The Landscape Guide

Temple gardens

Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir-el-Bahari

Far too little do we know even now of Egypt—where everything culminates in the Pharaoh, andIllustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see all eyes are fixed on him. As to the individual nature of those great palaces which the kings built to live in, we shall have to learn more from excavations than from tombs. If the houses of official persons had such fine gardens, one has a right to expect that the king’s own gardens shall excel them in size and beauty, just as the ruler himself must excel his subjects. Even at El-Amarna, where the immediate relation of king and people is most clearly expressed in the pictures—his winning, gracious personality seems to have had great weight—the king’s palace is often painted on the tombs of his greater subjects, but there is nothing positive about the garden, and we must wait for what excavations can, little by little, reveal. In the direction of the Nile there was no doubt a fine flower-garden in front of the palace, obviously on a terrace. The king and queen had each a kiosk for their own boats at the landing-place, and from thence different paths led by way of the strand and the front garden to a pillared court, which was the boundary on the palace side (Fig, 15).Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see



The whole ornamentation of the palace proves that Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) was a great lover of flowers. His bedroom is painted all round with flowers, most of the little gardens in the court have ponds with lovely flowers growing round. A painted floor, brought to light by excavations, shows most realistically the beauty of such a pond and its flower-beds, out of which spring the pillars of the chamber, like flower-stalks, supporting the roof of the hall. (Fig.16).

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


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 Probably Amenhotep IV. also planted large park-like gardens round his palace, to vie with those his father had laid out at Thebes. To get an idea of size, we may look at the great pond that Amenhotep III. dug out for his wife Teje. This was one and a half kilometres long, and more than three hundred metres wide. The king had it filled with water on the twelfth anniversary of his coronation, He and his queen then went on   the water for the first time in the royal boat, and made this the leading feature of a grand festivity.

The evidences of shrines, built by the kings in honour of their gods, are more intelligible. Here too it is from the New Period that we first get pictures, though in the Middle Period the temples were certainly surrounded by gardens. It was at the time when Egypt was nearing with great strides the headship of the world, that in the long row of kings there steps forth from the darkness the first important figure of a woman, Queen Hatshepsut. She had insisted on her recognition as monarch, and during her sovereignty had greatly advanced her country in a material sense. She erected a splendid memorial of herself and her great deeds in the Temple of Hatshepsut at  Deir-el-Bahari, in honour of the god Amon. All buildings as well as gardens in Egypt had to be on high ground, because of the peculiar nature of the country. The floods, slowly rising, had from early days been encroaching upon the temples (which the kings had erected to the honour of the gods, and for their own souls), and also upon the private dwellings.

The edifices themselves, temples and palaces, were often built upon terraces, and as early as the Eleventh Dynasty a temple was set up in the beautiful valley, with rocks all round it, erected on the top of a structure that was really a pillared corridor. It was Metuhotpe’s mortuary temple that Queen Hatshepsut had in her mind when she built, near it, the temple for her own tomb. Here stands out for the very first time in the history of art a most magnificent idea — that of building three terraces, one above the other, each of their bordering walls set against the mountain-side, and made beautiful with pillared corridors, the actual shrine in a cavity in the highest terrace which was blasted out of the rock (Fig. 17). 

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What a wonderful view one would come upon, arriving from the river, passing through a long double row of sphinxes—which on either side seem to have had an avenue of tall acacias—till one stood before the majestic pylon-gate that gave. entrance to the lowest of the three terraces! Excavations in front of this gate have exposed the square walled pits, which were filled with earth taken up from the Nile with a view to giving the best possible nourishment to the trees. They were watered by an arrangement of pipes from the side. In these holes there have also been discovered traces of Persea trunks.

With the same care the trees were planted in the gardens on the three terraces. Other remains of tree-trunks have been found, by excavation, in two round walled- in pits. A gently-inclined path ascends in the middle from terrace to terrace, cutting through the boundary walls. In the corridors at the back of the last and highest garden, the queen has given the story of her deeds, both in words and in pictures. First of all she tells how the god Amon bade her make at his house a garden so large that he could walk therein. And at his command she equipped an expedition to fetch incense-bearing trees from the land of Punt, the country of the Gods, in obedience to the word of Amon to make “a Punt in my house (temple).”

