Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Gardens of Ancient Egypt

Papyrus and Cypress Trees, Temple of Horus, Edfu

This past winter (December 2018-February 2019) I decided that it was time to visit Egypt.  I've been exploring the Mediterranean region for several winters, including two trips to Spain and Morocco, three to Italy, a winter in Greece, and trips to Lebanon and Turkey.  I also traveled in Jordan and Israel on this last journey.  This year I plan on traveling overland from Paris to Greece via Lyon and Marseille, Northern Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania from early December to March.

Papyrus stalks depicted on a temple wall
I've been to a lot of ancient sites around the world, but nothing compares with the antiquity of the Nile Valley.  Europeans lived as hunter gatherers while an elaborate civilization flourished along a green ribbon in the Sahara, where the most sophistcated societies built unparalleled monuments to their gods and rulers.  This is no literary masterpiece.  Encapsulating a history spanning thousands of years is a daunting task that I found overwhelming, and it took many months to finally put this essay together.  Like history, it tends to ramble, and probably has a fair share of misinformed hypotheses.

A model of a house with a courtyard garden planted with fruit trees surrounding a fish pond, meant to provide a comfortable home in the afterlife, The Egyptian Museum

The desert country that we know as Egypt was once covered in Savannah grasslands, where great herds of elephants and gazelles grazed and hunter/gatherers subsisted.  About 7,000 years ago a drying climate forced inhabitants to retreat to the fertile shores of the Nile as the grasslands turned to desert.  And there they started to garden.

Ox drawn plough and date palms and fruit trees along a canal from a wall painting, Tomb of Amennakht, a workman at Deir el Medina, the West Bank, Luxor
The ancient Egyptians invented irrigation systems, digging canals  to distribute water, and using a device called the Shadoof, which is a weighted pole with a bucket at the other end that would raise water to higher elevations.  They domesticated animals, and Oxen started pulling ploughs for tilling the earth.  They created the sickle for cutting grain, and papyrus paper and black ink to keep track of everything with hieroglyphic writing.

The Nile is the lifeblood of Egypt
The Nile River is the lifeline of Egypt since ancient times.  The longest river in the world flows north from Lake Victoria draining the lands of eleven present day African countries.  Thousands of years of annual flooding have deposited rich silts along its banks creating a green ribbon across the parched deserts of Northern Africa.  The Egyptians named the region Kemet, the Black Land.  The agriculturally productive soils allowed for a surge in population in a relatively restricted area.  That civilization evolved to govern and control a populace that inspired creative ambitions unseen previously in the world.

Irrigation methods developed by the ancient Egyptians are still utilized in many parts of the world.  These are small vegetable plots near the beach in Aqaba, Jordan

At the same time a belief system developed integrating the natural world in to a sophisticated mythology merging life and death and the perceived afterlife.  Lower Egypt, around the Nile delta, and Upper Egypt, stretching in to Nubia and the cataracts on the river at Aswan and further south were thought to be unified as a kingdom by the ruler Narmer around 3,100 BC.

Oxen being led to sacrifice to the Gods
The annual flooding of the river, inundating the fields, made the growing labor force seasonally available for other tasks, so the people were conscripted during this down time as a form of tax to build ambitious royal projects such as funerial pyramids, temples and tombs.  The river would rise with floodwaters from the high mountains of Ethiopia in June and remained flooded with fluctuations until October.  This created a cycle around which society revolved.  Water would rise as much as 45 feet at the first cataract at Aswan, and 35 feet at Thebes (Luxor) downstream.  Many temples, including the largest, at Karnak, would be partially submerged during high water periods.  The water would run 25 feet deep at Memphis, making it possible to transport large cut blocks of quarried stone on barges closer to desert sites where the great pyramids were built.  During the 3rd Dynasty, in the 27th Century BC, the first massive stone pyramid on Earth was built at Saqqara, the necropolis for the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis.  Memphis now lies at the edge of the sprawl of Cairo, Africa's largest city.  The pyramid has a stepped design and was once clad in smooth polished limestone.  A project of this scale had never been perviously attempted in human history.

The Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara was the first giant pyramid to be built in Egypt, in the 27th Century BC
It is thought that the pyramids were meant to be the access point for the pharaoh to commune with the Sun God Ra.  Allusions to nature were common in Egyptian design and art and rapidly developed in to an elaborate mythology where civilization and nature were inextricably intertwined.  These grandiose projects were not built by slaves, but were undertaken by the laboring populace as a unifying endeavors that brought Egyptian society together in a common cause.

