It’s hard to imagine but at one time, perhaps thousands of years ago, the Sphinx and the tombs, temples and pyramids of Egypt were surrounded by lush gardens.
I’m reading the most interesting book right now called The Garden in Ancient Egypt It’s been a fascinating look at a time in history that mesmerizes many people – the time of the great pharaohs. In the book, the author takes a scholarly look at the historical record to paint a vivid picture of gardens, gardening, and plants beloved of the ancient Egyptians. I’ve learned, for example, that sacred temples were surrounded by lush gardens planted with trees sacred to the Egyptian gods. The climate during the height of the Egyptian empire was different than it is now and much of the land covered with desert was arable, and the Egyptians used clever inventions such as running water through channels and troughs placed in their gardens to cool the surrounding area.
I’ll share more details as I keep reading, but the best details so far was the picture the author painted of the gardens for an upper middle class or upper class Egyptian family – perhaps nobles, or priests, or wealthy merchants.
Each home would be surrounded by two walls. Visitors passed through a gateway into an outer walled courtyard planted with stately trees native to the area. A second wall and doorway led into the private gardens for the family. There visitors would find vegetable patches and fruit trees, with a water feature such as a pool filled with water and lily pads. Over the entrance to the home would be a covered veranda or porch with vines trained to grow over it for shade. If the home didn’t have such a porch over its entrance, it would be on the side of the home and used for an outdoor workshop. The looms for weaving the family’s cloth might be there, or tables for crafts and household preparation, all covered by a living canopy of greenery and flowers.
The Egyptians were fond of symmetry in all of their designs, including gardens. Walkways were symmetrical, with the pond or water feature, a symbol of life, in the center of the garden.
I am reading this book in small sips rather than big gulps so my imagination can catch up to my reading. Archaeology is an interest of mine. In order of my hobbies, I’d put gardening and model horse collecting first, followed by singing and piano playing (really music of all types) and sewing, and then casual passing interests such as archaeology and history. I just love this combination of gardening and archaeology though, and this book is amazing for its scholarly work and unusual subject matter.
How does the author know about Egyptian gardens when the land is now desert? There’s evidence of planter boxes (!) and water features around the old temples, and lots of paintings on tomb and temple walls depicting gardening. Papyrus scrolls and other written records also mention the gardens and various plants sacred to Egyptian deities. Lastly, as centuries passed, the Romans visited Egypt and described tantalizing remnants of their once-great gardens. Many civilizations including the Babylonians and Assyrians copied Egyptian gardens and the great Hanging Gardens of Babylon are thought to be copied from Egyptian gardens.
I wish I had a time machine like Dr. Who and could step back in time and just peek out and see them. I’ve never been one to yearn to live in times past – who wants a time without refrigeration, running water and modern medicine? – but I do wish I could see it, just for a moment.
I imagine some Egyptian gardener stepping outside his home to weed, just as I’m heading out today to get a jump on my flower garden weeds.
And while I don’t plant trees in honor of Jesus, there is such a thing as a “Mary Garden” with flowers chosen that symbolize the Blessed Mother, Jesus’ mother, and people today do still place statues of angels, Jesus, Mary and saints in the garden. I have also seen Buddhas and Hindu statues placed in gardens too. And as I think about it, Jesus went to a garden to pray, so perhaps it is instinctive in people to seek God in the garden.
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.