The Flowers of Ancient Egypt and Today

The Flowers of Ancient Egypt and Today

by Jane Howard

The Flower of the Blue Egyptian Water Lilly (Nymphaea Coerulea)

One aspect of Egypt that many first time visitors often find surprising, if they are attentive, is the number of flower shops scattered about. Many people who are not really very familiar with Egypt continue to think of it as a completely arid environment when, of course, the Nile Valley is very lush. In fact, Egypt exports many varieties of flowers these days, and Egyptians back into ancient times have always adored their flowers.

Indeed, Pharaohs once adorned their war carts with flowers before heading off to war, while even peasants adorned themselves, their animals as well as the coffins of their dead with various flowers. They were given as gifts of love and worship, to lovers and gods.

According to old myths, it was said that the ancient Egyptians used to sing for the lotus in their parties. Moreover, they used to set a day to be the feast of lotus. During this feast, every one was supposed to hold a silver pot, shaped like a lotus with a burning candle in its middle. Then, everyone was supposed to head for the Nile, with the pot in his hand and an overwhelming dream in his heart. According to the old myth, it was believed that if the burning candle continued floating on the surface of water, the dream would come true.

A flowering Papyrus plant

Ancient Egypt was perhaps the first country to recognize "national" plants. Specifically, these were the Lotus (water lily) and Papyrus, symbolizing Upper and Lower Egypt, respectively. However, to the ancient Egyptians, flowers were an important aspect of daily life. They adored fresh floral arrangements, but were also one of, if not the first civilizations to immortalize them as artificial flowers made from durable materials. Until the beginning of the New Kingdom, only the blossom of the water lily and the papyrus head appear to have played a role as models for rosette shapes. Infrequently, the chrysanthemum or chamomile served the same purpose. As a part of the natural vegetation of the Nile Valley, these plants flourish unaided and could be collected as required. However, the Egyptians also planted water lilies in manmade pools.

The Blue Egyptian Water Lilly (Nymphaea Coerulea)

There were actually two types of water lilies that grew in the Nile, usually in its shallow branches and in the canals. One was the blue lotus (Nymphaea coerulea) and the other was the white lotus (Nymphaea lotus). Other than color, these two plants differ from each other in several other attributes. The blue lotus has pointed flowers and floating leaves with smooth edges, while the white lotus has rounded petals and leaves with toothed edges. The blue lotus also has more of an intense fragrance. Though the Egyptians differentiated between the two varieties of water lilies in representations, so far only one Egyptian term, ssn, has been identified for these plants.

Water lilies open in the morning and close again at night. This was probably the reason that the ancient Egyptians saw in them an image of rebirth and regeneration, important concepts in their religion. Thus, the flowers were used to symbolize the deceased as he entered into the underworld and also his rebirth to a new life. One must also note their association with the sun god Re. Ancient artists depicted the youthful morning sun, in the form of the god Nefertem, emerging from a lotus flower. Also, the Egyptians believed that the intense scent of flowers indicated the presence of a god, so in many tomb scenes, the deceased is shown with a lotus flower held to his nose in order to breath in the divine perfume. At festivals, women frequently adorned their hair with lotus flowers and on some special occasions, men did as well.

A modern day papyrus thicket in Egypt

The lotus and papyrus plants both symbolized the primeval waters of Nun, from which the Egyptians believed life began. During the pharaonic period, the papyrus (cyperus papyrus) grew in thickets with considerable fauna along the Nile. To the Egyptians, the papyrus became the symbol of fertility and life itself. Therefore, the theme of papyrus stalks with their sweeping flower umbels was the most commonly used plant decoration used in stylized architecture and many other objects. During the Old Kingdom, fresh papyrus stalks with flower heads were a part of the offerings that the deceased took to the grave. They helped assure life in the hereafter. Frequently, the papyrus stalks were entwined with lotus flowers, and these ensembles became the forerunners of the bouquets so often used in New Kingdom art.

From the earliest of times, the papyrus plant was the symbol of Lower Egypt, as evidenced by its use on the Narmer Palette that dates to the very beginning of the Dynastic Period or the end of the Predynastic Period. When intertwined with the plant emblem of Upper Egypt, the so-called "southern lily", the two symbolize the unification of the two lands. The botanical original of the southern plant has not yet been found. Obviously, one of its most enduring uses was as a writing medium, but it had much more significance than that.