Nobody at that time knew the myrrh-terraces of the land of Punt, but the queen's ships arrived there, and saw the country and its wonderful inhabitants. The pictures on the wall, that illustrate this story, show us a land of many trees, to the south-east of Egypt. The queen's people collected all sorts of treasures for this place, and among the most valuable were the thirty-two incense-bearing trees for the god’s garden. They were dug up, earth and all, apparently in spring, before they began to bud, and were planted in pots. They were carried to the ships by sailors with straps passed over a pole, four to six men according to the size of the tree (Fig. 18).

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 Wherever we find ships laden, there are trees on them. After a joyful return home, the precious freight is unpacked, fresh and beautifully green, and at once planted by the queen in the pleasure-garden of Amon. Her trouble was richly rewarded, for in a picture we see the trees finely grown; so well have they thriven that cattle can graze under them. Other votive offerings are piled up beneath their branches (Fig, 19). 

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Beside the trees incense-gum is collected in immense heaps, [EDITOR'S NOTE: The land of Punt would be Puoni on the coast of Somalia, and the tree would probably be the Boswellia, commonly called the olibanum, a member of the Order Burseraceæ. The dried gum of this tree is frankincense.] For this huge structure of terrace-gardens a very elaborate water system would have been needed.

Afterwards the kings often organised peaceful expeditions of the same nature. If their goal was the land of cedars, it was the valuable wood that was to be brought back. The cedar was never acclimatised in Egypt, but Rameses III. relates how he (also in honour of the god Amon) imported and naturalised foreign plants. Whether or not he planted these in his garden at Medînet-Habû cannot be decided in these days, but there is no doubt that here too the great front court was covered with plots of flowers. “I dug a pond before it,” he says, praising the site of the garden at this temple, “where the ocean of Heaven flows over it, and planted it with trees and green growths as they are in Lower Egypt. Gardens of vines, of trees, fruits and flowers, are around thy temple, before thy face” In another place he tells of pleasure-houses, in front of which he had dug out a tank for lotus flowers—and no doubt added pavilions, and everything that we know to have belonged to the garden of this period.

Rameses was pre-eminently a friend to the garden, and a generous one. In a new construction on the delta, he made large gardens of the first importance, “wide places to walk in with all kinds of trees that bear sweet fruit, a sacred way glowing with the flowers of every country, with lotus and papyrus, numberless as the sands.” He also gave rich gifts to the other temples: we find in a list of benefactions among the gifts to Heliopolis: “I give to thee great gardens, with trees and vines in the temple of Atuma, I give to thee lands with olive-trees in the city of On. I have furnished them with gardeners, and many men to make ready oil of Egypt for kindling the lamps of thy noble temple. I give to thee trees and wood, date-palms, incense, and lotus, rushes, grasses, and flowers of every land, to set before thy fair face.” In the fifth section, which contains a complete catalogue of the royal gifts to all the religious houses, we find that, together with 107,180 measures of arable land, there are 514 gardens and tree sites, and 19,130,032 nosegays.

Royal gifts like these encouraged the gardens at the temples. The sacred groves, of which we hear in the inscriptions mentioned above, increased and spread. But in a certain sense gardens were always held sacred by Egyptians. Indeed, everything any man did  had a religious significance, for what he accomplished in this life was of immediate utility to his soul on the other side. Every private person sought, above all things, if it were in any way feasible, to put shady trees round his home; for what he planted here—to enjoy the shade and to bathe in the perfume of its flowers—was really an act of thoughtful kindness to his soul. In times of heat his soul will be able to step forth from the grave wherein it dwells, and enjoy the cooling shade. The inscriptions on the tombs lay stress on this idea : “ That each day I may walk unceasingly on the banks of my water, that my soul may repose on the branches of the trees which I planted, that I may refresh myself under the shadow of my sycomore.”



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A painting of the Colossi of Memnon in the days before the Asswan High Dam, when the Nile used to flood. The colossi represent Amenophis III and  formed part of  his mortuary temple. The temple was 'one of the largest and most magnificent of all the religious structures created in Egypt' (R.H. Wilkinson The complete temples of ancient Egypt 2000, p 188). As the illustration shows, flood water was welcomed into the temple compound as a representation of the primal waters from which the earth was created. A pharaoh's tomb was a symbol of Osiris tomb. The pharaoh became Osiris when he passed from bodily life to the after-life for which a mortuary temple provided a home. His responsibility for giving Egypt its annual flood continued during his after-life. Amenophis is seen here watching the the sun which gave rise to life on earth.