The Travels of Marco Polo/Book 1/Chapter 22
Of a Certain Desert That Continues for Eight Days' Journey
When you depart from this City of Cobinan, you find yourself again in a Desert of surpassing aridity, which lasts for some eight days; here are neither fruits nor trees to be seen, and what water there is is bitter and bad, so that you have to carry both food and water. The cattle must needs drink the bad water, will they nill they, because of their great thirst. At the end of those eight days you arrive at a Province which is called TONOCAIN. It has a good many towns and villages, and forms the extremity of Persia towards the North. It also contains an immense plain on which is found the ARBRE SOL, which we Christians call the Arbre Sec; and I will tell you what it is like. It is a tall and thick tree, having the bark on one side green and the other white; and it produces a rough husk like that of a chestnut, but without anything in it. The wood is yellow like box, and very strong, and there are no other trees near it nor within a hundred miles of it, except on one side, where you find trees within about ten miles' distance. And there, the people of the country tell you, was fought the battle between Alexander and King Darius.
The towns and villages have great abundance of everything good, for the climate is extremely temperate, being neither very hot nor very cold. The natives all worship Mahommet, and are a very fine-looking people, especially the women, who are surpassingly beautiful.
- All that region has been described as "a country divided into deserts that are salt, and deserts that are not salt." (Vigne, I. 16.) Tonocain, as we have seen (ch. xv. note 1), is the Eastern Kuhistan of Persia, but extended by Polo, it would seem to include the whole of Persian Khorasan. No city in particular is indicated as visited by the traveller, but the view I take of the position of the Arbre Sec, as well as his route through Kuh-Banan, would lead me to suppose that he reached the Province of TUN-O-KAIN about Tabbas.
["Marco Polo has been said to have traversed a portion of (the Dash-i-Kavir, great Salt Desert) on his supposed route from Tabbas to Damghan, about 1272; although it is more probable that he marched further to the east, and crossed the northern portion of the Dash-i-Lut, Great Sand Desert, separating Khorasan in the south-east from Kerman, and occupying a sorrowful parallelogram between the towns of Neh and Tabbas on the north, and Kerman and Yezd on the south." (Curzon, Persia, II. pp. 248 and 251.) Lord Curzon adds in a note (p. 248): "The Tunogan of the text which was originally mistaken for Damghan, is correctly explained by Yule as Tun-o- (i.e. and) Kain." Major Sykes writes (ch. xxiii.): "The section of the Lut has not hitherto been rediscovered, but I know that it is desert throughout, and it is practically certain that Marco ended these unpleasant experiences at Tabas, 150 miles from Kubenan. To-day the district is known as Tun-o-Tabas, Kain being independent of it."--H. C.]
- This is another subject on which a long and somewhat discursive note is inevitable.
One of the Bulletins of the Soc. de Geographie (ser. III. tom. iii. p. 187) contains a perfectly inconclusive endeavour, by M. Roux de Rochelle, to identify the Arbre Sec or Arbre Sol with a manna-bearing oak alluded to by Q. Curtius as growing in Hyrcania. There can be no doubt that the tree described is, as Marsden points out, a Chinar or Oriental Plane. Mr. Ernst Meyer, in his learned Geschichte der Botanik (Koenigsberg, 1854-57, IV. 123), objects that Polo's description of the wood does not answer to that tree. But, with due allowance, compare with his whole account that which Olearius gives of the Chinar, and say if the same tree be not meant. "The trees are as tall as the pine, and have very large leaves, closely resembling those of the vine. The fruit looks like a chestnut, but has no kernel, so it is not eatable. The wood is of a very brown colour, and full of veins; the Persians employ it for doors and window-shutters, and when these are rubbed with oil they are incomparably handsomer than our walnut-wood joinery." (I. 526.) The Chinar-wood is used in Kashmir for gunstocks.
The whole tenor of the passage seems to imply that some eminent individual Chinar is meant. The appellations given to it vary in the different texts. In the G. T. it is styled in this passage, "The Arbre Seule which the Christians call the Arbre Sec," whilst in ch. cci. of the same (infra, Bk. IV. ch. v.) it is called "L'Arbre Sol, which in the Book of Alexander is called L'Arbre Seche" Pauthier has here "L'Arbre Solque, que nous appelons L'Arbre Sec," and in the later passage "L'Arbre Soul, que le Livre Alexandre apelle Arbre Sec;" whilst Ramusio has here "L'Albero del Sole che si chiama per i Cristiani L'Albor Secco," and does not contain the later passage. So also I think all the old Latin and French printed texts, which are more or less based on Pipino's version, have "The Tree of the Sun, which the Latins call the Dry Tree."
