The Gardens and Ponds of Ancient Egypt

The Gardens and Ponds of Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

The Gardens and Ponds of Ancient Egypt

One really hears very little about gardens, and yet, they were an essential element to the ancient Egyptian people Those who could afford to do so laid out gardens in front of both their houses and tomb chapels. The gods were even thought to enjoy gardens and so most every temple was surrounded by lush greenery. Gardens seem to have been particularly important during the New Kingdom. It should also be noted that certain types of gardens had religious symbolism.

We know that gardens often consisted of both trees and other plants. Popular trees included the sycamore fig, pomegranate, nut trees and jujube. However, willows, acacia and tamarisk were also found. In all, there were about eighteen varieties of trees grown by the Egyptians. Flowers were also abundant, and included daisies, cornflowers, mandrakes, roses, irises, myrtle, jasmine, mignonettes, convolvulus, celosia, narcissus, ivy, lychnis, sweet marjoram, henna, bay laurel, small yellow chrysanthemums and poppies. Of course, there were also papyrus, lotus and grapes.

Gardens were not simply for pleasant environs to the Ancient Egyptians. There were many symbolisms associated with trees, including to specific gods such as Osiris, Nut, Isis and Hathor. They also had creation overtones, as well as funerary. The Papyrus and Lotus plants were symbolic of the two regions of Lower and Upper Egypt (respectively). Of course, gardens also provided food including vegetables and wine, and in the final analysis, we might know much less about ancient Egypt if it were not for the papyrus paper used through most of Egyptian history.

A representation of a garden in the tomb of Kenamun

Regrettably, we know of very few depictions of gardens that surround normal houses, but several literary descriptions of a country estate mention the lush cultivated grounds around a villa of the New Kingdom. One owner, who obviously enjoyed his garden tells us that, "You sit in their shades and eat their fruit. Wreaths are made for you of their twigs, and you are drunken with their wines." There were even models of gardens made and placed within tombs.

There is much more evidence concerning gardens that surround tomb chapels and mortuary temples. One description is provided by King Ahmose, who speaks of the pyramid and tomb chapel he planned to make for his grandmother Queen Tetisheri: "It's lake shall be dug, it's trees shall be planted". In many funerary texts, the deceased also talks about walking under the trees of his garden and drinking the water of it's lake. Queen Hatshepsut relates on the walls of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari how she complied with the wish of the god Amun-Re, her father, to have a grove of myrrh trees "for ointment for the divine limbs", and she goes on to say:

The plan of Kenamun's garden

"I have hearkened to my father...commanding me to establish for him a Punt in his house, to plant the trees of God's Land beside his temple, in his garden, according as he commanded. It was done, in order to endow the offerings which I owed...I have made for him a Punt in his garden, just as he commanded me, for Thebes. It is large for him, he walks aboard in it".

The Egyptologist, Breasted, thought that these trees could have been planted on the terraces of Deir el- Bahari itself, and he must have been correct for today we can even now see their remains in our approach to that temple, but it is possible that they could have also been planted near the Temple of Amun at Karnak. We also know that there existed such a garden about the later mortuary temple of Ramesses II at Abydos, for we are told that "He planted many gardens, set with every (kind of) tree, all sweet and fragrant woods, the plants of Punt". Fragrant trees were perhaps an essential element of the pharaoh's funerary garden. Ramesses III describes the lake and garden in his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, when he says, "I dug a lake before it, flooded with Nun, planted trees and vegetation like the Delta". He goes on to say that, "It was surrounded with gardens and arbor-areas (perhaps nurseries for young trees), filled with fruit and flowers for the two serpent-goddesses".

The temples of the various gods were provided with gardens in decorative layouts, as a source for flowers, vegetables and even wine and olive oil, thus providing necessary ingredients for various rituals. In fact, texts are very definite as to this specific purpose. Wine and shedeh-liquor were presented together with vegetables and flowers as a daily offering to the gods, while olive oil was used "to light the flame" in the sanctuary.

