19 January 2009

Professions: Egyptian Gardeners

By Jean Adams

The temples and the rich in ancient Egypt employed professional gardeners to look after their beautiful gardens, while many more enjoyed getting outside and digging their hands into the soil just for the enjoyment of it.

Gardens were much cherished in their day and were kept both for secular purposes and attached to temple compounds. Gardens at private houses and villas, before the New Kingdom, were mostly used for growing vegetables and located close to a canal or the river.

However, they were often surrounded by walls and their purpose incorporated pleasure and beauty besides utility.

Garden produce made out an important part of foodstuff but flowers were also cultivated for use in garlands to wear at festive occasions and for medicinal purposes.

While the poor kept a patch for growing vegetables, the rich people could afford gardens lined with sheltering trees and decorative pools with fish and waterfowl. There could be wooden structures forming pergolas to support vines of grapes from which raisins and wine were produced. There could even be elaborate stone kiosks for ornamental reasons, with decorative statues.

Temple gardens had plots for cultivating special vegetables, plants or herbs considered sacred to a certain deity and which were required in rituals and offerings, such as lettuce to Min, the god of fertility. Sacred groves and ornamental trees were planted in front of or near both cult temples and mortuary temples.

As temples were representations of heaven and built as the actual home of the god, gardens were laid out according to the same principle. Avenues leading up to the entrance could be lined with trees, courtyards could hold small gardens and between temple buildings gardens with trees, vineyards, flowers and ponds were maintained. Plenty to keep gardeners and priest alike, busy.

The ancient Egyptian garden would have looked different to a modern viewer than a garden in our day. It would have seemed more like a collection of herbs or a patch of wild flowers, lacking the specially bred flowers of today. Flowers like the iris, chrysanthemum, lily and delphinium (blue), were certainly known to the ancients but do not feature much in garden scenes. Formal bouquets seem to have been composed of mandrake, poppy, cornflower and or lotus and papyrus.

Due to the arid climate of Egypt, tending gardens meant constant attention and depended on irrigation. Skilled gardeners were much sought-after by temples and households of the wealthy. Duties included planting, weeding, watering by means of a shaduf, pruning of fruit trees, digging the ground, harvesting the fruit, etc.

Flowers and trees known to have grown in ancient days:


The already mentioned iris, chrysanthemum, lily and delphinium. Blue lotus (the blue water lily Nymphaea caerula), white lotus, safflor (Cartamus Tinctorius), calanchoe, poppy (Papaver Rhoeas), hollyhock (Alcea ficifolia), mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), pomegranate and wild ones like buttercup, clover, daisy, cornflower. The water lily and the papyrus, were considered life-giving and had further great symbolical value as the emblem of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Trees and shrubs:

Tamarisk, olive, acacia, willow, date palm sacred to Re and Min, doum palm sacred to Djehuty (Thoth), sycamore, persea, christ thorn, carob, myrtle and other unidentified ones.

An ancient Egyptian garden home: