We can distinguish four main categories of Egyptian garden which, logic suggests, developed in the following sequence:
Fruit and Vegetable Gardens
It is often said that neolithic food production commenced with sowing wild grain. It may also have begun with the cultivation of fruit and vegetables: they benefit from protective enclosures and require more intensive care than grain, including the classic horticultural activities of weeding and watering. The ancient Egyptians grew vegetable crops which must have been protected from animals. Nothing survives of these enclosures but horticultural activities are recorded from early times. A Fifth Dynasty (2465-2323 BC) tomb at Saqqara shows the irrigation and cultivation of lettuce, a sacred plant, and an illustration of 'Watering vegetable patches in the garden of the official property by a gardener'. Another tomb records that Metjen was granted 'land property 200 cubits long and 200 cubits wide, enclosed by a wall, equipped, and planted with useful trees; a very large pond is to be made in it, and fig-trees and vines are to be planted'. [Malek, J., In the shadow of the pyramids: Egypt during the Old Kingdom (Little, Brown and Company, 1986) p.43]. Approximately equal to 9 tennis courts, it was a large space for vegetables but too small for grain.
The famous architectural survivals of Ancient Egypt are the stone-built tombs and temples designed to last for 'millions of years'. All other buildings, being needed only for a few life-times, were of mud brick. By the end of the Predynastic period (c3000BC) there were fortified settlements with rectangular houses comprising a roofed area and an open forecourt. Except when they were outside the cultivated land, almost all these structures have been washed away or ground up for use as manure. The New Kingdom (1550-1070BC) craftsmen's village of Deir el Medina at Luxor is an atypical example. Its craftsmen made the fabulous tombs in the Valley of the Kings and their homes were in the desert. All water was carried to the village and there was none to spare for gardens. For reasons of security, it was a tightly-walled settlement with a single gate, narrow streets and tiny rooms. Kitchens were un-roofed and stairs led to flat roofs used for sleeping in hot weather. In the Nile valley, the typical dwelling was a walled enclosure, part-roofed and part-open. Poorer people suspended a roof between their garden walls. Richer people had free-standing one-, two- or three-storey houses within walled enclosures. Ceilings were flat or brick-arched. Flat roofs often had a parapet and logia. Columns and roof-beams were made from timber, which was scarce. Open courts were usually on the north side of dwellings, for shade. A pool, rectangular or T-shaped, was the first luxury of such a space. Wealthy families would have several courts, several pools and areas for different kinds of plant. The living area would often be shaded by a grape vine on a pergola. Wilkinson observes that:
Though places to cook, eat, rest and work, domestic gardens could also be places to meet a lover and Wilkinson quotes a poem to make the point:
I belong to you like this plot of
The most surprising fact about the domestic gardens of Ancient Egypt is their similarity to modern gardens. The plants which they grew are also familiar, though with a greater representation of functional than purely decorative plants.
Though larger, palace gardens were used in a similar manner to domestic gardens. Most were built of mud brick and have disappeared. A few were made in stone. They were within temple complexes, including those of Ramesses II (the Ramesseseum) and Ramessess III at Medinet Habu. Both had palace gardens but little survives, even of the palaces, and they were probably used only when later kings were visiting the temples at festival times. More is known of Akhenaten's palace, in the capital which he built at el-Amarna. Akhetaten, as it was originally known was built as a new town. It remains the best example of Egyptian town planning despite being unusual and having been inhabited for only 15 years. Akhenaten worshiped Aten, the sun god and is thought to be the originator of monotheism. Because his capital was on the fringe of the cultivated land, in the desert, more space was available for gardens and fragments of the mud-brick layout survive. Being spacious and unvegetated, the site was well-suited to sun-worship. Akhenaten explained the layout as follows:
The 'great temple for the Aten' was aligned on the east-west axis. The 'palaces for the pharaoh' lined the 5km south-north royal road, used for processions. A bridge crossed the royal road, linking the pharaoh's palace to the harem palace, and was used by the royal couple to appear before the crowd. Each palace had a number of outdoor courts. 'Harem' derives from an Arabic word meaning prohibited. In Egypt, the harem was simply the women's and children's residential quarters. Life was precarious and kings had many wives because they needed many children in whose veins flowed the blood of gods and kings. When his son came of age, Seti gave the future Rameses II, a harem of 'female royal attendants who were like unto the great beauties of the palace' (Tyldesley, J., Ramesses Viking 2000 p113). In time, the son was able to boast of fathering seventy-nine sons and fifty-nine daughters, four of whom he married. Since royal daughters could not marry commoners, this may have been an act of charity. The harem was a safe dwelling place for the royal women, their children, the old and the unmarried. It was a dormitory establishment with fertile women, productive gardens, fields and orchards. Dwellings within the harem compound had internal courts, often with plants and pools.
