Tree of Life

My childhood was full of adventures, though mostly happening within the walls of our apartment. I have tried all the professions imaginable, enthusiastically sampling them one at a time. I was a cartographer, making detailed maps of the areas surrounding our building, giving mysterious Latin names to its different bits and extending the map towards the terra incognita around. I was a nature explorer, zoologist and botanist who, besides extending the corresponding collections through regular "expeditions" to the playing grounds, was also a humble observer, logging hourly observations on the activities of different types of birds linked to the temperature, humidity (a single long hair regularly donated by my cousin was serving for this purpose, see here), precipitation, atmospheric pressure (a milk bottle with a rubber membrane from balloons on its opening that had a clock hand attached to the centre of the membrane) etc. I was an ecologist, thoroughly surveying and mapping the contamination levels (using lichens as living indicators) in different areas of the playing grounds downstairs, studying its impact on the vibrant and extremely diverse local fauna (2 species of ants and 3 species of birds). I was a painter, then even tried a novelist career, writing my own adventure book. I must still have preserved the around 40 pages of the interrupted "manuscript". After two months of devoted work on it, I realised that could not continue writing it anymore, since the cast in the book had become a messy mass:  every neighbour and relative we had "bribed" me for being included in the book as a major character.
Figure 1. Tree of life, as appears in modern souvenirs from Egypt, though with varying colours. This particular example is not the one I have originally come across; will update the picture soon. 

The area in our apartment, now simply a small balcony, was once a rather wide captain deck of the Calypso ship. It was then transformed into an ornithological observation deck; the couple of usual trees in front of the balcony were the gigantic tropical trees boiling with life. The balcony then became a meteo station, an astronomical observatory specialised in recording the movements of the Solar spots (I could not observe the stars at night, since there were 12 more floors up, covering the major bit of the sky), an "underground" chemical laboratory (mum was always throwing away my chemicals soon after finding them, but I figured out a way to maintain a renewable set by simple reaction and purification steps from the everyday products and common rocks). Next, it was a physics and "robotics" lab, where I was designing the “CPUs” of my own robot that could dive and explore the underwater world of our bath. The CPU was a set of metallic wires properly melt and interconnected on a round piece of plastic with pre-drawn scheme, which was then further covered by a layer of glue, fully insulating and fixing the system. Those “CPUs” were doing nothing more than replacing the internal wiring by a space-efficient analogue, had several inlets for electricity, and many outlets "controlling" the motors, light and sound "systems". This list of conversions of our balcony can be continued for hours, but I shall move into the interesting bit (will scan and post my childhood logbooks after visiting home).

There was a profession during the "tenure" of which I have done something I am pleased even now. Once I was an archaeologist. Being 10-11 years old and mostly impressed by the Ceram's book, I was doing a "pretty serious" bibliographical work by reading Anatolian and Greek legends and trying to find clues for new discoveries, like Heinrich Schliemann did, locating Troy guided by several sentences from Iliad. It was about that time when my cousins gave me a souvenir papyrus bookmark from Egypt. The papyrus had a miniature, depicting a tree with different birds sitting on it. You can find various variants of the same painting being sold through eBay and Amazon (Figure 1).
The bookmark was labelled as "Acacia tree, tree of life". The tree looked indeed like acacia, though I doubted there was a real statement in hieroglyphs of that fact under the original version of the painting. Anyway, it is widely accepted that acacia was considered as a tree of life in Ancient Egypt. However, looking at the painting with an exploratory spirit, I immediately noticed several very interesting specificities that led to its novel interpretation. Out of all the five birds on the tree, all were looking right, were fairly coloured and did not have a corona, except one, the hoopoe bird. That one was looking toward the left side, had a corona and was brown. Another exceptional bird had extended wings. Here is where I thought, why should not smart Egyptians call the delta of Nile, the highly branched ending of the river that was giving life to the whole civilisation (Figure 2), the tree of life, instead of a relatively useless actual tree. And now, if you reconsider the above observations on the positioning and types of the birds on the tree, having in mind that the painting is the symbolic representation of the Nile Delta, patterns emerge.

