-morrow and next day, three days long...
Sit in my shade.”
Her friend sits on her right hand,
She makes him drunken
And yields to what he says..
But I am dumb,
And say not what I see.
I wil! say no word.”

The pictures of the Old Period show how they planted the trees at regular intervals, how they collected the fruit, how they cut the tree down and disposed of its wood. When it was ready to cut down they allowed young goats to eat the foliage. And in early days they seem to have used animals to help in their harvesting. The monkeys had to help gather figs (Fig. 4), 

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FIG. 4. MONKEYS HELPING TO GATHER FIGS, BENI-HASSAN

and were allowed to enjoy some of the fruit themselves so long as they left the men’s share in the baskets. The fig-tree is no less important to the ancient Egyptians than the sycomore.

Near to these in importance stand two kinds of palm, the date and the doum (Dom). The date was very much used, and in many ways. There was also the acacia, with which perhaps the tree (Mimusops Schimperi) must be counted that the ancients called Persea. [EDITOR’S NOTE: The Sunt-tree (Acacia nilotica) must be remembered. Together with the sycomore and the tamarisk, it was abundant. The Lebbek (Albizzio or Acacia Lebbek) was imported. As regards the Persea, the Persea gratissima of modern botanists is the avocado or alligator pear, a West Indian tree. Neither it nor the modern Mimusops is of the Leguminosæ, like the true Acacia.] Together with the sycomore it belongs to the group which in the earliest times fixes the character of Egyptian tree-culture, although their native land was not Egypt. Besides these there was also a sacred tree held in high honour, which is called in the writings Ished—a fruit-tree whose identity is not really fixed. This ished (yshit) is the tree of history, on which the gods depict the name and the deeds of the king (Fig. 5).

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FIG. 5. GODS PAINTING THE KING’S NAME ON THE YSHIT TREE, THEBES: TEMPLE OF RAMESES II

In the New Period, the species are far more numerous, and the writer Ennene, who lived about 1500, enumerates on the inscription intended for his tomb the trees which he planted in his lifetime. He gives a list of twenty different sorts, of which some are not yet identified. The old kinds of tree are also given in an extra list, and comprise no fewer than 73 sycomores, 170 date palms, and 120 doum palms. In the New Period the want of forest was in part compensated for by a great number of sacred groves. Every one of the forty-two districts, into which Upper and Lower Egypt were divided, had its own temple with a sacred grove attached. From very early times trees were held sacred by the Egyptians, but now each of these temples had a particular tree sacred to itself, which was chiefly, if not exclusively, cultivated in the temple garden. If we may judge by the inscriptions, the greater temples must have owned very extensive lands.

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