Reed bundle like carved stone columns at Saqqara
The 5th Dynasty Pyramid of Unas at Saqqara, like others from that early period, was filled with rubble.  This method of construction did not withstand the ravages of time like those at Giza which were made entirely with large cut stone blocks.  This small pyramid was called Nefer Usat Unas, which means Beautiful are the places of Unas.  The complex was linked to a lake by a causeway, perhaps including plantings, although there is no evidence to determine that.  The Pharaoh Unas had his sarcophagus placed in a tomb accessed by a steep shaft beneath the pyramid, leading to three chambers lined in carved alabaster.  The carvingd are the first records of the Pyramid Texts, which are a series of spells meant to insure a well prepared route in to the afterlife for the deceased.  The ideas laid forth here became the tradition for later dynasties in preparation of their tombs.

The original Pyramid Texts illustrated on the walls of the tomb of Unas
In less than 100 years after the completion of the Pyramid of Djoser, building began on the massive pyramids at Giza.  It took about 85 years to complete the three main pyramids there.  The Great Pyramid of Khufu was 481 feet high and was the tallest man made structure on Earth until the 19th Century!  The second largest, the Pyramid of Khafre was built by his son.  The Pyramid of Menkaure,  built by Khafre's son is much smaller but has the most elaborate funerary temples of the three great pyramids.

The Pyramid of Khafre still has some of its original limestone cladding at the top.  The taller Pyramid of Khufu stands behind it in this photo.  The limestone was ground to a polish that would have had a brilliant whiteness.
These monumental pyramids were surrounded by ceremonial structures where elaborate offerings could be presented to the Pharaoh and other blessed individuals in the afterlife and to the Gods that guided them on their journey.  The Gods were not worshipped as idols, and the depictions carved in relief and in statuary were personifications through which to channel the divine forces they embodied.

A procession bearing offerings in relief on the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut

Depictions on temple walls of offerings processions show a level of extravagance that is astounding.  Tomb carvings depict grand processions bearing bountiful quantities of meat, fowl, vegetation, incense, and perfumed waters.

Making an offering of perfumed water to Horus and Isis, Kalabsha Temple, Aswan
Egyptian iconography is complicated and requires a lifetime of study to understand the elaborate rituals that enabled the passage between worlds.  I cant begin to explain the dipictions I saw on the thousands of monumental wall reliefs I encountered traveling from the Sudan border to the Nile delta.  The most southerly monument I visited were the famed temples at Abu Simbel.  I had wanted to see these remarkable ceremonial spaces since I was a child reading National Geographic, which documented the moving of the massive stone carvings to higher ground to escape the rising waters of Lake Nassar, behind the Aswan High Dam.

A false mountain was built to hold the rock cut temples dedicated to the Pharaoh Ramesses II and his wife Nefertari and the monuments were ingeniously reassembled, closely aligned to their original relationship with the Sun's angle on October and February 22nd when light penetrates to the inner most sanctuary.  You can read more about the temple's construction, meaning, and relocations at

Its a long day trip from Aswan, and I was able to make the trip at a later time than when the tourist vans go, so I had the place mostly to myself, which was an incredible experience.  The temples were once located on a bend in the river in a location meant to impress travelers along the river.  But I digress, this monument is meant to impress the power of the Pharaoh and his divinity.  Back to the garden...

The Ramesses II temple at Abu Simbel
At the temple of Karnak, the second largest temple complex ever built (after Angkor Wat), Ramesses II is depicted making an offering before a Tree of Life.

Ramesses II kneeling before a tree of life, making an offering to Thoth, the Ibis scribe god in the Temple of Karnak
About 50 years earlier the female pharoah Queen Hatshepsut built her extraordinary mortuary temple beneath the spectacular cliffs of Deir el-Bahari near the Valley of the Kings.  This construction is modeled after an adjacent mortuary temple but exceeds it in grandeur, elevating the prominence of Egypt's first female pharaoh and her divine connection to the God Amun.   Only Ramesses II produced more architectural monuments than Egypt's queen.  The mortuary temple has three terraces connected by central ramps that were once flanked by gardens planted with exotic trees.  Two rectangular reflecting pools graced the second terrace.  The orientation is related to the winter solstice, when light penetrates in to the deepest recesses of the temple.

The Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut beneath the Deir el-Bahari
Relief depicting men transporting large baskets containing Frankinscense
and Myrrh trees

Reliefs on the temple depict an expedition to the land of Punt where plants were transported back to Egypt in large baskets by boat and then overland in an ardous journey to this desert valley.  These are the earliest known depictions of people transplanting trees.  The Punt is believed to be the coast of present day Somalia.