The cornflower (Centaurea depressa)

Throughout the Pharaonic Period, the papyrus and lotus flowers maintained their dominant position as symbolic plants in Egypt. However, during the New Kingdom, it is known from representations that the Egyptians began planting a series of newly imported flowers alongside indigenous pants in the gardens of their houses and temples. Many of these new plants required intensive care, and above all, considerable water. Therefore, New Kingdom tomb paintings of gardens depict flowers being watered with the help of a shaduf. Such scenes from el-Amarna adorn not only the walls but even the floors of buildings, and provide us with information about the new flower types. We see, for example cornflower (Centaurea depressa) and the red poppy (Papaver rhoeas), both imported from Asia Minor or the Palestine region. These plants found acceptance in Egypt, but plants found depicted in the "Botantical Garden" of Tuthmosis III in the Temple of Amun at Karnak in ancient Thebes (modern Luxor) apparently did not fair as well. There foreign flowers such as arum (Arum italicum), dragonwort (Dracunculus vulgaris) and a type of iris (possibly Iris albicans) are depicted. However, they did not appear in other garden scenes, and may never have been imported to Egypt, representing instead specimens collecte during the king's foreign expeditions.

The red poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

It became fashionable during the 18th Dynasty to wear large collars of faience, the individual pieces of which were usually made in the form of flowers, leaves or fruits. In these, we can recognize the blooms of the cornflower, a type of chamomile, the white and the blue lotus, green leaf elements and yellow fruits. Collars of the same type, but made with fresh flowers, are evidenced at banquet from Tomb paintings. In these, servant girls can be seen tying the floral decorations around the necks of guests. The "Overseer of the garden of the Ramesseum", and individual by the name of Nedjemger who lived during the 19th Dynasty at Thebes, is depicted in his tomb inspecting the manufacture of floral collars from fresh plant material. These were probably mass produced, and though very rare, a very few such collars have survived into our time. In the ruins of a house at el-Amarna, a single specimen was found. At least six additional collars were also buried together in a pit outside the tomb of Tutankhamun with some remains from his funerary banquet and various embalming material from his burial. Three of those collars have also survived. Though the depictions of such collars are usually too schematically drawn to provide much information, from the remains of actual collars we can see how they were produced.

The Egyptian willow (Salix subserrata)

To make the collars, a piece of papyrus was cut into the shape of a collar and this served as the base. It was trimmed around the throat edge with linen, which also allowed it to be tied about the neck. Then, using thin strips of a palm leaf, the individual pieces of plant material were sewn onto the papyrus in rows, one above the other. The green leaves of the persea (Mimusops laurifolia), the olive tree (Olea europaea), the Egyptian willow (Salix subserrata), the pomegrnate (Punica granatum) and presumably the wild celery (Apium graveolens) were all used, along with the colorful flower heads or petals of the cornflower (Centaurea depressa), the bitterweed (Picris asplenioides), the blue lotus (Nymphaea coerulea). These arrangements were then adorned with red berries from the indigenous withania nightshade (Withania somnifera) and blue, disk-shaped faience beads.

The practice of providing the mummy of the deceased with a fresh garland of flowers developed at the beginning of the New Kingdom. Unfortunately, the floral collar found on the mummy of Tutankhamun is the only extant example of these. However, from that collar, we can surmise that the method of manufacture and the plant material incorporated within the collar is very similar to those used at banquets. It rested on the chest area of the innermost of his three coffins. Otherwise, the Egyptians also used special mummy garlands, which were made in flat strips and attached to the mummy's body in concentric semicircles. These were manufactured very simply. Green leaves were folded over strips of a palm leaf and then sewn together with thin strips of palm leaf. Colorful flower petals, or the entire flower itself on long stems were then inserted in with the leaves. Here as well, the same types of flowers were used as in the collars. However, we can also identify a few other plants in the arrangements, including the indigenous Nile acacia (Acacia nilotica), the white acacia (Acacia albida), the sesban (Sesbania sesban), the hairy willow herb (Epilobium hirsutum) and the chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium). Some other flowers that were sometimes included were imported from Asia Minor or Palestine, and include the hollyhock (Alcea ficifolia), delphinium (Delphinium orientale) and the safflower (Carthamus tinctorius). The red petals of the safflower also provided the ancient Egyptians with a red dye for linen, and from its seed they extracted a fine, edible oil. Beginning in the 20th Dynasty, mummy garlands also included the very fragrant flowers of the henna bush (Lawsonia inermis), which originally came from the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean and East Africa. At times, mummy garlands could also be made only of fragrant leaves, such as the mint (mentha sp.), wild celery (Apium graveolens) or dill (Anethum graveolens). When finished the mummy garlands were either laid on the mummy once it had been wrapped, or on the coffin.

