by Annette Giesecke – Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington

Trees were taken up in God’s Land, and set in the ground in
Egypt … for the king of the gods. They were brought bearing
incense therein for (giving of themselves) ointment for the
divine limbs, which I owe to the Lord of the Gods … he commanded
me to establish a Punt in his house, to plant the trees of God’s
Land beside his temple, in his garden.

(Inscription, Temple of Hatshepsut, Deir-el-Bahri, Egypt)

The gardens of ancient Egypt, together with those of Mesopotamia, stand at the fore of garden history as preserved by the archaeological and written record. However, it is Egypt that has provided the earliest known example of an expedition launched to collect non-native plant species for transplantation at a specific site on foreign soils. This notable and bold expedition was undertaken at the behest of Hatshepsut (reigned ca. 1479–1458 BCE), one of Egypt’s only two known female pharaohs. The plants she sought were myrrh (Commiphora) and, quite possibly, frankincense (Boswellia), which were to be planted in the grounds of her magnificent temple at Deir el-Bahri.

Botanical gardens have changed in character and purpose over time, and they continue to do so, but plant-collection has remained at their core. The botanical gardens of the Italian Renaissance were physic gardens geared towards scientific inquiry, while those of the modern era are gardens “in which plants are cultivated for scientific research, conservation, and display to the public” for purposes of education, recreation, and/or entertainment (OED, botanical garden). Post-classical botanical gardens looked back to the plant-collections of the Roman empire and ancient Greece, especially that of Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus (ca. 371–ca. 287 BCE), but these classical gardens had their roots firmly in the very much older gardens of Egypt and the Ancient Near East. It is thus with Egypt that the story of botanical gardens begins.

Figure 1. “Funeral Ritual in a Garden, Tomb of Minnakht,” 20th-century facsimile of an original tomb painting. Dynasty 18, reign of Thutmose III. Original ca. 1479–1425 BCE from Upper Egypt, Thebes. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1930. Accession Number: 30.4.56

The ornamental gardens of ancient Egypt, as opposed to strictly agricultural enterprises, shared a recurrent set of features. In terms of design, their plan tended to be axial, and plantings symmetrical. There was a unity or dialogue between the garden and the structure—whether temple, tomb, palace, or house—to which it belonged, and a water feature, rectangular or t-shaped, was inevitably included. As for the plants commonly appearing in Egyptian gardens, these included waterlilies (Nymphaea lotus and N. caerulea), papyrus (Cyperus papyrus), date palms (Phoenix dactylifera), sycamore-fig trees (Ficus sycomorus), and tamarisks (Tamarix articulata). Both the plants and design elements of these gardens were filled with symbolism, being sacred to various deities and/or associated with stories about them. The sycamore-fig was sacred to the Sky Goddess, variously identified as Nut, Hathor, and Isis. Tamarisks served as favorite resting places for the bird(-shaped) soul of the god Osiris, lord of the afterlife and also the god of vegetation. Papyrus, the symbol of Upper and Lower Egypt, was the plant in which the goddess Isis hid her infant son Horus when she set out to find the scattered limbs of her husband Osiris, murdered and, in a grim power-play, torn asunder by his brother Seth. Date palms were sacred especially to the Sun God, Amun Re, but were also sacred to the Moon God, Thoth, and, due to this plant’s distinction as a producer of abundant fruit, had ancient and deep links with fertility. The lotus was associated with rebirth and life, for it was from this plant that the Sun God first rose skyward. The pools in which lotus and other water-plants grew were replicas in miniature of the chaotic, primeval Waters of Nun from which the first landmass, a great mound, emerged at the commencement of Creation. Pools and plants, symmetrically arranged, are represented in the gardens of the dead painted on the inner walls of many Egyptian tombs (Figure 1). They also feature in small “model” houses, complete with gardens, created as grave offerings and, like the painted gardens, avatars of the gardens to be enjoyed by the deceased in a paradisiacal afterlife (Figure 2). As will be shown, they feature in Hatshepsut’s “botanical garden” as well, though necessarily, and by design, on a grander scale.

Figure 2. “Model of a Porch and Garden.” Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12, reign of Amenemhat I, ca. 1981–1975 BCE. From Upper Egypt, Thebes, Southern Asasif, Tomb of Meketre. Wood, paint, and copper. Dimensions: L. 84.4 cm; W. 42.5 cm; H. 39.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1920. Accession Number: 20.3.13. In the centre of the garden is a pond surrounded by sycamore fig trees bearing red fruit. Facing the garden is the porch of a house. The rear row of columns supporting the porch roof have capitals in the form of papyrus stalks bound together, while the capitals of the front columns take the shape of lotus bundles.