That we now know of, the Temples of Amun were by far the most favored with gardens. The Papyrus Harris I contains records of the endowments and riches of the temples in the reign of Ramesses III. Gardens and land estates were constantly mentioned in their lists. One important estate in the Delta provisioned the Theban temples with wine and olive oil, and the shards of its wine jars were found in the magazines of the Ramesseum. Often the mention is of a generic nature, but some of the figures cast light upon the extensive properties of Amun. Of the total of 514 gardens and groves for Amun of Thebes, 64 for Re, to which two gardens and one grove of olive land were added as gifts, and five for Ptah. There have been calculations made from these lists that the real estate of Amun extended over one-tenth of the whole of Egypt, a figure that expresses a proportion similar to Amun's share in other domains of the economy. Of course, much of this was agricultural land as opposed to true gardens. Ramesses III more than once stated that he donated gardens "equipped" with "groves and arbors, containing date trees; lakes supplied with lotus flowers, papyrus flowers, isi flowers, the flowers of every land, dedmet flowers, myrrh, and sweet and fragrant woods for thy beautiful face". We are even told of the restoration of gardens by Ramesses III: "I made to grow the august grove, which was in its midst; I planted it with papyrus in the midst of the Delta marshes, (though) it has begun to decay formerly".

Flowers were grown in the forecourt of the temple of Re north of Heliopolis. Gardens were even planted for Amun in the southern and northern oases, manned "with gardeners from the captives of the countries". In fact, there is little doubt that the gardens that the Egyptians saw in Syria and mercilessly devastated during their military expeditions inspired some gardeners, just as Syrian buildings did their architects.

Private people have also left records concerning their gardens. We find texts that usually depict gardens on the walls of the tombs. It is often difficult to label these gardens as funerary or house gardens. Ineny, an architect who lived apparently during the reigns of Amenhotep I through Hatshepsut, describes his garden as being in the West, and his yearning "to walk in his garden of the West, cool under its sycamores, admire its grand and beautiful growths of trees, which he had made while he was on earth". The various trees in his garden amount to such large figures, including 90 sycamores, 31 perseas, 170 date palms, that it seems difficult to believe it was located in the desert of Western Thebes. Various scholars have proposed that it be regarded as a house garden which he wished to enjoy also in the West, but the location of so large a garden on the arable lands bordering the western bank could also be possible. The royal and private tomb chapels usually had some kind of landing portal near the water's edge. Funerary gardens of small size are known to have been grown in the courtyard of certain Theban private tombs, probably imitating the larger gardens of pharaohs Mentuhotep, Tuthmosis III and Queen Hatshepsut.

Irrigating with a shaduf device, from a tomb in Thebes

Houses, palaces, temples and chapels, whether funerary or private, when in the paintings of the tombs nearly always have a garden connected to the building. We even very often find a whole layout of an elaborate nature detailed, and thus an adequate picture of the various types of gardens during the New Kingdom can be reconstructed from this pictorial evidence. Until the end of the Middle Kingdom, gardens had to be watered from jars carried at the end of a pole slung on the shoulders of water carriers. The primitive counterpoised sweep for elevating water (Arabic shaduf), which is connected by Winlock with the invasion of the Hyksos, enabled a much easier irrigation of cultivated land.

House Gardens

Layout of his garden from the tomb of Rekhmire

Even in ancient Egypt, the value of land was almost prohibitive in the cities and we have today no real evidence of any gardens in these locations. Occasionally, a few trees were planted along the sides of the house (Tjoy), usually date palms alternating with another species, which can also be grown in brickwork containers (house from Tomb No. 254). In the harem of Pharaoh Ay, a large court surrounding the structure is planted with a row of trees in mud copings, and on the farthermost side a kiosk on columns supports a vine (tomb of Neferhotep).

Garden plan from a wealthy Egyptian estate, including doum palms

However, in the country where the land was much less expensive, the houses and palaces were set in a large garden surrounded by a wall. Numerous depictions in tombs show what might be considered to be the standard type of garden. Typically, a symmetrical layout was used with a rectangular or T-shaped pond in front of the house on the main longitudinal axis. This garden would then be surrounded by rows of trees of various species, possibly alternating in the same rows. It was not uncommon to find a pergola bordering the main alley along the axis or surrounding the pond. It should be noted that many times these ponds were stocked with fish, and at times included exotic examples. Fruit trees have their leaves or branches supported on the trelliswork of the pergolas. The shortest species of trees are planted nearest the pond, while the tallest, such as doum palms and date palms, are in the outside rows. This arrangement provided a graded perspective about the center of the garden. Sometimes, there was more than one pond. In the formal garden of the Temple of Amenhotep II and the attached house of its attendant Sennufer at Thebes as depicted in his Sennufer's tomb, the layout is symmetrical about an axis perpendicular to the river and running from the entrance along an alleyway flanked with two pergolas and leading to the small temple with three shrines. Each half of this garden, on either side of the alley, is divided transversely into three areas. The front section, which has a rectangular pond parallel to the river has water plants, and there is also date palms and sycamores. A second section in the middle area is enclosed within a wall and planted with light green trees that are perhaps a rare species. Finally, a rear section is the largest area and again has a rectangular pond bordered on one side by date palms and on the other by sycamores. Near this rear section is a small open kiosk of the type we find at Amarna. On either long side of the whole garden an enclosed path is planted with trees of alternating species, while tall trees form an effective screen at the back of the estate.