The royal harem was also the most important school in Egypt run by the 'Teacher of the Royal Children' and also attended by the children of nobles. High officials boasted of having been a 'Child of the Palace of the Royal Harem'.
Garden courts in the pharaohs palace for official gatherings, receptions and relaxation. Christian Jacq turned his imagination to a garden scene in Ramesses palace: (sexy scene from Son of Light?)
Temple and Tomb gardens
Because they were made of stone, more is known about Egyptian temples and tombs than about domestic buildings. The oldest known temple in Egypt is the stone circle at Nabta Playa (c4,5000BC). It appears to have been used to predict the seasons from astronomical observations and may have had a religious role. The oldest temple to a known god is that of Neken at Hierakonpolis, the 'city of the falcon' in Southern Egypt. It was an enclosure containing a mound with a flagpole on top. Early fortified enclosures, made at Abydos and elsewhere, may have been used both for religious gatherings and for administrative purposes, including the collection of taxes. Settled agricultural societies require a cohesive set of beliefs and customs to maintain order and resolve disputes, internal or external. This led to the development of a religion, a government, a judiciary and an army. Modern societies endeavour to maintain a separation of powers between these functions. In Ancient Egypt they were fused into a single hierarchy with a god-king at the top and the agricultural workers at the bottom. Priests, scribes, soldiers and craftsmen had intermediate positions.
Design historians sometimes distinguish temples and tombs but since the pharaoh was both a god and a king it is more a matter of emphasis than function. In the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the mortuary role was emphasised. Small riverside temples were linked by ceremonial routes to pyramids set in compounds. In the New Kingdom, the ceremonial role was emphasised and tombs were placed in the Valley of the Kings for reasons of security. Temples came to be planned more like houses, with a sacred lakes and groves within the compound and a ceremonial route leading to the river. Communities of priests held elaborate rituals within the 'mansion of god'. For more than 2,000 years, embracing the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, the planning of tombs was inspired by a creation myth associated with Osiris.
At a flood's high-water mark the Nile Valley was a serene composition of water and desert. As the flood receded, all the land was coated in black mud . Because of the swirling currents, the surface was uneven. Mounds would emerge before flats and hollows. Then the sun shone, plants grew and birds arrived. Egypt's creation myth held that the earth itself was created in this way, with a primal mound emerging from the waters to become vegetated and then populated. Concepts, and aspects of the creation, were represented by a family of gods with some shared roles. Atum was father of the gods. Amun was king of the gods. Ptah was creator of the universe. Nu, or Nun, being the god of the primordial waters, was old and wise. Re was father of mankind. As Amun-Re, he was identified with the sun god. Osiris was giver of civilisation, ruler of the dead and god of fertility. Osiris had a son, Horus, by Isis. Osiris' family, the 'Children of Nut' extended from the father of the gods, Atum, to Egypt's reigning pharaoh the 'Living Horus'. A pharaoh's tomb was designed to symbolise the tomb of Osiris. Since the pharaoh continued to be be a god after death, and since he was related to the other gods, the distinction between mortuary temples and cult temples was more of emphasis than of kind. The Osirian mortuary role was emphasised in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. The cult role was emphasised in the New Kingdom. The shift in emphasis is associated with change from building pyramids to building cult temples for rituals. Pharaohs were 'Lords of the Ritual'. New Kingdom temples continued to be inspired by the tomb of Osiris but were planned in a similar manner to houses, with a protective wall, a court and an inner sanctuary in which to sleep.