[G. Capus says (A travers le roy. de Tamerlan, p. 296) that he found at Khodjakent, the remains of an enormous plane-tree or Chinar, which measured no less than 48 metres (52 yards) in circumference at the base, and 9 metres diameter inside the rotten trunk; a dozen tourists from Tashkent one day feasted inside, and were all at ease.--H. C.]
Pauthier, building as usual on the reading of his own text (Solque), endeavours to show that this odd word represents Thoulk, the Arabic name of a tree to which Forskal gave the title of Ficus Vasta, and this Ficus Vasta he will have to be the same as the Chinar. Ficus Vasta would be a strange name surely to give to a Plane-tree, but Forskal may be acquitted of such an eccentricity. The Tholak (for that seems to be the proper vocalisation) is a tree of Arabia Felix, very different from the Chinar, for it is the well-known Indian Banyan, or a closely-allied species, as may be seen in Forskal's description. The latter indeed says that the Arab botanists called it Delb, and that (or Dulb) is really a synonym for the Chinar. But De Sacy has already commented upon this supposed application of the name Delb to the Tholak as erroneous. (See Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica, pp. cxxiv. and 179; Abdallatif, Rel. de l'Egypte, p. 80; J. R. G. S. VIII. 275; Ritter, VI. 662, 679.)
The fact is that the Solque of M. Pauthier's text is a mere copyist's error in the reduplication of the pronoun que. In his chief MS. which he cites as A (No. 10,260 of Bibl. Nationale, now Fr. 5631) we can even see how this might easily happen, for one line ends with Solque and the next begins with que. The true reading is, I doubt not, that which this MS. points to, and which the G. Text gives us in the second passage quoted above, viz. Arbre SOL, occurring in Ramusio as Albero del SOLE. To make this easier of acceptation I must premise two remarks: first, that Sol is "the Sun" in both Venetian and Provencal; and, secondly, that in the French of that age the prepositional sign is not necessary to the genitive. Thus, in Pauthier's own text we find in one of the passages quoted above, "Le Livre Alexandre, i.e. Liber Alexandri;" elsewhere, "Cazan le fils Argon," "a la mere sa femme," "Le corps Monseigneur Saint Thomas si est en ceste Province;" in Joinville, "le commandemant Mahommet" "ceux de la Haulequa estoient logiez entour les heberges le soudanc, et establiz pour le cors le soudanc garder;" in Baudouin de Sebourc, "De l'amour Bauduin esprise et enflambee."
Moreover it is the TREE OF THE SUN that is prominent in the legendary History of Alexander, a fact sufficient in itself to rule the reading. A character in an old English play says:--
"Peregrine. Drake was a didapper to Mandevill:
Candish and Hawkins, Frobisher, all our Voyagers
Went short of Mandevil. But had he reached
To this place--here--yes, here--this wilderness,
And seen the Trees of the Sun and Moon, that speak
And told King Alexander of his death;
Had left a passage ope to Travellers
That now is kept and guarded by Wild Beasts."
(Broome's Antipodes, in Lamb's Specimens.)
"The third beast was a Libbard;
Four Eagle's Wings he had;
This signified the Grecian Alexander,
Who with four Hosts went forth to conquer lands
Even to the World's End,
Known by its Golden Pillars.
In India he the Wilderness broke through
With Trees twain he there did speak," etc.
(In Schilteri Thesaurus Antiq. Teuton. tom. i.)