Trees and bushes from the tomb of Sennedjem at Deir el-Medina

Trees and bushes from the tomb of Sennedjem at Deir el-Medina

A formal layout is also followed in the large palace gardens. Usually the approach is symmetrical, usually with a pond on either side of the axis, bordered with rows of trees. At Amarna, where the ground is not arable, trees were planted in pits filled with humus and bordered with a round coping. At the rear of the various groups of buildings a large area is laid out as an independent garden around a square pound with sloping sides. In one of the pond's corners, a stairway descends to its bottom. A deeper basin opening in the bottom is probably filled with infiltration water. Interestingly, the distribution of the trees seems particularly informal and may have been another aspect of the Amarna trend toward freedom and naturalism in art.

Sacred Gardens

Gardens on processional approaches to pylons, or in front of the temple quay along the river, are also represented in tombs. In the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el- Bahari, a garden with four ponds, papyrus, flowers and vegetables is represented schematically. There were exotic trees that were brought from the new countries subdued during the New Kingdom and planted in the gardens of Amun. Such rare species are represented at Deir el-Bahari, Medinet Habu and Karnak, but the representations of these "botanical gardens", though fascinating due to their innumerable exotic species, do not offer any clue regarding their layout. Private chapels were erected by rich people in their gardens at Amarna or on the bank of a river or canal, and formed an important element in the layout, being situated at the crossing of two axes or at the end of the main axis. Often the chapel stands at the rear of the enclosed garden on a higher terrace, with a rectangular pond flanked by two rows of sycamore trees, or what seems to be two rows of tall jars surrounded by climbing growth. The formal layout of the Persian garden, where an artificial pond mirrored the glittering splendor of a rich facade beyond it, had already been carried out to perfection in Egypt, at least as early as the New Kingdom.

Funerary Gardens

Most of the depictions of funerary gardens are schematic in nature. They are usually reduced to a T-shaped basin shown in plan on a background of a few date palms. Here, the origin of the peculiar plan of the basin may be investigated. It is certain that the dead end of a canal, when shaped as a transverse rectangular basin, would facilitate the mooring and circulation of boats. On the other hand, the offering table for the presentation of funerary offerings often assumed the shape of a T-slab, in the middle of which is a deep basin. Whether there is any real relation between the funerary T-shaped pond and the offering table is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that even in the beginning of the New Kingdom, the T-shaped plan had a symbolic implication. There were two T-shaped ponds flanking the central alley at the bottom of the lower stairway in Hatshepsut's temple.

Scene from the Book of the Dead papyrus of Nakht showing him and his wife approaching Osiris and Ma'at in their garden

Scene from the Book of the Dead p[apyrus of Nakht showing him and his wife approaching Osiris and Ma'at in their garden

At Memphis, there are at least two paintings depicting a funerary ceremony where the mummy is conveyed by boat to a rectangular island in the middle of a rectangular pond. In one of these, the pond is bordered on three of its outer sides by a double row of funerary structures in the shape of light awnings containing a stand which alternate with date palms and trees planted in brickwork containers. A quay protrudes into the water from one small side of the pond, and in one painting it is accessible by a stairway. In this latter representation there is a quay that is set at both smaller ends of the island. This could be a symbolic representation of the Osireion at Abydos.

A perspective of a funerary garden after its representation in a Mumphite tomb

The location of the funerary garden has been the subject of controversy but it can be safely assumed that some kind of small garden was occasionally laid out in front of the tomb itself and that more often a larger garden was laid out below on the riverbank, and probably also near the portal of the tomb complex.