Private citizens were also urged to 'Build a domain in the west, dig pools and plant sycomores' so that an owner could 'Walk as he wished on the beautiful bank of his pool... and draw water from the well which he had installed for eternity and forever.' (Wilkinson p97) An illustration in the Book of the Dead shows a royal scribe, Nakht, with his wife. They stand in front of their house. It has a flat roof for outdoor sleeping and upstands to give privacy. Their hands are outstretched in a gesture used in hieroglyphs to signify worship. On the other side of the pool, surrounded by nine sycomore figs and four date palms, sits goddess Osiris with Maat standing behind her. Osiris was god of the dead and of resurrection. Maat was the goddess of truth and justice. A tomb was a realm of peace, truth and justice in which to dwell for ever. The idea of heaven is of paradise as another world in a different place was not Egyptian.
Osiris' own tomb was made of sycomore wood and shaded by sycomore trees . The sycomore fig (Ficus sycomorus) was the abode of Hathor and its symbol was used as a hieroglyph for all trees. Its fruit is edible but fertilisation depends on interaction with a wasp which lays its eggs in the "eye" of the fruit. Without fertilisation, the fruit falls to the ground and rot. Unripe fruit is cut 14 days after it appears. This introduces air into the fruit, killing the eggs and making the fruit sweet. The tree can bear up to 7 crops a year on small leafless branches is remarkable. Sycomore wood was the favoured material for making a sarcophagus.
Ptah, the 'Creator' was depicted as a craftsman or as a primordial mound arising from the waters (nun). In the Old Kingdom, the High Priest of Ptah had overall responsibility for craftwork.
In the Old and Middle Kingdoms, pyramids were built with ceremonial paths to smaller waterside 'valley temples'. Symbolically, the four key components were:
In the New Kingdom, a 'standard' temple layout developed, embodying the above components :
The Egyptian word for all types of temple was hut ('mansion') and the two main types were cult temples and mortuary temples. A cult is a system of worship expressed through ceremonies. Cult temples were known as 'mansions of the gods' and mortuary temples as 'mansions of millions of years'. In the New Kingdom, the 'standard' plan was used for both and the distinction became blurred. Ceremonial routes led from small waterside temples to large temple compounds. Routes were walled, roofed, planted, lined with sphinxes or given significance by colossal statues. Pylon gates were positioned so that the sun rose between the towers, creating the hieroglyph for .... There was a sacred lake, or pool, within the compound and a flight of steps led from the temple side of the lake into the water. It was a place for priests to bathe at dawn in order to purify themselves. Priests had to be pure. The sacred lake at Karnak had a tunnel from which geese, symbolising Amun, emerged onto the water. This symbolised the emergence of Amun from the primeval waters when time began. The king, an incarnation of Amun, was rowed on the lake. The New Kingdom had been established after an Intermediate Period in which Egypt was ruled by an Asiatic people, the Hyksos, who were aknolweded as legitimate Egyptian kings.
Temple gardens had names. Akhenaten's garden at Amarna was 'The Seeing-Place of the Aten'. Aten was the solar disc. The garden to a shrine on the processional route between Karnak and Luxor was called 'Hatshepsut is united with the perfection of Amun'. A pyramid had a grove called the 'Sould of Sahure appears in splendour'
Location, orientation and dimensions
The New Kingdom mortuary temples at Thebes were located:
Temples were also located in relation to significant features (eg cliffs, mountains, buildings, springs etc) or places associated with myths and traditions (eg a god's birthplace), either on a levee near the river or, as with Hatshepsut's temple, on the border of the Red Land (Deshret, desert) and the Black Land (Kemet, black agricultural land). In either case, floods were welcome as symbols of the primal condition from which the earth had emerged. Mounds were particularly black as they arose, gleaming, from the annual flood. The Nile was taken to flow from south to north and temples were aligned at 90 degrees to this axis, responding to bends in the river. Temples were near the Nile or connected to it by canal ending in a T-shaped dock, in order to transport building materials and, later, processional groups. The T-shape appears to have been symbolic and was also used for pools within the compound. Temples owned quays and fleets on the Nile. Some temples were aligned with the stars (eg at Elephantine), others with the sun. Slots were made in walls and slits in roofs so that sunlight gave significance to structures. A temple's location was fixed at a foundation ceremony which included 'stretching the cord' (pedj-shes), laying the first bricks and making ritual offerings in foundation pits. Stretching the cord involved measurements and astronomical observations. True north was favoured for the temple's short axis and east-west for the long axis. These were the prime axes but they could be fixed in different ways and a slightly new line was often set when a new king extended a old temple. Most temples used east-west as the long axis, and north-south as the short axis, so that the sun arose over the pylon and set over sanctuary of the departed pharaoh-god.. Everything was symbolic, including the dimensions.
