ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian Horticulture:
The gardens (The private domain, A place for intimacy, The kitchen-garden)–The gardenersGardening tools

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Horticulture: Gardens and gardeners

Egypt, the beautiful garden of Osiris
The Nubian sorcerer
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, p.144
    Hemmed in on both sides by deserts the Nile flood plain contrasts sharply with its surroundings, and ancient Egyptians, above all those living south of the Delta, were never far from the inhospitable wasteland of the arid red earth, the realm of the god Seth who killed his brother Osiris, where few plants would grow and few animals could survive.

Garden with pond
British Museum

    The banks of the Nile on the other hand were lush with reeds, trees afforded shade and fruit, the grass of pastures fed the cattle, and in the adjacent irrigation basins wheat and barley were grown which kept men alive. The gods were generous indeed to this people–at least some of the time.

The gardens

    The role of country squire sitting in his well-ordered garden in front of his house surrounded by his fields in which his servants were labouring, was somewhat of an Egyptian ideal. Few could afford idleness and even the wealthy seem to have kept themselves pretty busy. Yet anyone who could afford it, had a garden adjacent to his home to relax in.
    Planting a garden was highly recommended by the sages. The 19th dynasty Instruction of Ani lists it as one of the important actions a new householder was to perform:
Learn about the way of a man
Who undertakes to found his household.
Make a garden, enclose a patch,
In addition to your plow land;
Set out trees within it,
As shelter about your house.
Fill your hand with all the flowers
That your eye can see;
One has need of all of them,
It is good fortune not to lose them.
The Instruction of Any (Chester Beatty Papyrus V)
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.139
    If one was lucky like the fictitious Sinuhe, after he returned from his self-imposed exile in Canaan, one got everything ready made:
I was given a house and garden that had belonged to a courtier.
The Story of Sinuhe
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.233
    But not for the Egyptians the garden imitating nature which the romantic Englishmen of the nineteenth century created in their world from which wild nature had long been banned. The Egyptians loved the formal garden, where trees and other plants stood in straight rows, as if saluting the victory of order over chaos.
    The gods, and their servants, enjoyed walks through their parks. The "viewing-place" (mArw) of Amen at Thebes was an open air sanctuary, where there were ponds filled with groundwater, the primordial Nun:
Another monument that his majesty made for his father Amun was making for him a viewing-place as a divine offering, opposite Southern Ipet, a place of relaxation for my father at his beautiful feast. I erected a great temple in its midst, resembling Re when he rises on the horizon. It is planted with all kinds of flowers. Nun is happy in its pond ...
Stela of Amenhotep III
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.45
    But occasionally the gods also seem to have been interested in the produce gardens could supply. In the Contendings between Horus and Seth the latter god enjoyed hearty meals of lettuce, to the ancient Egyptians a well known aphrodisiac, grown in his own garden:
Isis at morning time went carrying the semen of Horus to the garden of Seth and said to Seth's gardener: "What sort of vegetable is it that Seth eats here in your company?"
So the gardener told her: "He doesn't eat any vegetable here in my company except lettuce."
Lettuce gardens like these were dedicated to the fertility god Min[1] During the Late Period Feasts of the Earth the pharaoh was ritually addressed while the seshep-cloth was being brought:
Greetings, pharaoh l.p.h., in peace in the (lettuce) garden!
Pap. Brooklyn 47.218.50 [2]
    Gardens were also indispensable for the well-being of the dead. At times they were only painted on the walls of the tombs, with their trees, ponds, flowers, shrubs and gardeners attending them, at others they were real and formed part of the funerary domain:
Mortuary priests were given me. A funerary domain was made for me. It had fields and a garden in the right place, as is done for a Companion of the first rank.
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.233

The private domain

    Ordinary citizens may have had a few square metres of walled garden space, where they could relax in the company of their family and friends; the gardens of the rich were correspondingly larger. Rekhmire, an 18th dynasty vizier and scion of a family of important civil servants, had a picture of his tree garden with gardeners looking after the plants painted on a wall of his tomb. At its centre there was a pond big enough for a small boat to float in. Rekhmire is shown standing in it, his servants pulling it through the water with ropes:
    To reach a country residence one often crossed its garden first. The entrance was through a gate, at times reminiscent of the pylons of temples. In one of the Demotic Setne Khamwas tales Setne travelled to Bubastis to see Tabubu: Nobleman's house

Nobleman's house and garden
Source: James Henry Breasted, Survey of the Ancient World 1919, p.69

When he (i.e. Setne) came to the west of the suburb he found a very lofty house that had a wall around it, a garden on its north, and a seat (perhaps a reception hall or the like) at its door. Setne asked, "Whose house is this?" They told him, "It is the house of Tabubu." Setne went inside the wall. While he turned his face to the storehouse in the garden they announced him to Tabubu.
Setne and Tabubu
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, p.134
    Among the pastimes indulged in in the privacy of one's garden may also have been sporting activities. Amenhotep II, not one to be shy about displaying his abilities and talking about them, had a shooting range installed in one of his gardens:
Entering his northern garden, he found erected for him four targets of Asiatic copper, of one palm in thickness, with a distance of twenty cubits between one post and the next.
The Great Sphinx Stela of Amenhotep II at Giza
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.41