These oracular Trees of the Sun and Moon, somewhere on the confines of India, appear in all the fabulous histories of Alexander, from the Pseudo-Callisthenes downwards. Thus Alexander is made to tell the story in a letter to Aristotle: "Then came some of the towns-people and said, 'We have to show thee something passing strange, O King, and worth thy visiting; for we can show thee trees that talk with human speech.' So they led me to a certain park, in the midst of which were the Sun and Moon, and round about them a guard of priests of the Sun and Moon. And there stood the two trees of which they had spoken, like unto cypress trees; and round about them were trees like the myrobolans of Egypt, and with similar fruit. And I addressed the two trees that were in the midst of the park, the one which was male in the Masculine gender, and the one that was female in the Feminine gender. And the name of the Male Tree was the Sun, and of the female Tree the Moon, names which were in that language Muthu and Emausae. And the stems were clothed with the skins of animals; the male tree with the skins of he-beasts, and the female tree with the skins of she-beasts.... And at the setting of the Sun, a voice, speaking in the Indian tongue, came forth from the (Sun) Tree; and I ordered the Indians who were with me to interpret it. But they were afraid and would not," etc. (Pseudo-Callisth. ed. Mueller, III. 17.)
The story as related by Firdusi keeps very near to the Greek as just quoted, but does not use the term "Tree of the Sun." The chapter of the Shah Nameh containing it is entitled Didan Sikandar dirakht-i-goyara, "Alexander's interview with the Speaking Tree." (Livre des Rois, V. 229.) In the Chanson d'Alixandre of Lambert le Court and Alex. de Bernay, these trees are introduced as follows:--
"'Signor,' fait Alixandre, 'je vus voel demander,
Se des merveilles d'Inde me saves rien conter.'
Cil li ont respondu: 'Se tu vius escouter
Ja te dirons merveilles, s'es poras esprover.
La sus en ces desers pues ii Arbres trover
Qui c pies ont de haut, et de grossor sunt per.
Li Solaus et La Lune les ont fait si serer
Que sevent tous langages et entendre et parler.'"
(Ed. 1861 (Dinan), p. 357.)
Maundevile informs us precisely where these trees are: "A 15 journeys in lengthe, goynge be the Deserts of the tother side of the Ryvere Beumare," if one could only tell where that is! A mediaeval chronicler also tells us that Ogerus the Dane (temp. Caroli Magni) conquered all the parts beyond sea from Hierusalem to the Trees of the Sun. In the old Italian romance also of Guerino detto il Meschino, still a chapbook in S. Italy, the Hero (ch. lxiii.) visits the Trees of the Sun and Moon. But this is mere imitation of the Alexandrian story, and has nothing of interest. (Maundevile, pp. 297-298; Fasciculus Temporum in Germ. Script. Pistorii Nidani, II.)
It will be observed that the letter ascribed to Alexander describes the two oracular trees as resembling two cypress-trees. As such the Trees of the Sun and Moon are represented on several extant ancient medals, e.g. on two struck at Perga in Pamphylia in the time of Aurelian. And Eastern story tells us of two vast cypress-trees, sacred among the Magians, which grew in Khorasan, one at Kashmar near Turshiz, and the other at Farmad near Tuz, and which were said to have risen from shoots that Zoroaster brought from Paradise. The former of these was sacrilegiously cut down by the order of the Khalif Motawakkil, in the 9th century. The trunk was despatched to Baghdad on rollers at a vast expense, whilst the branches alone formed a load for 1300 camels. The night that the convoy reached within one stage of the palace, the Khalif was cut in pieces by his own guards. This tree was said to be 1450 years old, and to measure 33-3/4 cubits in girth. The locality of this "Arbor Sol" we see was in Khorasan, and possibly its fame may have been transferred to a representative of another species. The plane, as well as the cypress, was one of the distinctive trees of the Magian Paradise.
In the Peutingerian Tables we find in the N.E. of Asia the rubric "Hic Alexander Responsum accepit," which looks very like an allusion to the tale of the Oracular Trees. If so, it is remarkable as a suggestion of the antiquity of the Alexandrian Legends, though the rubric may of course be an interpolation. The Trees of the Sun and Moon appear as located in India Ultima to the east of Persia, in a map which is found in MSS. (12th century) of the Floridus of Lambertus; and they are indicated more or less precisely in several maps of the succeeding centuries. (Ouseley's Travels, I. 387; Dabistan, I. 307-308; Santarem, H. de la Cosmog. II. 189, III. 506-513, etc.)
Nothing could show better how this legend had possessed men in the Middle Ages than the fact that Vincent of Beauvais discerns an allusion to these Trees of the Sun and Moon in the blessing of Moses on Joseph (as it runs in the Vulgate), "de pomis fructuum Solis ac Lunae." (Deut. xxxiii. 14.)