Temples were dimensioned in cubits. The Egyptian Royal Cubit was equal to the length of a forearm (524mm) and multiples of ten cubits (5.24m) were preferred . The subsidiary dimensions, as shown on the ruler above, were 1 finger, 2 fingers, three fingers and a hand. Temples had large land holdings, from which they drew tribute. The Estate of Amun in the time of Ramesses III had over 2,300 sq km of land and 80,000 personnel. Most of these people worked in agriculture and horticulture. It is recorded that in a period of 1,057 days a total of 4,786, 184 floral offerings were made in the Temple of Amun at Karnak. (RH Wilkinson, p97). This required many gardens. The Estate of Amun united the world of the living and the world of the dead. Festival processions travelled from the east bank to the west bank of the Nile.
The Egyptians believed that the first land emerged from the waters in early times. The sun shone, a reed grew and a great falcon landed. Every Egyptian temple symbolised this event, which could also be observed at the end of each flood-season as levees emerged from the water and became re-vegetated. The temple compound was a domain of gods, bounded by a wavy mud-brick wall to symbolise a meeting with the waters. The central feature in the compound, at first a mound, then a pyramid and then a temple, was a divine abode. Priests tended temple compounds and made offerings to the gods. Temples were not places for the faithful to gather and pray, like churches and mosques. They were exclusive compounds in which high priests performed sacred rites. Statues of the gods were dressed, anointed and offered food and drink twice each day, always at fixed times. This was done by the pharaoh or his appointed priest. The ruler's cosmic and temporal responsibility was to maintain maat (order, truth and justice) in the physical and social worlds. Priests, some full time and many part time, assisted in this task by ritual. At a practical level they predicted floods and regulated the irrigation system by forming basins and releasing the water.
Since the temple was a model of creation, the ceiling represented the sky, the columns represented plants, and the floor, flooded by the Nile, represented the waters from which land emerged. Pylons stood at the point of the rising sun. The processional axis was on the sun's daily path. The inner sanctuary was at the point nearest the setting sun. The temple compound was a juncture of heaven, earth and the underworld. It was a gate through which gods and men could pass between worlds. Pharaohs were both gods and men. Temples served as tombs and tombs served as temples. At Thebes (modern Luxor) the mortuary temples were on the west bank of the river, over which the sun set.
Egypt had countless names for gods, many of them referring to the same deities. A small number of gods had cosmic roles. Others were 'household' gods. The word for god (netjer) was written with a hieroglyph of a flag. Therefore flags were placed at entrances to shrines. In time, gods were arranged in families and conventionally symbolised . Animals with symbolic significance were kept in gardens. Lions decorated the kings throne and live lions were kept in cages at the entrance to the gardens at Karnak. Plants with symbolic significance were also grown in gardens.
At Thebes, the annual festivals were occasions when the living gods from the east bank visited the deceased gods whose temples were on the west bank.
Malek, J., In the shadow of the pyramids: Egypt during the Old Kingdom (Little, Brown and Company, 1986)
R H Wilkinson The complete temples of Ancient Egypt (Thames and Hudson 2000)
Alix Wilkinson The garden in ancient Egypt (Rubicon Press, London,1998)
Aldred, C., The Egyptians (Thames and Hudson, 1998)