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Zoos and parks in ancient Egypt
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Keepers leading a young elephant and a bear, 18th Dynasty
Keepers leading a young elephant and a bear
Giraffe and Green Monkey, 18th Dynasty, Tomb of Rekhmire
Giraffe and green monkey
Baboon, 18th Dynasty
XVIII Dynasty

Zoos and parks

Garden with a pond, 18th Dynasty, British Museum     From gardens with a fishpond and a few waterfowl to zoos including giraffes, elephants and very rarely even bears, many wealthy Egyptians liked to keep wild animals. Sometimes they were tamed and kept as pets such as the lion of Ramses II who accompanied him in battle.[9]

    Exotic animals, bears, chickens, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, ostriches - some of which had been indigenous to the country in earlier times - were brought to Egypt by official trading expeditions or as part of the tribute which Nubia and other parts of the empire had to pay their overlord. The fate of these tributes is unknown: they may have been sacrificed to the gods or kept for the delectation of the pharaohs and their families.

Bear, 5th Dynasty; Egyptian Museum, Berlin - Excerpt from a picture in 'The Scientific American'-

Captive bear, 5th Dynasty
Source: Scientific American

    Bears seem to have attracted mankind since earliest times. Herodotus [4] reports that they are scarce in Egypt. Records exist proving that they were occasionally imported. Under Sahure (5th dynasty) Syrian bears were brought to Egypt [1]. These relatively docile bears were kept on leashes. According to Athenaios of Naucratis a captive white bear was housed by Ptolemy II in his private zoo at Alexandria.

    Animals, dangerous ones above all, were not always treated humanely. In the demotic story Lion in Search of Man a barbarous practice for making bears more amenable is mentioned:
a bear whose claws had been removed and whose teeth had been pulled
Lion in Search of Man [7]


    A ménagerie seems to have existed at Hierakonpolis in the middle of the second millennium BCE, possibly the earliest of zoos, where the local ruler kept powerful wild animals, symbols of power. More animal burials dating to this period have been uncovered there than at any other contemporary site. Bones of domesticated animals such as a cow and calf, cats and dogs, have been found, but also the remains of wild animals, among them a baboon, wild cats, a baby hippo and an elephant. The stomach contents of the elephant was also preserved and its analysis points to the animal having been feed by humans and therefore having lived in captivity.[8]

Thutmose's botanical garden relief at Karnak     Queen Hatshepsut acquired baboons when she had myrrh saplings brought to Egypt from the Horn of Africa, which, presumably, would have been kept somewhere, but no records exist. Among the animals imported from Punt were rhinos, giraffes, leopards, monkeys and more familiar species like cattle and hounds.[9]
    Her successor, Thutmose III, had a botanical garden engraved in the Festival Temple at Karnak, teeming with deer, birds and domesticated livestock and animals and plants brought back to Egypt from Syria. He also kept fowl that [lay eggs] daily, possibly chickens [2] imported from Mesopotamia.

Thutmose's botanical garden relief at Karnak
Source: Samivel The Glory of Egypt

    In his Upper Egyptian menagerie Akhenaten kept lions in domed buildings, antelopes in pens and cattle in an enclosure made of sticks and branches. There was also a pond, probably stocked with fish and water fowl. At the centre of the installation was a small palace with a window of appearances: courtiers and other mortals seem therefore to have had access to the grounds.
    Among the trees planted were doum palms, date palms and probably sycamore trees. Flowers were sown near the pond. Vines or other creepers were grown on trellisses. The three-room houses of the resident keepers and servants were built outside the rampart. Akhenaten's zoo
The zoo of Akhenaten [6]

    The zoo at Per-Ramesse, the capital Ramses II built in the eastern Delta, contained, according to the bones found, large animals. Lions, elephants and possibly giraffes were among the animals kept.[3]
    Ramses III, unlike his namesake Ramses II, was not a great builder but had splendid parks planted in his ancestor's residence, promenades with vines and olive trees and had flowers sown alongside the holy road.
I have made fruitful the whole land with the fruit of trees and shrubs. My hand did all this so that people may sit in the shade.
At Heliopolis he ordered the sacred ponds dredged
removing all the refuse that had accumulated in them since the beginning of the world
The Horus temple and its surroundings were refurbished
I said let the holy forest in your temple flourish. I replanted it where it had stood formerly and was destroyed and desolate. I sent gardeners to make it bloom and grow, so there may be oil and offerings of wine.
This combination of splendid buildings and beautiful natural surroundings much impressed Herodotus
In this city (Bubastis) there is a temple very well worthy of mention, for though there are other temples which are larger and build with more cost, none more than this is a pleasure to the eyes. Now Bubastis in the Hellenic tongue is Artemis, and her temple is ordered thus:--Except the entrance it is completely surrounded by water; for channels come in from the Nile, not joining one another, but each extending as far as the entrance of the temple, one flowing round on the one side and the other on the other side, each a hundred feet broad and shaded over with trees; and the gateway has a height of ten fathoms, and it is adorned with figures six cubits high, very noteworthy.

Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg

    At times the responsible for a park was unhappy with the vandalism perpetrated by careless visitors. Petosiris (ca 300 BCE) renovated temples and generally tried to improve holy sites.
I've protected the enclosure of the park in order to prevent the populace from stamping it with their feet, because it is the cradle of all the gods who began to be at the beginning. This place, the wretches trampled it. Anyone walked through it. They ate the fruit of its trees, they carried the reeds to the houses of all and sundry. As a result there was trouble in all the land because of it and there was no more well-being in Egypt because of it, as half the egg was buried in this place.
From the tomb of Petosiris,[5]
    Under the Ptolemies the greatest animal collection in the ancient world came into being at Alexandria. After the Roman conquest this menagerie served as staging post in the supply of wild African animals to be slaughtered in the circus at Rome.[9]


[2] Cf. Patrick Houlihan, The Animal World of the Pharaohs, Thames & Hudson 1996, p.201
[3] Eric P. Uphill, Egyptian Towns and Cities, Shire Publications LTD 2001, pp.62-65.
[4] Herodotus Histories, vol.2, 67.1
[5] Lefebvre. Gustave ; 1924, Le Tombeau de Petosiris, Le Caire: L'institut Français d'archéologie orientale. 3 volumes
[6] After Pierre Anus, "Un domaine thébain d'époque 'amarnienne'. Sur quelques blocs de remploi trouvés à Karnak", BIFAO 69 (1971), pp.69-88
[7] M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.158
[8] According to the Hierakonpolis site director Renee Friedman, cf National Geographic News: Egypt Pictures: Ancient Animal Graves From Private Zoo?, September 18, 2009
[9] Vernon N. Kisling, Zoo and aquarium history: Ancient animal collections to zoological gardens, CRC Press, 2001, pp.14f

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-[1] "Gardens of Eden: Exotic Flora and Fauna in the Ancient Near East" by Karen Polinger Foster (accessed March 2003)

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