A place for intimacy

    The romantic New Kingdom love poetry celebrated gardens as the ideal backdrop for lovers' trysts. They were safe places, where nature was tamed, much in tune with the character of the poetry full of longing, but generally devoid of raw passion. royal couple in a garden
My gaze is fixed on the garden gate,
My brother will come to me;
Eyes on the road, ears straining,
I wait for him who neglects me.
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.191
Some lovers may have been ready to face crocodiles lurking on the banks of the Nile, but others were more wary and canals flowing into gardens promised fulfillment with less risk of getting hurt:
I am thy first sister, and to me thou art as a garden which I have planted with flowers and all sweet-smelling herbs. And I have directed a canal into it, that thou mightest dip thy hand into it when the north wind blows cool.
Arthur E. P. B. Weigall The Treasury of Ancient Egypt, Chapter IV, Rand McNally & Company, Chicago and New York, 1912

The kitchen-garden

Gardeners in a kitchen garden     Kitchen gardens were of great economic importance. They supplied vegetables and fruit vital to human health.

Gardeners transplanting lettuces and watering them
Tomb of Mereruka, Old Kingdom, Sakkara

Growing vegetables was very labour intensive. Apart from planting and weeding the vegetable gardener had to irrigate his plants, as rain was virtually unknown in Egypt and water had to be carried from the bank of the Nile or from a well. Moreover, as these plots lay above the high water level of the Nile and did not receive an annual deposit of silt, they also had to be artificially fertilized.[5] In the mastaba of Niankh-khnum and Khnum-hotep the following legends accompany wall depictions:
The watering of the garden on the land of the mortuary foundation by the gardener (kAn,w).
The watering of the garden.
The hoeing by the gardener.
Mastaba des Nianch-Chnum und Chnum-hotep, Torraum, Nordwand, Szene 9-11 [3]
    Kitchen gardens were divided into rectangular plots and the plants planted at regular intervals.

The gardeners

    Of the gardeners, the kAnt.jw or kAn.w, weeding the flower beds, the vintners, kAm.yw labouring in the vineyards, or the jr.w-sm.yw, the vegetable gardeners growing lettuces and onions, we know but little. There are a few depictions showing their work, and a few sentences describing their labour, but they remain anonymous, mentioned in lists of servants:
This is a missive to inform you (concerning) the [equipment] of the temple, which is here under my control in the northern district, and which reaches from the gate of ///// to the confines of the Delta, of the three watercourses of the Nile ///// to the river arm of Avaris, with labourers of all the people of the temple of Amen, consisting of the herdsmen of all the herds, which are in the meadows of the Amen temple at Thebes, consisting of /////, consisting of cowherds, goatherds, shepherds, pigmen, donkey herders, mule herders, gooseherds, fishermen, fowlers, gardeners, salt workers, natron workers, reed workers, who are in the papyrus thickets and cut mats, rope makers /////
oGardiner 86, Brief des Pa-nehesi an Hori (Zeile [9])
Some of the gardeners were foreign slaves, taken prisoner in one of the many campaigns the Egyptians led into Canaan and Nubia during the New Kingdom:
I made for it an orchard,
Planted with all fruit trees,
Its gardeners being foreigners,
Brought in as prisoners.
Statue inscription of Peftuaneiths
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, p.35
They are long forgotten. It is their supervisors who left their mark and whose names are perpetuated.
    Nakht, who lived during the 18th dynasty, was Gardener of the Divine Offerings of Amen at Thebes. Flowers were an important part of the temple decorations and offerings and Nakht was responsible for supplying them. In his tomb his son is depicted presenting a bouquet to the gods .(Michael Rice, Who's who in Ancient Egypt, Routledge, 1999, p.121) Nedjemger

Scene from TT 138. Nedjemger and his garden. At the center of the excerpt one of his underlings can be seen operating a shadoof.