A beautiful relief carving of coconut palm groves along canals graces one of the walls in an elegant, natural style.  Coconut palms are not found along the Nile because of infrequent rainfall.  Deep rooted date palms thrive along the river and are seen in great number.

Coconut palms from Punt, with ladders for picking the coconuts
Excavations revealed the trunk of a tree that is believed to be one of those brought from the Punt.  Frankinsence and Myrrh were highly desired sources of incense used in temple rituals.

Looking at the trunk of a tree planted 3,500 years ago

It must have required a sophisticated system and enormous amounts of labor to transport water from the Nile to this distant garden.

Groves of date palms create an atmospheric scene at the Temple of Karnak
The reflecting pools would have been rectangular and were probably used as reservoirs for irrigating the gardens and for rearing lilies, fish, and waterfowl.

A contemporary illustration of an ancient Egyptian water garden surrounded by gardens filled with egrets
Multi trunked Doum Palms, Hyphaene thebaica have edible fruit, and are associated with the Ibis diety Thoth, the scribe.  Seen here along the Nile near Aswan
The gardens in front of the famed Egyptian Museum in Cairo have a rectangular reflecting lily pool modeled after the historical prototype.

Rectangular pool with an island symbolizing the place of creation
Papyrus, Cyperus papyrus, is a reed plant that grows in marshy areas throughout much of Africa.  It has long slender stems capped with feathery filaments looking something like a feather duster.  The plant is nearly extinct along the lower Nile today but was widely cultivated in ancient Egypt.  It has a number of uses, including material for making baskets, mats, boats, sandals, cording, and most famously for paper.  Papyrus paper was used to make scrolls, some of which in the dry climate of the Sahara have been preserved for thousands of years.  The plant could also be burned for fuel and as a kind of incense.

Isis? praying to Sobek, the alligator god of fertility and creativity, painted on Papyrus paper
Papyrus was so important in ancient Egypt that columns on temples were sometimes modeled after them.  They are frequently found painted in the borders of friezes and sometimes as a pedastle as well.

Horus, the Falcon God, Osiris, and Babi, the Baboon God of the underworld behind a pharaoh in the Valley of the Kings standing on a papyrus stalk

Soaring Papyrus columns at the Karnak Temple at Thebes (Luxor)

A beautifully rendered papyrus capital from the Temple of Philae, Aswan
Egyptian temples incorporated gardens in to their designs, to provide food, shade, and pleasing environs.  The temples were the domain of priests and the pharaohs who ruled them.  Ordinary citizens were not allowed inside the temple walls.  The rites performed by the priests were needed to maintain the process and balance that kept society functioning harmoniously.

A pharaoh seated on a throne in a garden before a procession of gods at the threshold of the afterlife, Valley of the Kings
Collecting plant and animal species through trade became a trademark of the pharaohs.  Reliefs in an area at Karnak called the Botanical Garden of Thutmose III depict botanical collections in a garden setting.  A variety of plants and animals grace the walls, exemplifying the vast domain ruled by the kingdom.

Garden panels in the Botanical Garden of Thutmose III, Temple of Karnak, Thebes (Luxor)
Another panel from the Botanical Garden of Thutmose III, Karnak

A garden would have been a highly sought after feature of the afterlife.  Gardens provide a peaceful haven that humanity craves, especially in desert environs.  Water and shade and sustinance bring about wellbeing.

Plants had associations with various gods. Hathor and Horus are connected to water lilies and papyrus, date palms to Re and Min.  Osiris is paired with the Tamarisk, and Isis and later Hathor with the Sycamore, Ficus sycomorus.  In the Pyramid texts, Horus, the falcon god seeks refuge beneath an Acacia Tree.  Ziziphus jujuba, the Jujuba tree is tied to the alligator god Sobek.  Alligators were kept in ponds in gardens, and the magnificent temple of Kom Ombo between Aswan and Luxor was dedicated to Sobek.  When the domesticated alligators died they would be mummified for eternity, as were a number of other animal species connected to the gods.  The Pyramid texts mention that ba, or the soul can rest in the branches of the Jujuba tree.

Mummified Nile Alligators found at the Temple of Kom Ombo
Aviaries were common in Egyptian temple gardens, and collecting birds for their beauty, and as a source of food and feathers and offerings brought about the domestication of aquatic species and falcons.

Stilts along the banks of the Nile in Aswan
A grey heron in the Egyptian pantheon of the gods is Bennu
Bennu, riding on the prow of a boat

There was a great deal of bird life along the Nile and depictions of birds in heiroglyphs are common.  The characteristics of a specific type of bird would be portrayed in the divine wearing various crowns with meaningful embellishments that tell a story.  One could spend their entire life studying Egyptology.  

