Ask Language Log: The Dry / Solitary Tree

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From Adrienne Mayor:

I am writing about The Dry Tree or Solitary Tree, associated with Alexander the Great in medieval Alexander Romance and in Marco Polo, who located it in Khorasan.

Later, the Bavarian explorer Johannes Schiltberger trekked across Khorasan in about 1405-25 and reported that the Muslims called the tree “Kurrutherek” or “Sirpe,” meanings unknown.

Do the words ring any bells for you?

Could they be transliterated from Persian, Arabic, Turkic, perhaps phonetically?

In the melting pot of Central Asia, it is often difficult to tell which way the loans are flowing.  Who borrowed from whom?


Selected readings



  1. Chris Straughn said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 5:05 pm

    A Turkic origin works here for "Kurrutherek" – quru(q) (depending on the variety – Uzbek and Uyghur retain the final /q/) meaning "dry", and terek meaning "tree". Despite the similarity between Turkic terek (which may have originally meant "poplar", and could still mean so here) and Iranian daraxt "tree", there is no feasible way to relate the two terms.

  2. martin schwartz said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 7:14 pm

    Schiltberger's "sirbe" could reprsent Persian sarv-e [særv-e]
    'the cypress of …'. Some cypress trees have folklore associating them with Zoroaster, e.g in the Shah-nameh, the Sarv-e Kashmarbalkh (Balkh 'Bactria'?), and still growing in Yazd Province
    the Sarv-e Abarkuh. NB Khurasan/Khorasan is a prvince of Iran,
    but can also archaistically be used for 'the East, e.g. in a speech of
    bin Laden, he used "Khorasan " to refer to Afghanistan.

  3. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 7:55 pm

    Sirpe sounds as the Ferula type plant (σίρφι/sírphi) but this is not a tree…(
    Many Central Asian natural places are still venerated by the locals in the memory of Alexander the Great as the Iskanderkul Lake of Tajikistan or the “Tomb of Alexander” in a Badakhshan Mountains Peak.

    In front of the library of Lausanne University, there is the “Marble bench of Napoleon” under a large lime-tree, where he supposedly had seated and thought about his conquests…and I always had a special thought when sitting on it watching the Leman Lake.

  4. Martrin Schwartz said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 10:41 pm

    @Lucas Christopoulos, NB Adrienne Mayor: Lucas' remark made me aware that in my haste earlier I midread/misremembered Schiltberger's "sirpe" as "sirbe", and now think an origin in Pers.
    [særv-e] is a more of a stretch. I also clarify that we can't be sure
    what Marco Polo meant by "Khorasan", as I implied. But Lucas'
    "sírfi " raises my curiosity. It woud show the Mod. Gr. change seen
    in a∂erfós < a∂elfós 'brother', írTHa < ílTHa "I came', and, in my opinion, mastoura [mastúra] 'high from smoking hemp' < Arab.
    mas†ūl 'id.' < 'blind' (see online in SOAS Rebetiko Reader RN, my
    29th article). Now the famed ancient Libyan plant sílphion,
    Lat.sirpe, famously disappeared in Roman times, tho, amidst other
    claims, a Turkish botanist, Mahmut Miski, thinks he found it still
    growing in Anatolia–a matter which I think will interest Dr Mayor.
    So, what is the Modern Greek plant sírfi ? My guess, based on the history of the plant-name, is that it's laserwort, Laserpitium latifolium, which does grow in the Balkans. Less likely asa fetida
    or some kind of fennel, but I don't know for sure, and as Dr Christopoulos says, the matter is irrelevant for Schiltberger's
    Khorasanian tree "sirpe".

  5. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 11:42 pm

    Here on the sirphi-selphion brought by Alexander in the East

  6. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    November 11, 2023 @ 1:42 am

    a Plane-tree.
    Alexander The Great And The Prophecy Of The Tree Of The Sun:

    An ancient Persian legend tells that while marching toward India, Alexander the Great encountered two trees, and at this place, he was told a prophecy that was later fulfilled.

    "Alexander came to a famous Plane tree which grew near Damghan, standing alone and solitary on a vast and arid tableland. This tree had a double trunk, one trunk being male and the other female. The former spoke during the day, and the latter during the night. Alexander, taking counsel with these mystic Plane trees, was warned in a boding voice that he would die while yet in his prime and that others would reap the fruits of his victories," Alexander Porteous wrote in The Forest in Folklore and Mythology."

  7. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    November 11, 2023 @ 5:50 am

    See Pelliot, Notes on Marco Polo, Vol. II, pp. 627-637 (no. 212 DRY (LONE) TREE). It's too long to summarize here. The volume is unfortunately unavailable at the Pelliot Archive in Monumenta Altaica (

  8. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    November 11, 2023 @ 8:38 am

    The earlier story of the Moon & Sun prophetic tree is in the Greek version of the "Epistola Alexandri ad Aristotelem"

    In Persia it is in the Ferdowsi (فردوسی), Shahnameh Timurid (977-1010 AD).

  9. Robert Coren said,

    November 11, 2023 @ 11:31 am

    @Lucas Christopoulos: It might be argued that, Alexander's successors, rather than "reaping the fruits of his victories", frittered them away in internecine wars. (At least that's the impression I get from reading Mary Renault.)

  10. David Marjanović said,

    November 11, 2023 @ 11:52 am

    "Explorer"… Schiltberger was sent to fight against the Ottoman sultan Bayazit, captured, sent to fight against Tamerlane, captured again, somehow rose in Tamerlan's service and was sent to places all over the empire. Eventually he somehow made it home and wrote a book.

  11. Adrienne Mayor said,

    November 11, 2023 @ 6:05 pm

    Thank you all so much for these valuable comments, linguisitic knowledge, and references. I was able to find Pelliot's notes on Marco Polo vol 2, # 212 on the Dry Tree. I'm most grateful for your sharing your expertise with me, and will acknowledge your help in my book "Mythopedia" forthcoming, Princeton U Press.

  12. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    November 11, 2023 @ 6:19 pm

    From Pelliot's above book, p. 634:

    But the agreement of the Pseudo-Odoric with many of the Mss. of Maundevile establishes that the true «Saracen» form of the name of the tree actually is dirp, not «sirpe». REINAUD and Francisque MICHEL, starting from dirp, have thought of Arabic دُلبdulb, «plane», and this would be quite satisfactory, if it were not for the indication of the «oak». Curiously enough, Schiltberger (LANGMANTEL ed., 72) has copied Maundevile's whole paragraph. He used the text which gave the wrong reading sirpe, hence (p. 189) FALLMERAYER's natural, but here mistaken, derivation from Persian särw > Osm. Turk särvi, «cypress».

  13. TR said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 3:41 pm

    A Dry Tree plays an important part in William Morris's fantasy novel The Well at the World's End, where it's the final landmark before the eponymous well. I never realized it had a real-world origin.

  14. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 5:53 pm

    The story also inspired J. R. R. Tolkien with the Two Trees of Valinor. Their last flower and fruit are made into the Moon and the Sun.

  15. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 11:01 pm

    Pelliot's Notes on Marco Polo, Vol. II can be viewed here:

  16. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 11:08 pm

    To go to the English menu click on the tab on the upper right.

  17. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 11:14 pm

    And you can download the page image in PDF by clicking on the PDF tab.

  18. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    November 13, 2023 @ 11:15 pm

    Here the tree on a mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii (120-100 BC) representing the battle between Alexander the Great and Darius III. (Copy from an Hellenistic painting 4th-3rd c. BC)

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