Marco has mixt up this legend of the Alexandrian Romance, on the authority, as we shall see reason to believe, of some of the recompilers of that Romance, with a famous subject of Christian Legend in that age, the ARBRE SEC or Dry Tree, one form of which is related by Maundevile and by Johan Schiltberger. "A lytille fro Ebron," says the former, "is the Mount of Mambre, of the whyche the Valeye taketh his name. And there is a Tree of Oke that the Saracens clepen Dirpe, that is of Abraham's Tyme, the which men clepen THE DRYE TREE." [Schiltberger adds that the heathen call it Kurru Thereck, i.e. (Turkish) Kuru Dirakht = Dry Tree.] "And theye seye that it hathe ben there sithe the beginnynge of the World; and was sumtyme grene and bare Leves, unto the Tyme that Oure Lord dyede on the Cros; and thanne it dryede; and so dyden alle the Trees that weren thanne in the World. And summe seyn be hire Prophecyes that a Lord, a Prynce of the West syde of the World, shalle wynnen the Lond of Promyssioun, i.e. the Holy Lond, withe Helpe of Cristene Men, and he schalle do synge a Masse under that Drye Tree, and than the Tree shall wexen grene and bere both Fruyt and Leves. And thorghe that Myracle manye Sarazines and Jewes schulle ben turned to Cristene Feithe. And, therefore, they dou gret Worschipe thereto, and kepen it fulle besyly. And alle be it so that it be drye, natheless yit he berethe great vertue," etc.
The tradition seems to have altered with circumstances, for a traveller of nearly two centuries later (Friar Anselmo, 1509) describes the oak of Abraham at Hebron as a tree of dense and verdant foliage: "The Saracens make their devotions at it, and hold it in great veneration, for it has remained thus green from the days of Abraham until now; and they tie scraps of cloth on its branches inscribed with some of their writing, and believe that if any one were to cut a piece off that tree he would die within the year." Indeed even before Maundevile's time Friar Burchard (1283) had noticed that though the famous old tree was dry, another had sprung from its roots. And it still has a representative.
As long ago as the time of Constantine a fair was held under the Terebinth of Mamre, which was the object of many superstitious rites and excesses. The Emperor ordered these to be put a stop to, and a church to be erected at the spot. In the time of Arculph (end of 7th century) the dry trunk still existed under the roof of this church; just as the immortal Banyan-tree of Prag exists to this day in a subterranean temple in the Fort of Allahabad.
It is evident that the story of the Dry Tree had got a great vogue in the 13th century. In the Jus du Pelerin, a French drama of Polo's age, the Pilgrim says:--
"S'ai puis en maint bon lieu et a maint saint este,
S'ai este au Sec-Arbre et dusc'a Dureste."
--"una pianta dispogliata
Di fiori e d'altra fronda in ciascun ramo,"
though the dark symbolism in the latter case seems to have a different bearing.
(Maundevile, p. 68; Schiltberger, p. 113; Anselm. in Canisii Thesaurus, IV. 781; Pereg. Quat. p. 81; Niceph. Callist. VIII. 30; Theatre Francais au Moyen Age, pp. 97, 173; Cathay, p. 48; Clavijo, p. 90; Orient und Occident, Goettingen, 1867, vol. i.; Fabricii Vet. Test. Pseud., etc., I. 1133; Dante, Purgat. xxxii. 35.)
But why does Polo bring this Arbre Sec into connection with the Sun Tree of the Alexandrian Legend? I cannot answer this to my own entire satisfaction, but I can show that such a connection had been imagined in his time.
Paulin Paris, in a notice of MS. No. 6985. (Fonds Ancien) of the National Library, containing a version of the Chansons de Geste d'Alixandre, based upon the work of L. Le Court and Alex. de Bernay, but with additions of later date, notices amongst these latter the visit of Alexander to the Valley Perilous, where he sees a variety of wonders, among others the Arbre des Pucelles. Another tree at a great distance from the last is called the ARBRE SEC, and reveals to Alexander the secret of the fate which attends him in Babylon. (Les MSS. Francais de la Bibl. du Roi, III. 105.) Again the English version of King Alisaundre, published in Weber's Collection, shows clearly enough that in its French original the term Arbre Sec was applied to the Oracular Trees, though the word has been miswritten, and misunderstood by Weber. The King, as in the Greek and French passages already quoted, meeting two old churls, asks if they know of any marvel in those parts:--
"'Ye, par ma fay,' quoth heo,
'A great merveille we wol telle the;
That is hennes in even way
The mountas of ten daies journey,
Thou shalt find trowes two:
Seyntes and holy they buth bo;
Higher than in othir countray all.