    Nedjemger, overseer of the garden in the Ramesseum during the 19th dynasty, was also buried in a splendid tomb. The tomb decorations show him fulfilling his duties in this world: supervising gardeners and inspecting bouquets and garlands, being buried and setting out on the path through the underworld together with his wife, the Chantress of Amen-Re Naushaat.
    These overseers were not the kind of men to get their hands dirty. Much as upper class Egyptians enjoyed the fruits of their gardeners' exertions, they had mostly only contempt for the labourers. One would be hard put to imagine Thutmose III, whose armies brought back many unknown plants from the Middle East, or Ramses III, who prided himself on endowing temples with huge gardens, as hobby gardeners bent over a bed of daisies:
The gardener carries a yoke,
His shoulders are bent as with age;
There's a swelling on his neck
And it festers,
In the morning he waters vegetables,
The evening he spends with the herbs,
While at noon he has toiled in the orchard.
He works himself to death
More than all other professions.
The Satire of the Trades
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.187
    But one ordinary Egyptian gardener's name at least is known to this day, thanks to a demotic contract dating from the third or fourth century CE. It was concluded between Talames, daughter of Imuthes, and the gardener Peftumont and lists the latter's duties:
...If you intend to be gardener for me in my garden, then you are to give water to it. You are to give (2?)8 (drawings of water to it, in the proper measure of 28 hins of water to the (pot?), and you are to give 20 drawings (at the beginning of?) (the) water of (inundation?) and 20 (afterward?). You are to (connect?) the (dyke?) to my garden (against?) the drawing which you shall cast; and you are to put it behind the gardens; and you are not to cause me to compel you to do it. I am to ask you for your work at evening, and you are to give it to me, when it is complete and whole. And you are to twist and splice 200 (cubits?) of plait...and you are to stitch 4 (earth?)-baskets; and you are to give them (rim-cords?); and you are to give them their (handles?). And you are to make them as your work at evening, and you are to give them to me, when they are complete, (for?) the cutting which is to be (made) to my garden. And you are to go to "The Island of the Atum," and you are to bring (fibers?) of (palm-leaf?) to it, (namely from) "The Island of the Atum" to my garden. ...... You have not (caused?) it, my eyes being... for sparrows and [food] for crows. And you are to cause that I (find?) them (hanging?) (above?) me...
APIS record: chicago.apis.8269
This contract became infamous because of its petty stipulation, which allowed Talames to check on the integrity of her gardener and prevent pilfering on his behalf:
And I am to ask you for your dung three times daily; and I am to probe it with a (stalk?) of (flax?). The (grape seed?) which I shall find in it, I am to (take?) [(for it?)] one obol to the (seed?) among them.
APIS record: chicago.apis.8269
    Gardening was a full-time job–Peftumont for instance was expected to make baskets in the evenings–and required the full attention of the gardener. Gardens could not survive without a gardener's care:
[If] a gardener becomes a fisherman his [trees] perish.
The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq
M. Lichtheim: Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, p.173
    The intensive care gardeners lavished on their plants, the hard toil they invested carrying water and weeding under the burning Egyptian sun is reflected in metaphors, such as in the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant:
The gardener (kAn.y) of evil is busy watering his garden with injustice in order to grow falsehood and in order to water what comes (i.e. the evil) of the [estate or eternity]
The Eloquent Peasant [4]

Gardening tools

    The gardener's tools were basic: planting sticks, hoes to dig with, baskets for carrying earth and fruit, knives and adzes for pruning, and earthen pots - often tied to yokes - for irrigation.
    At first, hoes were made of wood with varying blade widths fulfilling the functions o pickaxe, hoe and shovel. Later, as metals became available, blades were made of bronze and finally of iron. The wooden handles remained short throughout Egyptian history, and the worker had to labour bent over, straining his back. Hoes

(From left to right)
Wooden hoe, 1st dynasty
Wooden hoe, 12th dynasty
Iron mattock, Roman period
Source: Petrie Museum website

    Kitchen gardens, being adjacent to the houses, lay on ground not reached by the waters of the rising Nile. Gardeners, source: Lepsius Therefore they had to be irrigated by hand during the whole growing season of the plants, with water drawn from a well or fetched from a canal or the Nile itself. Heavy pots were used for this purpose. Since the middle of the second millennium BCE the shadoof,[5] an upright frame supporting a pole which has a container tied to one end and a counterpoise to the other, was used to raise the necessary water, probably above all in the big gardens belonging to large domains. If properly set up a shadoof can raise a few cubic metres of water several metres per day. The more sophisticated Persian wheel was introduced under the Ptolemies.[5] Pruning hooks, rake. Source: Petrie Museum website

(From left to right)
Pruning hook, Ptolemaic period
Pruning hook, Roman period
Wooden rake, New Kingdom
Source: Petrie Museum website

    Knives and occasionally adzes were used for pruning trees and vines. Generally these knives had the form of hooks. If trees had to be felled, axes rather than saws were employed.


[1] Karol Mysliwiec, Geoffrey L. Packer, Eros on the Nile, Cornell University Press, 2004, p.12
[2] Pap. Brooklyn 47.218.50: After a transcription and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, F. Feder ed., Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => späte Ritualbücher => Tempelbibliotheken => Bibliothek eines Tempels im Delta (Heliopolis?) => Pap. Brooklyn 47.218.50 ("Confirmation du pouvoir royal au nouvel an") => 1. Ritual(handlungen) des 'Grossen Sitzes', die während der Feste der Erde vollzogen werden
[3] After a transcription and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, S. Grunert ed., Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Sakkara => Unas-Friedhof => Mastaba des Nianch-Chnum und Chnum-hotep => Torraum => Nordwand => Szene 9-11
[4] The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant from the transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, ed. Peter Dils => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => literarische Texte => 2. Reden und Dialoge => Der beredte Bauer => pBerlin 3023 + pAmherst I (Bauer, B1), Line [294/alt 263]
[5] Paul Philip Howell, John Anthony Allan, The Nile: Sharing a Scarce Resource : a Historical and Technical Review of Water Management and of Economic and Legal Issues, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.66

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