A beautiful depiction of a flock of ducks at the Temple of Abydos
Horus, the Falcon God
A mummified falcon
Detail of waterfowl and waterlilies in a painted floor from the palace of Pharaoh Akhenaten in Armana, Egyptian Museum
Remains of a statue of Akhenaten from Armana
Akhenaten, the father of Tutankhamun, and husband to Nefertiti was something of a rogue pharaoh, abandoning the worship of multiple gods in favor of one supreme diety, Aten, who is then represented as a solar disk.  His depictions were a departure from the idealistic representation, portraying him in a more realistic fashion. His political shift in religious beliefs was very unpopular with the priests who's power and influence he wished to compromise.

He moved his capital from Thebes to Armana in the Minya province north of Thebes, where he built temples, palaces, and gardens in the harsh, rocky and less hospitable environment.  I didn't visit Armana as little remains, but there are texts that describe terraced gardens cut in to the rock leading down to a series of pools.  If you want to go in to great detail about the life of Akhenaten, read

Akhenaten, and a much smaller Nefertiti making offernings to Aten
A remnant of a painted floor depicting gardens and a pool, from Pharaoh Akhenaten's Palace in Armana, in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo
After his death much of his legacy was erased as Egyptian society returned to its original beliefs and rituals.  His young son Tut helped to instigate that transition.  Tut's inbred life was short, ending at the age of 19.  Much of the treasure found in his infamous tomb is believed to have come from his father's treasury.

Tutankhamun and his wife depicted on a golden throne
I spent two months in Egypt and visited a great many ancient sites.  Some of my favorites on the west bank of the Nile in Thebes where the Valley of the Kings and Queens lie, are tombs created by the workers for themselves.  A large seasonal artisans settlement at Deir el-Medina contained 120 houses where skilled artists favored by the pharaohs and nobels lived and worked on tombs hidden in the rugged canyons with the hopes that they could be kept secret from grave robbers.

The ruins of the worker's village at Deir el-Medina

The dry climate has preserved the pigments in paintings in a remarkable state.  When the workers weren't laboring on their commissions they often embellished their own tombs.  The afterlife was such a part of one's existance that death was a highly anticipated event to be prepared for.

Agricultural scene from the tomb of Sennedjem, Dier el-Medina
The workers tombs have a fresh and realistic look depicting scenes from every day life without the need to over idealize its subjects.  Many of the artists who painted walls also farmed when the Nile's waters receded, so many scenes depicting agriculture, family life, and nature can be found in these more intimate tombs.

Fields along the Nile near Aswan
There was a code of ethics that guided Egyptian society and at the time of death, the jackel headed god Anubis would guide the soul to a kind of judgement hall where Osiris heard confessions of worthiness and avoidance of sin.  In some texts the heart was weighed on golden scales against that of the feather of truth.  If the heart was heavier it would be devoured by the goddess Ammut, and the soul would be forgotten as non existent, a dreaded fate.  Passage to an eternal life of joy was the blessing of having been judged a good person in one's Earthly life.

Oxen pulling a plow with irrigation canals, on papyrus, Egyptian Museum

Sennedjem and his wife Lyneferti kneeling before the Goddess Hathor as a Sycamore Tree in the worker Sennedjem's tomb at Deir el-Medina
Hathor, often depicted with cow ears, was a goddess in the realms of both life and death, providing sustinance and wisdom.  In the tomb of Sennedjem, scenes of a proper life invites the blessings of the gods and a successful transition to the afterlife for him and his family.

A bundle of offerings in the Tomb of Sennedjem
And in that afterlife one hopefully resides in a garden of plentitude, beauty, music, and joy.  It is a reward that inspires many beliefs, for what better outcome could there be than to go back to the garden.  If I were to chose a fate for my soul after a long, challenging life on earth, I'll be happy to end up in my own back yard

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

The soul being guided to the place of judgement

Paying tribute
Navigating the passage to the afterlife

Aswan Botanical Gardens, Kitchener Island, Aswan

The Nile River in Cairo

Hyroglyphs at the Temple of Karnak

Shorebirds carved in to pink granite, Kom Ombo

An ornamental detail, Valley of the Kings
Ram headed Sphinxes, Temple of Karnak
The Sacred Lake at Karnak was used for ritual cleansing, navigation rituals, and as an aviary for aquatic fowl.

Date Palms, Karnak

My garden in October

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