The hollyhock (Alcea ficifolia)

A very few mummies have been found with wreath-shaped arrangements on their heads. For example the remains of a few leafs were found in the hair of Amenhotep II, and a small floral garland once hung around the royal insignia on the brows of the first and second coffins of Tutankhamun. In fact, some of the later Books of the Dead (Books of Going Fourth by Day) present, for the first time, a round floral wreath as the symbol of successfully withstanding the Tribunal of the Dead before Osiris.

Other plants were also used in the funerary process. For example, bulb leaves from a Crinum variety, which is not indigenous to Egypt, were used to cover the eyes, nose, mouth and mummification incisions of one mummy. The remains of narcissus bulbs (Narcissus tazetta) were found on the neck of Ramesses II, and on the chest of a female mummy, the bulbs of a type of lily were discovered.

The Egyptian not only adorned the dead with floral wreaths, but in many cases, also some of the funerary equipment. For example, the statuette of the deceased in the 18th Dynasty tomb of Kha, as well as divine statuettes and even jugs that contained food and drink in the Tomb of Tutankhamun were provided with such floral arrangements.

The rose (Rosa richardii)

During the Greco-Roman Periods, mummies continued o be provided with floral decorations, though these were usually made in a new way and frequently used more imported plants. In these, individual flowers, petals, stamens or twigs were bound together into small bunches and joined together into compact wreaths. New flower types included the rose (Rosa richardii), the Indian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), immortelle (Helichrysum stoechas), lychnis (Lychnis coelirosa), jasmine (Jasminum sambac) and the little marjoram bush (Marjorana hortensis). Sometimes, artificial flowers made of copper leaf or colored wool were also added to the arrangement. The base for these wreaths was very frequently pieces of decorated stalks of the sedge Scirpus inclinatus.

Flowers were not only used to adorn the mummies of ancient Egypt. For example, they were also used for large floral bouquets, or occasionally wreaths made in the shape of an ankh sign which were popular offerings to the gods. These might be carried in the burial procession and placed near the mummy when it was stood upright in front of the tomb entrance. There the deceased would be given the last rites before internment. These arrangements were made with a central section consisting of a few papyrus stems with large flower umbels. Onto these, the same flowers, leaves and fruits used in the collars and mummy wreaths were attached in circles, one above the other. In a few instances, the entire wreath still has a convolvulus (Convolvulus arvensis) vine wrapped around it, or there might be cos lettuce stalks worked in.

The melilot (Melilotus indica)

In a few graves, pole bouquets have been found, notably in those of Tutankhamun, Sennefer, Sennedjem and Kha. However, in each of these, the arrangements consist of completely different material than those shown in the representations. They only contain the greet leafy branches of the persea and the olive tree, some vine leaves and the leafy stems of the melilot (Melilotus indica). We have no firm explanation for the differences between representations and these actual finds.

Obviously, flowers which were literally called "garden scents" were also made into perfume, but especially during the New Kingdom, they took on a notable economic importance. For example, the Papyrus Harris I refers to a large number of readymade, bound bouquets in its list of offerings for the god Amun, as well as strings of blue flowers. These were probably made so that common Egyptians could purchase them to use as offerings and there seems to have been considerable trade in such items.

Then as now, flowers continue to be important economically in Egypt. Flowers continue to be, perhaps, a little more special to the Egyptians than to others. They prefer flowers with bright colors such as red, white, orange and pink, to be used in weddings and birthday parties.

However, Egyptian flowers have also become a relatively important trade item. Various types of flowers and plants are exported, particularly to Europe, amounting to well over 600 tons per year.

The Botanical Island at Aswan in Egypt

However, for those visiting Egypt, there are a number of locations that one may find a wide variety of flowers. One of the best known and frequently visited sites is the Botanical Island at Aswan, notable for its remarkable history and outstanding beauty. This Island also serves as a research center, and offers various kings of equatorial and semi-equatorial plants, as well as trees.

In Nasr City, not so very far from the International airport, the International Park is considered one of the most significant of its kind and is certified by the International Horticulture Organization. It presents the flora of eight countries, including Romania, Greece, France, Germany, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

The Egyptian Agricultural Museum in Cairo ranks high among flower museums all over the world. It houses one of the most outstanding collection of flowers of its kind. The Museum features the history of flowers. In view of its undeniable significance, due attention is being paid to the museum, thus attracting a large number of Egyptian and foreign visitors.

So today, flowers remain important to the Egyptians as they were to their ancestors of five millennium past. One need not visit any of the specialized parks or museums to see this, for sometimes it seems flower stores dot every corner of the land.






Reference Number

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir


Les Livres De France

None Stated

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul/


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Life of the Ancient Egyptian

Strouhal, Eugen


University of Oklahoma Press

ISBN 0-8061-2475-x

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2