African acacia is a wonderfully dense and durable hardwood species that can add not only a historical richness but also a beautiful flooring look to our homes.
It’s like a scene right out of an Indiana Jones movie. But I’ll get to that part in just a moment.
One of the oldest and most sacred of trees in all of human history, acacia wood has been bound in mystery for millennia. The challenge is that, in addition to the social and religious meaning that we’ve given to it, the wood that we generally know as acacia consists of over 1300 different species. Yes. That many.
So for right now, I’d like to talk about the original acacia, the one that has spurred on generations of stories: African acacia. Owing to a massive reorganization of the Acacia genus in 2013, it’s now part of the Vachellia genus instead. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an amazing tree in its own right. In fact, I’d like to believe that it’s the best of the bunch. African acacia, as it is still commonly known, is at the heart of Bible stories, secret society gatherings, and is the protector of more than a few endangered species in Africa. Let’s dig in and find out more about this tree of mystery and reverence, and discover how it has inspired human history for thousands of years.
African Acacia stats
Latin name: Vachellia seyal (Shittim) or Vachellia erioloba (Camelthorn)
Janka Hardness rating: 1150 (Shittim) and 3680 (Camelthorn)
Common color spectrum: Medium to dark brown
Stability: Good (low-shrinkage)
Oh right, something about Indiana Jones
The African acacia tree may be best known as the wood from which the biblical Ark of the Covenant was constructed. This is the container, as described in the Book of Exodus in the Pentateuch, or Old Testament, constructed to house the stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. The movement of the ark caused the waters of the Jordan River to part, and the book of Exodus states that all Israel passed through the Jordan untouched, until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.
The ark was carried by priests and protected by a huge army on its way to Jericho, but, as Exodus warns, the soldiers protecting the ark needed to keep a distance of about a thousand yards away from it, such was its power and force. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Nazis didn’t quite follow that line of reasoning, and, well, as some of you may already know, Indiana Jones was able to right some wrongs as a result.
So, what’s my point in relating this story to you? The wood of the acacia tree, specifically the unfortunately-named Shittim (Vachellia seyal) species, was the only wood that was considered to be safe enough in which to transport the Covenant. Even before we knew about Janka Hardness Ratings, this tree was seen as very strong and durable, which meant that it was thought to be able to safely protect the Ten Commandments.
Thorns and all
Another aspect of this wood, however, and perhaps the reason it was chosen for the Ark, was the symbolic value of its thorns. The African acacia tree is filled with large spiky thorns that act to protect the wood from predators. Although it has seeds and pods that camels and giraffes can carefully grasp with their long tongues, the acacia also helps to protect monkeys from their own predators. Monkeys can secure themselves high up in the branches, and large cats and hyenas and other African carnivores can’t reach them without risking grievous harm.
The symbolic value of the thorns of the African acacia tree, therefore, is that the wood acts as a barrier to all that come upon it. Its thorns are so incredibly huge that anyone who risks coming near the tree also risks a severe bloodletting. Ancient societies may have therefore perceived acacia wood as infused with protective power.
Ancient societies to secret societies
African acacia became known for its social and religious value as the perception of its protective power spread over the centuries. For example, the acacia tree was adopted as part of symbolic rituals for secret societies, such as the Knights Templar, based on its use as the material for the Ark.
Tomes on the rituals of the Templars suggest that a branch of acacia is needed for the society’s indoctrination ceremonies, in which new members are invited into their ranks. This branch is placed in the middle of a carpet along with a coffin, a skull, a sparkling stone, and candles, and is tapped ‘three times twenty-seven strokes’ in order to release its power.
We don’t really need to resort to a heady, secret ritual to understand what acacia can do for us in the present day. It’s still a wonderfully dense and durable wood that can add not only a historical richness but also a beautiful hardwood flooring look to our homes. African acacia can be found in many natural and engineered floors, and can be a fantastic addition to your living room or kitchen.
Sparkling stones, candles, thorns, and skulls are not required. But you may want to throw on that Indiana Jones movie, just for fun.