Tree of Life

Oldest Examples of ‘Tree of Life’ Designs Discovered in Domuztepe Mound, Turkey

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Archaeologists have unearthed vessels portraying “tree of life” motifs during excavation works in the Domuztepe Mound in the southern province of Kahramanmaraş, which is considered to be the biggest settlement in the region since the usage of the term “Near East.”

“Tree of Life” Unearthed

Directed by Hacettepe University Archaeology Department academic Dr. Halil Tekin under the allocation of the Kahramanmaraş Museum Directorate, the excavations were launched in 2013 as Hurriyet reports .

Culture and Tourism Ministry officials and university students have participated in the work, which originally started in 1996 as part of a British-American joint project and has been continued by Turkish academics since 2013. The investigation has covered some very significant artifacts. Dr. Halil Tekin stated that the most fascinating find in the Domuztepe Mound is undoubtedly the early examples of a tree motif, known as the “tree of life” in ancient Near East archaeology, with cumulative motifs. “The origin of this tree, which has become used as a Christmas tree in the Christian world throughout time, is here, namely in Mesopotamia. The earliest known example of it is in Domuztepe,” Tekin said as Hurriyet reports , pointing out the cultural significance of the tree of life motifs. “It is not an ordinary tree. It is related to a faith system, a burial tradition,” he added.

1st millennium Mesopotamian seal showing a worshipper and a fish-garbed sage before a stylized tree.

1st millennium Mesopotamian seal showing a worshipper and a fish-garbed sage before a stylized tree. ( Public Domain )

The Tree of Life and Its Symbolism

In Babylonian mythology, the Tree of Life was a magical tree that grew in the center of paradise. The Apsu, or primordial waters, flowed from its roots. It is the prototype of the tree described in Genesis: the biblical Tree of Paradise evolved directly from this ancient symbol; it is the symbol from which the Egyptian, Islamic, and Kabbalistic Tree of Life concepts originated. Nowadays, we use "tree of life" as a metaphor usually, even though various stylized images of the tree of life can also represent the spine and branches of the human nervous system.

A figure stands before a sacred tree in a scene of reverence, circa 2000-1850 BC.

A figure stands before a sacred tree in a scene of reverence, circa 2000-1850 BC. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

According to Dr. Tekin, the oldest known example of this tree’s culture, however, is in Domuztepe from where it expanded to the rest of the world, “We are talking about the period of the 7000s BC. The oldest known example of this tree’s culture or belief system is in Domuztepe. We believe it expanded from Domuztepe in various ways. The oldest example is here. It expanded to the south, to Basra and then became the most important factor in Sumerian civilization. There is also a similar tree in the Acadians, which is known as the ‘eya tree’ in Hittite documents in the 3000s BC.  The pine tree symbolizes life because it is a tree that never dies. The one we have found here is a tree with thorny leaves. This is why we believe it is a symbol of life,” he told Hurriyet and promised that more detailed information about the important find will be announced soon.

A Much Earlier Use than the Christmas Tree

Even though the celebration of Christmas is typically associated with Christianity and the birth of Jesus, the symbolism of an evergreen tree did not have a place in early Christianity. Instead, the symbolism of evergreen trees has much earlier origins that can be traced to the worship of the Sun God Mithras around 600 BC, as it has been previously reported in another Ancient Origins article . Centuries later, the evergreen tree also became a symbol with special significance in Northern Europe. Plants and trees that remained green all-year-round had always had an important role for ancient peoples living in far northern regions, especially around the darkest day of the year – the winter solstice, which falls on 21 st December in the Northern hemisphere.

Relief carving at Persepolis, ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, depicting Mithra and an evergreen tree.

Relief carving at Persepolis, ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, depicting Mithra and an evergreen tree. (IPC)

According to Dr. Tekin’s research relating to Christmas and Christianity, there is no trace of this tree before 1504, “When Marco Polo arrived in Asia, he probably brought this culture to the western world in the same way he brought many elements. [Christmas tree] culture did not suddenly appear there. The Dutch people who immigrated to the U.S. at the end of the 19th century included this tree in their Christian faith system. Then this tree became a commercial factor in the U.S. We can say that the pieces depicting the pine tree which have been found here make it the oldest Christmas tree in the world,” he told Hurriyet, adding that larger pieces portraying the figures were found by others in the past and now smaller pieces depicting the Christmas tree have been uncovered as well.

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