ARBESET men heom callith.'
* * * * *
'Sire Kyng,' quod on, 'by myn eyghe
Either Trough is an hundrod feet hygh,
They stondith up into the skye;
That on to the Sonne, sikirlye;
That othir, we tellith the nowe,
Is sakret in the Mone vertue.'"
(Weber, I. 277.)
Weber's glossary gives "Arbeset = Strawberry Tree, arbous, arbousier, arbutus"; but that is nonsense.
Further, in the French Prose Romance of Alexander, which is contained in the fine volume in the British Museum known as the Shrewsbury Book (Reg. XV. e. 6), though we do not find the Arbre Sec so named, we find it described and pictorially represented. The Romance (fol. xiiii. v.) describes Alexander and his chief companions as ascending a certain mountain by 2500 steps which were attached to a golden chain. At the top they find the golden Temple of the Sun and an old man asleep within. It goes on:--
"Quant le viellart les vit si leur demanda s'ils vouloient veoir les Arbres sacrez de la Lune et du Soleil que nous annuncent les choses qui sont a avenir. Quant Alexandre ouy ce si fut rempli de mult grant ioye. Si lui respondirent, 'Ouye sur, nous les voulons veoir.' Et cil lui dist, 'Se tu es nez de prince malle et de femelle il te convient entrer en celui lieu.' Et Alexandre lui respondi, 'Nous somes nez de compagne malle et de femelle.' Dont se leve le viellart du lit ou il gesoit, et leur dist, 'Hostez vos vestemens et vos chauces.' Et Tholomeus et Antigonus et Perdiacas le suivrent. Lors comencerent a aler parmy la forest qui estoit enclose en merveilleux labour. Illec trouverent les arbres semblables a loriers et oliviers. Et estoient de cent pies de haults, et decouroit d'eulz incens ypobaume a grant quantite. Apres entrerent plus avant en la forest, et trouverent une arbre durement hault qui n'avoit ne fueille ne fruit. Si seoit sur cet arbre une grant oysel qui avoit en son chief une creste qui estoit semblable au paon, et les plumes du col resplendissants come fin or. Et avoit la couleur de rose. Dont lui dist le viellart, 'Cet oysel dont vous vous merveillez est appeles Fenis, lequel n'a nul pareil en tout le monde.' Dont passerent outre, et allerent aux Arbres du Soleil et de la Lune. Et quant ils y furent venus, si leur dist le viellart, 'Regardez en haut, et pensez en votre coeur ce que vous vouldrez demander, et ne le dites de la bouche.' Alisandre luy demanda en quel language donnent les Arbres response aux gens. Et il lui respondit, 'L'Arbre du Soleil commence a parler Indien.' Dont baisa Alexandre les arbres, et comenca en son ceur a penser s'il conquesteroit tout le monde et retourneroit en Macedonie atout son ost. Dont lui respondit l'Arbre du Soleil, 'Alexandre tu seras Roy de tout le monde, mais Macedonie tu ne verras jamais,'" etc.
The appearance of the Arbre Sec in Maps of the 15th century, such as those of Andrea Bianco (1436) and Fra Mauro (1459), may be ascribed to the influence of Polo's own work; but a more genuine evidence of the prevalence of the legend is found in the celebrated Hereford Map constructed in the 13th century by Richard de Haldingham. This, in the vicinity of India and the Terrestrial Paradise, exhibits a Tree with the rubric "Albor Balsami est Arbor Sicca."
The legends of the Dry Tree were probably spun out of the words of the Vulgate in Ezekiel xvii. 24: "Humiliavi lignum sublime et exaltavi lignum humile; et siccavi lignum viride et frondescere feci lignum aridum." Whether the Rue de l'Arbre Sec in Paris derives its name from the legend I know not. [The name of the street is taken from an old sign-board; some say it is derived from the gibbet placed in the vicinity, but this is more than doubtful.--H. C.]