The Remains of Gardens

Obviously, the actual remains of gardens are very scarce indeed. This is not only a function of time, but also due to the fact that earlier excavators seldom cared to look for them, and thus ruined whatever evidence might remain. However, most of these gardens probably never outlasted the structures they were built about. Nevertheless, at the capital that Akhenaten built in the desert, and despite the destruction wrought by the avengers of Amun, there is sufficient traces left of gardens to provide material for study. Trees were planted in pits filled with black earth, and these are particularly recognizable. Gardens have been found in at least three of the royal palaces at Amarna. In both northern and southern wings of the Harem there is a garden and a tank bordered on two sides by a columned portico with a series of small cubicles. One of the gardens is sunk to a lower level than the surrounding ground and forms the main element in the architectural layout of the northern harem, which is located on the north side of the large columned portico and the main hall. There is a garden adjacent to the women's quarters in the depictions of the palace from the tombs. In the King's palace, a large garden forms the central element, laid out symmetrically about a north-south alley, leading from a north entrance pylon and accessible from the bridge and from a gateway on the Royal Road. It is surrounded on three sides by the buildings of the servants, the royal living quarters and the magazines. On it's western side there are two lower terraces, one having an arbor with a roof, and probably a "chamber-of-trees" similar to the one mentioned by texts.

A depiction of a garden and pond that contains fish

Here again the garden is located on the north side of the main hall of the living quarters probably to allow the cool breeze coming from the north to carry the sweet fragrance of the flowers to the king and to provide a cool shaded garden. There must have been some device in the upper stories of the buildings, consisting of windows or pergola on the terrace, from which the view on the garden could be enjoyed.

In what is known as the North Palace, possibly a reserve for animal species and botanical garden, the main element in the plan is an extensive water court surrounded by trees. The rear central group of buildings is the formal apartment, with a private suite bordered on the north by a sunken garden surrounded on three sides by a columned portico and contiguous cells. Here again, the location of the garden is to the north of the living quarters, and there is a corner staircase leading up to the roof of the portico, where a pergola must have afforded an enjoyable view of the precincts. The animals were kept in separate courts and rooms.

The villas of the rich inhabitants of the city also had extensive gardens where a chapel or kiosk marked the crossing of the axis through the entrance gateway with that of the house. Even magazine courts in the palace and in the Great Temple of Aten were provided with shade trees.

In the layout of mortuary temples there could also have been some provision for a processional avenue planted with trees and even a garden. In the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el- Bahari, two papyrus pools on a T-shaped plan, with flower beds on both sides of each pool, flank the central path at the bottom of the lower stairway. To the south of the temple structure at Medinet Habu, but within its general enclosure, is a T-shaped pool. The architect we know as Amenhotep son of Hapu had twenty trees planted in square brick containers around the large square basin of the court of his mortuary temple.

However, in no other temple did a garden gain such importance as in the Maru-Aten at Amarna. The extensive grounds of that peculiar complex, long mistaken for a "pleasure resort", are really a concrete representation of the potentiality of the sun disk Aten as a Creator. The layout of the eastern group of the buildings is on an exact north-south axis while the east-west axis of the large lake crosses it inside the hall of the Maru, or viewing place of the sun disk. A garden with a processional alley fronts the group on the south. Here also there is a symbolic island carrying a hypaethral kiosk, accessible from the Maru by a bridge. A second bridge at the north end leads to an alley flanked with flower beds to a water court featuring a range of eleven T-shaped water basins on an interlocking plan. Some scholars believe that the kiosk on the island was designed for the yearly festival of the viewing of the Aten, while the eleven basins of the water court would symbolically be connected with the eleven other monthly festivals.

The gardens at the Marriott Cairo

Really nothing can be found concerning the formal layout of gardens about the landing quays of palaces or temples. However, it is fairly safe to consider the data indicated by paintings and drawings to be relatively exact. Landing quays were the initial approaches to the buildings from the Nile, and they had to have benefited as much as, if not more than the processional avenues from the decorative effects of a formal garden layout. In a text from the reign of Ramesses II referencing the Temple of Luxor's quay explains that, "A Wall was before it of stone over against Thebes; it was flooded; and the gardens were planted with trees". These are presumably the gardens on both sides of the quay walls. At least two depictions of landing quays feature layouts of gardens.

Today, and throughout history really, gardens have played a big part in the lives of Egyptians. Gardens seem to have become a part of their being doubtless as much because of the nearby barren desert and the need to see life everywhere within that tiny strip of land which fosters life.






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