Love in an Orchard

Jennifer Cromwell

The scene: young lovers escape the heat of the early afternoon soon for the shade of an orchard. Concealed among the shadows, sheltered under the trees, they lose themselves in each other. Nobody is present to witness their tryst, except for the trees.
From the New Kingdom (ca. 1,539–1,075 BCE) survives a small group of love songs (or poems). One of these poems stands out because it is not written from the perspective of one lover to another, but from that of the trees under whose branches they meet. The trees’ songs reveal a glimpse of the secret lives of young Egyptians, the excitement of love kept hidden from those around them. It is written on a papyrus originally from Deir el-Medina, the village of the workmen who built the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, which today is in the Museo Egizio (Egyptian Museum) in Turin. While such poems give a suggestion of sensuous intimacy, they probably weren’t to be recited in private to a lover but sung, perhaps at a festival or celebration.

P.Turin 1966. Originally from Deir el-Medina, today in the Museo Egizio, Turin.

Three trees sing their song to the girl. The first tree’s name is lost, but it may be a pomegranate or a persea, for it describes its seeds like her teeth and its fruit like her breasts. The second tree is a sycamore fig, and the third a little sycamore, and all three have their own personality and attitudes towards the young couple.

All that is done by the beloved and her lover [I see],
When they are drunk on wine and pomegranate liquor,
And anointed with oil of moringa and balsam […].
[Every last tree] except me vanishes from the field,
But I pass the (full) twelve months in the orchard.
When I begin to lose my bloom,
Last year’s is (still) within me.
I am the first of my companions,
But I am regarded only as second.
If they do it again, I shall not be silent about them!

P.Turin 1966; trans. Vincent Tobin

The first tree is indignant. Even though he – among all the trees in the orchard – is in bloom all year round (and so the first among his companions), he is ignored, “regarded only as second”. If the couple continue to ignore him, he threatens to reveal their secret and prevent their happiness. The second tree also bemoans his neglect by the lovers. Brought to Egypt from afar, and planted in this foreign land for the girl, the sycamore fig serves her, but she has forsaken him.

Though you have no servants,
Yet I am your servant [brought from afar]
As a captive for my beloved.
She caused me to be planted in her orchard,
But she gave me no [water when I needed] to drink,
Nor was my body filled with water from the waterskins.
They find me for pleasure,
[…] because of not drinking.
As my ka endures, my beloved,
Get yourself into my presence!

P.Turin 1966; trans. Vincent Tobin

The little sycamore’s song is different. Planted by the girl herself, the tree:

Sends forth its voice to speak,
And the chatter which comes from its mouth
Is (like) a stream of honey.
It is beautiful, and its boughs are lovely; 
It is verdant and flourishing,
Burdened down with notched figs
More crimson than red jasper.
Its leaves are like turquoise, and their hue like faience.
Its wood is like the tinge of feldspar,
And its resin is like the besbes draught.
It attracts him who is not under it,
For its shade is refreshing.

P.Turin 1966; trans. Vincent Tobin

Whereas the first two trees demand attention, demand to be acknowledged for what they provide for the girl and her lover, the little sycamore asks for nothing in return, and their secret is safe with it. 

Come and pass the day in happiness,
Tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow,
Even for three days, sitting beneath my shade.

All the while she is with her lover.
Her secret is safe with me,
The beloved one in her adventures.
I am discreet enough not to repeat what I have seen,
And I shall not say (even one) word.

P.Turin 1966; trans. Vincent Tobin

What would such an orchard look like? The second and third tree both talk about being planted in this place. They do not belong to a natural landscape but one that is carefully cultivated by its owners. Tomb models and tomb scenes from the Middle and New Kingdom provide indications of what such an orchard would look like. One of the models in the tomb of Meketre, a senior official during the late 11th dynasty and early 12th dynasty, is of a garden and porch (today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC). In the centre of the garden is a pool, which is lined on three sides by sycamore figs, with red fruit growing from their branches. A scene in the 18th dynasty tomb of Nebamun, today in the British Museum, shows a pool full of fish and fowl and surrounded by trees – date-palms, sycamores, and mandrakes. Not everybody would have access to such orchards. But for those who did, the trees offered not only their shade and their fruit, but secluded, private corners for lovers, whether young or old.

Left: the model of a porch and garden from the early 12th dynasty tomb of Meketre, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, inv. 2.3.13 (other images are also available on the museum’s online catalogue).
Right: fragment from the tomb of Nebamun, today in the British Museum EA37983, showing a pool surrounded by trees. (c) Trustees of the British Museum.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Deir el-Medina
Date: Dynasty 20, New Kingdom (ca. 1190–1077 BCE). Possibly the reign of Rameses IV (1,155–1,150 BCE)
Language: Late Egyptian (written in the hieratic script)
Collection: Museo Egizio, Turin, P.Turin 1966. 
Designation: P.Turin 1966 / P.Turin Cat. 1966. The poem is one of several texts collected on this papyrus. The museum’s online catalogue contains further information and bibliography about the papyrus, which you can access here.
Bibliography: Edda Bresciani (1969), Letteratura e poesia dell’antico Egitto (Torino: Giulio Einaudi), pp. 443–451; Michael V. Fox (1985), The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press), pp. 44–51 [translation and commentary]; Vincent A. Tobin (2003) “The Love Songs and the Song of the Harper”, in The Literature of Ancient Egypt. An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry, edited by William Kelly Simpson (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 319–322 [translation]. 

On Egyptian love poetry: A select bibliography
Cuenca, Esteban Llagostera, and Xesus Rabade Paredes (1995), La Poesía Erótico-Amorosa en el Egipto Faraónico (Ferrol: Esquio).
Fox, Michael V. (1985), The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).
Guglielmi Waltraud (1996), “Die ägyptische Liebespoesie,” in Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms, edited by Antonio Loprieno (Leiden: Brill), 335–347.
Lichtheim, Miriam (1976), Ancient Egyptian Literature II: The New Kingdom (Berkeley: University of California Press).
Mathieu, Bernard (1996), La Poésie Amoureuse de l’Égypte Ancienne: Recherches sur un genre littéraires au Nouvel Empire (Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale).
Tobin, Vincent A. (2003) “The Love Songs and the Song of the Harper”, in The Literature of Ancient Egypt. An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry, edited by William Kelly Simpson (New Haven: Yale University Press), 307–333.
Vernus, Pascal (1992), Chants d’amour de l’Égypte antique (Paris: Imprimerie).

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

3 thoughts on “Love in an Orchard

  1. Hello! I saved this post a couple of months ago as I found it really interesting but did not have time to read it at the time. I am coming back to it now and it is truly fascinating! I am interested in Egyptian orchards and I did not know such a text existed. Do you know of any other text of similar nature about orchards?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for coming back and reading it! As far as I know, this is the only text about orchards, but trees are mentioned in a few Egyptian literary works (e.g., The Shipwrecked Sailor when discussing the island and its bounty).


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