The actual tree to which Polo refers in the text was probably one of those so frequent in Persia, to which age, position, or accident has attached a character of sanctity, and which are styled Dirakht-i-Fazl, Trees of Excellence or Grace, and often receive titles appropriate to Holy Persons. Vows are made before them, and pieces torn from the clothes of the votaries are hung upon the branches or nailed to the trunks. To a tree of such a character, imposing in decay, Lucan compares Pompey:
"Stat magni nominis umbra.
Qualis frugifero quercus sublimis in agro,
Exuvias veteres populi sacrataque gestans
Dona ducum * * * * *
--Quamvis primo nutet casura sub Euro,
Tot circum silvae firmo se robore tollant,
Sola tamen colitur."
(Pharsalia, I. 135.)
The Tree of Mamre was evidently precisely one of this class; and those who have crossed the Suez Desert before railway days will remember such a Dirakht-i-Fazl, an aged mimosa, a veritable Arbre Seul (could we accept that reading), that stood just half-way across the Desert, streaming with the exuviae veteres of Mecca Pilgrims. The majority of such holy trees in Persia appear to be Plane-trees. Admiration for the beauty of this tree seems to have occasionally risen into superstitious veneration from a very old date. Herodotus relates that the Carians, after their defeat by the Persians on the Marsyas, rallied in the sacred grove of Plane-trees at Labranda. And the same historian tells how, some years later, Xerxes on his march to Greece decorated a beautiful Chinar with golden ornaments. Mr. Hamilton, in the same region, came on the remains of a giant of the species, which he thought might possibly be the very same. Pliny rises to enthusiasm in speaking of some noble Plane-trees in Lycia and elsewhere. Chardin describes one grand and sacred specimen, called King Hosain's Chinar, and said to be more than 1000 years old, in a suburb of Ispahan, and another hung with amulets, rags, and tapers in a garden at Shiraz. One sacred tree mentioned by the Persian geographer Hamd Allah as distinguishing the grave of a holy man at Bostam in Khorasan (the species is not named, at least by Ouseley, from whom I borrow this) comes into striking relation with the passage in our text. The story went that it had been the staff of Mahomed; as such it had been transmitted through many generations, until it was finally deposited in the grave of Abu Abdallah Dasitani, where it struck root and put forth branches. And it is explicitly called Dirakht-i-Khushk, i.e. literally L'ARBRE SEC.
This last legend belongs to a large class. The staff of Adam, which was created in the twilight of the approaching Sabbath, was bestowed on him in Paradise and handed down successively to Enoch and the line of Patriarchs. After the death of Joseph it was set in Jethro's garden, and there grew untouched, till Moses came and got his rod from it. In another form of the legend it is Seth who gets a branch of the Tree of Life, and from this Moses afterwards obtains his rod of power. These Rabbinical stories seem in later times to have been developed into the Christian legends of the wood destined to form the Cross, such as they are told in the Golden Legend or by Godfrey of Viterbo, and elaborated in Calderon's Sibila del Oriente. Indeed, as a valued friend who has consulted the latter for me suggests, probably all the Arbre Sec Legends of Christendom bore mystic reference to the Cross. In Calderon's play the Holy Rood, seen in vision, is described as a Tree:--
Secas mustias y marchitas,
Desnudo el tronco dejaban
Que, entre mil copas floridas
De los arboles, el solo
Sin pompa y sin bizaria
Era cadaver del prado."
There are several Dry-Tree stories among the wonders of Buddhism; one is that of a sacred tree visited by the Chinese pilgrims to India, which had grown from the twig which Sakya, in Hindu fashion, had used as a tooth-brush; and I think there is a like story in our own country of the Glastonbury Thorn having grown from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea.
["St Francis' Church is a large pile, neere which, yet a little without the Citty, growes a tree which they report in their legend grew from the Saint's Staff, which on going to sleepe he fixed in the ground, and at his waking found it had grown a large tree. They affirm that the wood of its decoction cures sundry diseases." (Evelyn's Diary, October, 1644.)--H. C.]