Hatshepsut had been chief consort of her half-brother the pharaoh Thutmose (also known as Tuthmosis) II and, upon the pharaoh’s early death, she found herself in a challenging position politically. Thutmose III, her half-brother’s successor and son by a lesser queen, was under age, and Hatshepsut first became regent on his behalf. However, she would soon succeed in establishing herself not merely as regent but, near-unprecedentedly, as pharaoh, to this end assuming male attributes in her portraits (Figure 3). Legitimation of her status was key, but a successful military venture under her leadership was unfeasible. A significant venture of another sort, on the other hand, was in her grasp. As inscriptions attest, it was at the behest of the Amun Re, the Sun God himself, that Hatshepsut launched an expedition to God’s Land (his land), the legendary land of Punt, which is believed to lie in northeastern Africa, somewhere in the area of modern Eritrea, Ethiopia, and southern Sudan. Her stated goal was to secure the god’s sacred, fragrance-yielding resinous trees, convey them to Egypt, and plant them in a replica of their homeland. What she achieved strategically was economic control of this region and its most precious commodities, myrrh and frankincense. Further, like other regents in the Ancient Near East before and after her, she was now in a position to present herself as a “gardener king,” an effective means by which in a lasting way to project her godlike, pharaonic status. In the arid Egyptian landscape, lush, water-filled gardens, especially those containing exotic plants, would have been ample evidence of divine favor and an innate ability to nourish the kingdom’s people.

Figure 3. “Hatshepsut in a Devotional Attitude.” New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, ca. 1479–1458 BCE. From Upper Egypt, Thebes, Deir el-Bahri. The Metropolitan Museum, Rogers Fund, 1928. Accession Number: 28.3.18. Hatshepsut is represented here as an idealised male. This granite statue was one of a pair that stood on either side of a doorway on the upper terrace of Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri.

Hatshepsut’s replicated Punt took the form of a temple complex rising in a series of terraces up along the face of the desert cliffs of Deir el-Bahri, which lie on the western side of the Nile opposite Luxor (Figure 4). Perhaps the design of Senemut, royal Overseer of Works, the temple was at once architecturally in harmony with the landscape and, in terms of its gardens, in striking contrast to it. The lushly-planted forecourt contained two t-shaped pools that contained live papyrus and that flanked the great ramp by which visitors to the temple made their ascent. These pools were enclosed by a formation of circular planting pits that contained what is thought to have been a grove of trees—among them, one imagines, the sacred trees from Punt (Figure 5).

Figure 4. Mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut (foreground, reigned ca. 1475–1458 BCE ), and that of Menuhotep II (reigned ca. 2055–2004 BCE), Deir el-Bahri, Egypt. De Agostini Picture Library, G. Sioen, The Bridgeman Art Library.

Figure 5. Reconstruction of the mortuary temple and garden of Hatshepsut, Deir el-Bahri, Egypt. Color lithograph, Italian. Private Collection, De Agostini Picture Library, The Bridgeman Art Library. The archaeologically-attested t-shaped pools are shown as planters in this construction. Pools are shown on an upper terrace.

It can be no coincidence that Thutmose III (reigned as pharaoh ca. 1458– ca. 1425), who ultimately succeeded Hatshepsut upon her death, had a penchant for plant-collecting too. In this case, it was not just one or two foreign species in which he showed an interest but, instead, a vast assemblage. The plants in question appear on the so-called “botanic garden reliefs” adorning the Sun Rooms in the Festival Temple of Karnak built by the pharaoh (Figure 6). The Sun Rooms that house the Karnak reliefs are tucked away in a special offering area to the rear of the sanctuary, which itself was a memorial to Amun Re, the Sun God and Thutmose’s symbolic “father.” No earlier Egyptian painting or relief approximates the extent and diversity of plant species represented here: some fifty different plant species together with at least twenty-five species of birds and several cattle, goats, and gazelles appear. Interestingly, the botanic specimens include plants that are familiar from the garden paintings of Roman Pompeii, preserved by the 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius—iris, myrtle, oak, and bay laurel, for example. The Sun Room’s reliefs, which may well have been accompanied by living specimens planted in adjoining beds, are all identified by inscriptions as having been brought to Egypt by Thutmose on his return from military campaigns in what are now Palestine and Syria: “Plants which His Majesty found in the Land of Retenu. All plants that grow, all flowers that are in God’s land.” These plants, like Hatshepsut’s myrrh, are offerings to Amun Re, and the botanic garden itself is a reflection of empire, conquered lands and control of their wondrous resources. Presumably Thutmose’s living, transplanted booty would have thrived, bathed in the nourishing light of Amun’s Sun. The plants depicted in stone, meanwhile, have endured to this day, offering an invaluable insight into the nature and extent of plant-collecting in antiquity.

Figure 6. Botanical Garden-Relief of Thutmose III. Festival Hall of Thutmose III, in the Precinct of Amun-Re, Karnak, Egypt. Ca. 1450 BCE. Photo by Solbaken, Wikimedia Commons.


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