When you imagine life in ancient Egypt, gardens probably don't automatically spring to mind. Marion Servat-Fredericq from our Antiquities team explores the important role they played.
While photographing Egyptian objects for our new online database, I came across the remains of ancient Egyptian fruit which were left in tombs as funerary offerings for the deceased: pomegranates, grapes, figs, dates, persea fruit, dom palm fruit, but also barley, wheat and even lentil seeds! I was amazed to see all these fruits had been so well preserved after thousands of years! Like anywhere today, fruit grew naturally in ancient Egypt, but it was also grown by people in gardens, alongside vegetables and flowers. Information from tomb depictions, archaeological remains and texts from the Pharaonic period suggest that gardens were very popular. The ancient Egyptians built gardens within religious and mortuary temples, royal palaces, tombs and wealthy households. But such gardens were not as much ornamental or leisure spaces as intended for religious and funerary worship.
Basket containing six persea fruits, Middle Kingdom, from Lahun.
The arid environment of Egypt meant that it was difficult to grow trees and plants away from the Nile River. So gardens were expensive to build and required a high level of maintenance. They consisted of three components:
- an enclosure wall
- a water pond, well or canal
- trees, flowers, vegetables, etc
Often, gardens would also include chapels for religious or funerary worship. Archaeologists who excavated wealthy private houses at Tell el-Amarna; the capital city built by king Akhenaten in the late 18th Dynasty, uncovered remains of statues and stelae dedicated to the royal family and the sun-god Aten. They also found the remains of offering tables, altars and fragments of scenes from the walls of such chapels depicting scenes of religious worship. Gardens provided raw ingredients and materials for cooking but also for religious and funerary offerings, as well as for making ornamental bouquets, garlands and collars, cosmetics, perfumes, medicinal remedies, building materials and various everyday objects such as baskets, ropes, lids, mats, sandals, candle wicks and writing materials. The Egyptians grew sycamore fig trees, date and dom palms, persea, pomegranate, carob and tamarisk trees, as well as papyrus, lotus, mandrake, cornflower, poppy and marshmallow plants. Vine plants were also popular for making wine. Garden vegetables, herbs and spices included onion, lentils, leek, cucumber, lettuce, fennel, coriander and cumin. From tomb scenes of the 18th Dynasty we also know that fish and fowl were kept in gardens as these were a staple of Egyptian diet, and also traditionally used as food offerings.
Wall fragment from the tomb of Nebamun depicting an ancient Egyptian garden, New Kingdom, from Thebes.
Trees and plants also had symbolic meaning, often related to fertility and rebirth. Such examples are the date palm, associated with the sun god Re or the dom palm, associated with the moon god Thoth. Both stood for rebirth and nourishment. The lotus flower was linked to the myth of creation: the sun god Re emerged from a lotus flower in the primeval waters, thus the lotus was also the symbol of rebirth and fertility. Gardens depicted in tombs served to symbolically and magically help the deceased to be reborn and provide him with sustenance in the afterlife. When gardens are mentioned in ancient Egyptian Love Poetry they are associated with love and carry an erotic meaning.
Dom palm nut, New Kingdom, probably from Thebes.