Figure 2. The Nile Delta, the highly branched end part of the longest river, where it drains into the Mediterranean Sea. The augmented picture is taken from this link, to which all the credits go.
In Ancient Egypt, the East, as the side of the sunrise, was the life; hence all those lively birds that were looking East might symbolically denote the positions of different cities. The West was the sunset, the end; pharaohs’ tombs were located only in the West side of the river Nile. The brown bird with a corona looking left (West) was indeed matching with the approximate position of Giza, where the pyramids are. Moreover, human profiles in Ancient Egypt were always coloured in brown (lighter one for females), hence the colour of the bird with the corona symbolising pharaohs’ power. The single bird with open wings might denote the location of one of the major cities in the area, approximately matching to the location of Sais. If this interpretation of the painting is correct, then it is a symbolic representation of the geographic area, renovating our idea of the concept tree of life in the ancient worlds. Many civilisations have emerged around several key rivers, and in some of them the concept of “Tree of Life” might have symbolised the rivers empowering those civilisations, rather than just some kind of tree. Figure 3 shows two more depictions of the Tree of Life symbols in Egypt (a-e), along with the corresponding symbols in Assyria (rivers Euphrates and Tigris, f and g) and Armenia (river Arax and sources of Euphrates and Tigris, h and i). As can be seen from Figure 3 b, d, e and f, many of such depictions also explicitly show humans taking water from the tree of life, which adds further proof to the hypothesis. How different and much more pleasant is the perception of these artworks, when we consider that they denote humans getting the goods from the grand rivers, rather than “worshiping” trees with mystified roles!

Figure 3. Five other symbolic representations of the tree of life in Ancient Egypt (a-e), along with the Assyrian (f, g) and Armenian (h, i) analogues.
In that time (1998), neither my English was satisfactory nor the Internet was commonly accessible in the Armenian households for me to do a further research and see whether the Egyptian painting of the tree I had was a result of a fantasy of a modern artist or a real replica, not to talking about the origin, context and the age of the painting. One thing that I was encouraged to do though, was to write a letter describing the observations, which was then handled to the Embassy of Egypt in Yerevan. There was a kind response from the Ambassador stating that the letter was forwarded to Cairo, but I have not heard anything ever since. This was the end of my archaeologist career and I soon changed my profession becoming, if my memory does not shuffle the chronology, a “geologist” (that one resulted in a nice collection with about 40 minerals).
For the sake of increasing the proper scientific content of the above interpretation, I have now performed an hour of googling, 15 years later. It turns out that the original of this painting does, in fact, come from ancient times and is residing in the tomb of Khnumhotep II, the tomb-3 of Beni Hasan excavation site. Khnumhotep II was a high official, an Overseer of priests and the Eastern Desert. He lived during the 12th Dynasty (1991-1783 BC, Middle Kingdom) and has prepared a rather valuable tomb that dates to approximately 1880 BC (the time of Senwosret II). The tomb is rich in paintings, with a book devoted to the symbolism of the wall paintings, showing that those were overall representing the cosmos around the high official.
The tree is in the central location (Figure 4) of the wall, at the foreground of the scenery depicting Khnumhotep’s bird hunting, aka getting benefit of the rich fauna that the river made possible in the area. The interpretation I proposed above, might be another nice addition to the overall interpretation of the wall paintings in the tomb-3, showing that even a relatively small portion of it, a single tree with birds, was actually serving as the symbolic representation, a map, of the Nile Delta, the real tree of life that gave rise to and assured the prosperity of one of the fascinating human civilisations. Moreover, the concept “Tree of Life” in other ancient civilisations might analogously point to the corresponding rivers (Figure 3).

Figure 4. The facsimile of the scenery with the tree of life in the tomb-3 of Beni Hasan, as copied by Nina de Garis Davies (1881-1965) from the graphic expedition in about 1931. The facsimile is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
P.S. I am happy that over the consecutive years, I have turned to other types of Tree of Life, which have even higher and more scientific meaning than the symbolic depiction of the rivers. These are the phylogenetic trees (Figure 5), first drawn by Charles Darwin (a) and later truly blossomed in computational biology (c). How much more scientific can it get?

Figure 5. The rise of the tree of life in modern science. The first phylogenetic tree drawn by Charles Darwin (a), the tree of life showing the evolutionary relation between different species (b) and the same relation built based on the clustering analysis of the whole genomes of different species (c)

Some other images showing the place of the tree in the context of other paintings in the tomb, as well as several nice facsimiles are presented below (Figures 6-9). 

Figure 6. The wall paintings in the tomb of Khnumhotep II. The picture is taken from this link.

Figure 7. The schematic representation of the wall paintings in the tomb of Khnumhotep II, as illustrated in “Denkmaler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien” by Lepsius. The high-resolution picture can be found here.

Figure 8. The part of the tree from the facsimile in Figure 4.

Figure 9. A watercolour drawing-facsimile of the birds on the tree, done by Howard Carter himself. (a) the lower left segment with a hoopoe bird; the picture is accessible through this link. (b) the lower right segment with a red-backed shrike; the picture is taken from here.

This is a blog entry in my personal blog page where I try to gather my notes, thoughts and tutorials on science, IT etc., after making them more readable. All the PDF versions of the notes deposited here can be downloaded through my home page ( | Blog). In case the blog entry is of general interest and you would like to include that in your medium (journal, blog, web-page etc...), feel free to do so, given that you notify me and do not alter the content and authorship.

All the used pictures are publically accessible with the links provided wherever appropriate.


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