In the usual form of the mediaeval legend, Adam, drawing near his end, sends Seth to the gate of Paradise, to seek the promised Oil of Mercy. The Angel allows Seth to put his head in at the gate. Doing so (as an old English version gives it)--
--"he saw a fair Well,
Of whom all the waters on earth cometh, as the Book us doth tell;
Over the Well stood a Tree, with bowes broad and lere
Ac it ne bare leaf ne rind, but as it for-olded were;
A nadder it had beclipt about, all naked withouten skin,
That was the Tree and the Nadder that first made Adam do sin!"
"Les larmes qui de lui issoient
Contreval l'Arbre en avaloient;
Adonc regarda l'enfant Seth
Tout contreval de L'ARBRE SECQ;
Les rachines qui le tenoient
Jusques en Enfer s'en aloient,
Les larmes qui de lui issirent
Jusques dedans Enfer cheirent."
The Angel gives Seth three kernels from the fruit of the Tree. Seth returns home and finds his father dead. He buries him in the valley of Hebron, and places the three grains under his tongue. A triple shoot springs up of Cedar, Cypress, and Pine, symbolising the three Persons of the Trinity. The three eventually unite into one stem, and this tree survives in various forms, and through various adventures in connection with the Scripture History, till it is found at the bottom of the Pool of Bethesda, to which it had imparted healing Virtue, and is taken thence to form the Cross on which Our Lord suffered.
The English version quoted above is from a MS. of the 14th century in the Bodleian, published by Dr. Morris in his collection of Legends of the Holy Rood. I have modernised the spelling of the lines quoted, without altering the words. The French citation is from a MS. in the Vienna Library, from which extracts are given by Sign. Adolfo Mussafia in his curious and learned tract (Sulla Legenda del Legno della Croce, Vienna, 1870), which gives a full account of the fundamental legend and its numerous variations. The examination of these two works, particularly Sign. Mussafia's, gives an astonishing impression of the copiousness with which such Christian Mythology, as it may fairly be called, was diffused and multiplied. There are in the paper referred to notices of between fifty and sixty different works (not MSS. or copies of works merely) containing this legend in various European languages.
(Santarem, III. 380, II. 348; Ouseley, I. 359 seqq. and 391; Herodotus, VII. 31; Pliny, XII. 5; Chardin, VII. 410, VIII. 44 and 426; Fabricius, Vet. Test. Pseud. I. 80 seqq.; Cathay, p. 365; Beal's Fah-Hian, 72 and 78; Pelerins Bouddhistes, II. 292; Della Valle, II. 276-277.)
He who injured the holy tree of Bostam, we are told, perished the same day: a general belief in regard to those Trees of Grace, of which we have already seen instances in regard to the sacred trees of Zoroaster and the Oak of Hebron. We find the same belief in Eastern Africa, where certain trees, regarded by the natives with superstitious reverence, which they express by driving in votive nails and suspending rags, are known to the European residents by the vulgar name of Devil Trees. Burton relates a case of the verification of the superstition in the death of an English merchant who had cut down such a tree, and of four members of his household. It is the old story which Ovid tells; and the tree which Erisichthon felled was a Dirakht-i-Fazl:
"Vittae mediam, memoresque tabellae
Sertaque cingebant, voti argumenta potentis."
(Metamorph. VIII. 744.)
Though the coincidence with our text of Hamd Allah's Dry Tree is very striking, I am not prepared to lay stress on it as an argument for the geographical determination of Marco's Arbre Sec. His use of the title more than once to characterise the whole frontier of Khorasan can hardly have been a mere whim of his own: and possibly some explanation of that circumstance will yet be elicited from the Persian historians or geographers of the Mongol era.
Meanwhile it is in the vicinity of Bostam or Damghan that I should incline to place this landmark. If no one very cogent reason points to this, a variety of minor ones do so; such as the direction of the traveller's journey from Kerman through Kuh Banan; the apparent vicinity of a great Ismailite fortress, as will be noticed in the next chapter; the connection twice indicated (see Prologue, ch. xviii. note 6, and Bk. IV. ch. v.) of the Arbre Sec with the headquarters of Ghazan Khan in watching the great passes, of which the principal ones debouche at Bostam, at which place also buildings erected by Ghazan still exist; and the statement that the decisive battle between Alexander and Darius was placed there by local tradition. For though no such battle took place in that region, we know that Darius was murdered near Hecatompylos. Some place this city west of Bostam, near Damghan; others east of it, about Jah Jerm; Ferrier has strongly argued for the vicinity of Bostam itself. Firdusi indeed places the final battle on the confines of Kerman, and the death of Darius within that province. But this could not have been the tradition Polo met with.
