Oldest frescos ever found in the Mediterranean region feature the Tree of Life

A team of archaeologists excavating an ancient palace in Lebanon came across some stunning wall paintings that include a depiction of the Tree of Life in the Bronze Age around 1900 BC.

The Tree of Life is present in many mythologies and belief systems in cultures around the globe. From Norse mythology in Europe to Mesopotamian culture in the Ancient Near East to Native American culture in North America and the three major religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, the tree plays a central role in the ancient world and still remains relevant in the present day.

So, whenever archaeologists find a new depiction of the Tree of Life, it’s just another reminder of how widespread the belief is and gives us more knowledge of the peoples who came before us.

Back in 2001, a German-Lebanese team discovered the ancient palace south of Sidon on the Mediterranean coast. Four years later, University of Tübingen Institute of Biblical Archaeology Professor Jens Kamlah and American University of Beirut Professor Hélène Sader excavated a room to reveal marvelous paintings on the floors and walls that are forerunners of fresco art.

Examined by University of Tübingen’s Julia Bertsch, her analysis found something very interesting that may re-write the history books on what we know about the development of fresco painting.

According to a University of Tübingen press release:

The paintings show a geometric frieze as well as a hunting scene, a procession, and a “tree of life.” Comparable motifs are known from the Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian iconography, says Julia Bertsch from the University of Tübingen, a member of the team who has been investigating the paintings. She says the technique may be seen as a preliminary stage of the fresco because the preliminary drawings were applied to the still-damp plaster. By contrast, in the fully developed fresco technique, the paintings in their entirety are applied to the fresh plaster.

Floral pattern found on the palace floor. Image via University of Tubingen

This find demonstrates an evolutionary step towards the final fresco technique centuries earlier than previously believed.

“It was previously assumed that this technique was developed several centuries later in Minoan-Aegean palace paintings. These finds from Tell el-Burak show us that, at the very least, important steps in the development of the technique were made in the Near East,” says Bertsch.

The analysis further found that Lebanon maintained close ties to ancient Egypt because one of the colors used in the paintings was Egyptian blue, and may have even been created by an Egyptian artist.

“This shows that there were close ties between today’s southern Lebanon and the Egyptian Empire at that time,” Kamlah says. “The paintings could have been created by Egyptian artists. In any case, they testify to an early form of cultural exchange and knowledge transfer in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

The palace was only in use for about 200 years before the people abandoned it. Yet, the palace walls that normally would have collapsed, were maintained because of the sand that buried it.

“This is particularly remarkable because they are made of air-dried clay bricks that are around 4,000 years old,” Kamlah said.

“The palace stood on a 17-meter-high artificial mound directly on the beach. The wing on the seaside was originally located on a lower terrace than the other rooms. We assume that this led to static problems. The walls on the lower level, which included the room with the murals, were deformed by the pressure of the higher terrace. The lower rooms were filled in to stabilize.”

Room of the palace where the paintings were found. Image via University of Tubingen

And the reason why the analysis has taken so long is that the paintings are so fragile that only experts could uncover them, and they had to do it gradually with great care so as not to damage them.

“They had to be uncovered by specially trained experts – in small sections and very carefully,” Kamlah said.

And in one corner of a room appeared the Tree of Life rising from a hill painted at the bottom of the wall. The tree then rises up from the floor.

Tree of Life found in the corner of an ancient palace in Lebanon. Image via University of Tubingen

“The motif corresponds to Ancient Near Eastern representations of the ‘tree of life,’ which represents the fertility of the divinely created order,” Kamlah says.

Close-up of the Tree of Life painting found in ancient Lebanon palace. Image via University of Tubingen

The discovery gives us more information about human activity 4,000 years ago, and the team has deduced that the people responsible for building the palace were ancestors of the powerful Phoenicians who would become a formidable empire.

“Until now, very little was known about the people of that time,” Kamlah concluded.

“The German-Lebanese excavations show that there must have been an economically and culturally flourishing city-kingdom in Sidon. Since we have found no signs of major upheavals in the population, we can assume that these people were ancestors of the Phoenicians who later inhabited the area.”

So, now we know that a people who lived in Lebanon near the Mediterranean Sea 4,000 years ago are possibly related to the later Phoenicians. They built a palace, had regular contact with the ancient Egyptians, painted early frescoes that add a new place in the art history books and the Tree of Life was an important symbol in their belief system.

That’s quite a discovery, and it may not have been possible had the site not been buried and preserved by the sand all these years.

Today, the ancient Cedar is emblazoned on the Lebanese flag and currency. A planting campaign has begun to try to save the oldest trees in recorded human history. See more from Al Jazeera English:

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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