I may add that the temperate climate of Bostam is noticed in words almost identical with Polo's by both Fraser and Ferrier.
The Chinar abounds in Khorasan (as far as any tree can be said to abound in Persia), and even in the Oases of Tun-o-Kain wherever there is water. Travellers quoted by Ritter notice Chinars of great size and age at Shahrud, near Bostam, at Meyomid, and at Mehr, west of Sabzawar, which last are said to date from the time of Naoshirwan (7th century). There is a town to the N.W. of Meshid called Chinaran, "The Planes." P. Della Valle, we may note, calls Tehran "la citta dei platani."
The following note by De Sacy regarding the Chinar has already been quoted by Marsden, and though it may be doubtful whether the term Arbre Sec had any relation to the idea expressed, it seems to me too interesting to be omitted: "Its sterility seems to have become proverbial among certain people of the East. For in a collection of sundry moral sentences pertaining to the Sabaeans or Christians of St. John ... we find the following: 'The vainglorious man is like a showy Plane Tree, rich in boughs but producing nothing, and affording no fruit to its owner.'" The same reproach of sterility is cast at the Plane by Ovid's Walnut:--
"At postquam platanis, sterilem praebentibus umbram,
Uberior quavis arbore venit honos;
Nos quoque fructiferae, si nux modo ponor in illis,
Coepimus in patulas luxuriare comas." (Nux, 17-20.)
I conclude with another passage from Khanikoff, though put forward in special illustration of what I believe to be a mistaken reading (Arbre Seul): "Where the Chinar is of spontaneous growth, or occupies the centre of a vast and naked plain, this tree is even in our own day invested with a quite exceptional veneration, and the locality often comes to be called 'The Place of the Solitary Tree.'" (J. R. G. S. XXIX. 345; Ferrier, 69-76; Fraser, 343; Ritter, VIII. 332, XI. 512 seqq.; Della Valle, I. 703; De Sacy's Abdallatif, p. 81; Khanikoff, Not. p. 38.)
[See in Fr. Zarncke, Der Priester Johannes, II., in the chap. Der Baum des Seth, pp. 127-128, from MS. (14th century) from Cambridge, this curious passage (p. 128): "Tandem rogaverunt eum, ut arborem siccam, de qua multum saepe loqui audierant, liceret videre. Quibus dicebat: 'Non est appellata arbor sicca recto nomine, sed arbor Seth, quoniam Seth, filius Adae, primi patris nostri, eam plantavit.' Et ad arborem Seth fecit eos ducere, prohibens eos, ne arborem transmearent, sed [si?] ad patriam suam redire desiderarent. Et cum appropinquassent, de pulcritudine arboris mirati sunt; erat enim magnae immensitatis et miri decoris. Omnium enim colorum varietas inerat arbori, condensitas foliorum et fructuum diversorum; diversitas avium omnium, quae sub coelo sunt. Folia vero invicem se repercutientia dulcissimae melodiae modulamine resonabant, et aves amoenos cantus ultra quam credi potest promebant; et odor suavissimus profudit eos, ita quod paradisi amoenitate fuisse. Et cum admirantes tantam pulcritudinem aspicerent, unus sociorum aliquo eorum maior aetate, cogitans [cogitavit?] intra se, quod senior esset et, si inde rediret, cito aliquo casu mori posset. Et cum haec secum cogitasset, coepit arborem transire, et cum transisset, advocans socios, iussit eos post se ad locum amoenissimum, quem ante se videbat plenum deliciis sibi paratum [paratis?] festinare. At illi retrogressi sunt ad regem, scilicet presbiterum Iohannem. Quos donis amplis ditavit, et qui cum eo morari voluerunt libenter et honorifice detinuit. Alii vero ad patriam reversi sunt."--In common with Marsden and Yule, I have no doubt that the Arbre Sec is the Chinar. Odoric places it at Tabriz and I have given a very lengthy dissertation on the subject in my edition of this traveller (pp. 21-29), to which I must refer the reader, to avoid increasing unnecessarily the size of the present publication.--H. C.]