Sneferu… and his garden

Limestone figure of Sneferu,   from Egyptian Museum, Cairo

No… it’s not an old English dialect swear word, or a disease of sheep or anything remotely similar, instead Sneferu was an early Egyptian pharaoh who ruled around 4500 years ago. Like Ozymandias he would have been long forgotten but for the fact that he left behind an extraordinary funeral monument or two.

When we think of the pyramids I’m sure everyone thinks of the famous ones at Giza  which were  built by Sneferu’s sons and grandsons. In fact they were based on a new architectural form which Sneferu had pioneered and almost perfected.

But this a blog about the history of gardens and designed landscapes so why am I waffling is on about the evolution of  pyramids in Egypt?  It’s because archeology has now shown that Sneferu’s pyramids were not designed in isolation and in fact  sat in the middle of a complex of buildings and gardens  which is [I think] the earliest known example of large-scale landscape design.

When I began to search for a few basic facts about Sneferu [or Snefru or Snofru] I soon discovered that there aren’t that many, and even some of those  are disputed. As a historian I’m used to there being disagreements like that but I was not prepared however for the range of  alternative theories amongst Egyptologists, or the number of bizarre “mystical”  takes on the early pyramids, or indeed the number of video games based on them.  Just proves you should never believe everything you read on the web.    So, not being a specialist by any stretch of the imagination,  I’ve made a judgement about what seems the most likely narrative but you can read many of the archaeological reports and research papers and judge for yourself by following the links …and just start googling if you want to see the more fantastical stuff.
Unfortunately very little painting or carved relief survives from such an early period, so some of the images I have used are from later periods.

So who was Sneferu?   He was the founding  pharaoh of the Old Kingdom’s  Fourth Dynasty around 2600BC  and probably the greatest of all of Egypt’s early rulers.  He’s also the first for whom there is a named known likeness. Evidence suggests he reigned for at least 24 years and maybe for as many 48, and apart from his establishment of Egypt as a major military and trading power he was a great builder. Most things have disappeared but his own funerary monuments survive because of their massive scale and size.

Every schoolchild knows that the Egyptians built pyramids as burial places for their ruler the pharaoh. In fact Sneferu was only the second pharaoh to build a pyramid – the earlier one was stepped rather than smooth sided  – and his was the  first attempt to construct one that is geometrically “true”.  This was at Dahshur on a high limestone plateau  about 40km south of modern-day Cairo, and about 25 km from the ancient capital of Memphis. Construction was probably on a scale unmatched in all previous world history. The new pyramid had a base length of 189 m [620 feet] and a total volume of more than 1.2 million cubic metres [1.6 million cubic yards]. If that doesn’t sound big then it covered  3.5 hectares or nearly 9 acres and stood a height of 105 m [344 ft]  high – about the same height as St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

I said the new pyramid but what I should have said was the new pyramids, because there were two. The first, in the south of the site,  probably suffered from construction faults because of underlying geological problems.  Fears of a collapse were supposed to have led to an enforced change in the angle of the slope about two thirds of the way up, that earned it the nickname of  “the Bent Pyramid ”   It used to be thought that this  led Sneferu to construct another pyramid about 2 kilometres further north, but more recent archaeology suggests that the second pyramid was actually being constructed almost simultaneously and on the same scale. Now known as the Red Pyramid because of the colour of its inner stonework  in the light of the setting sun, it was originally covered in a casing of polished white limestone.

[ If you want a detailed analysis of this & the critique of the “collapse” theory then check Giulio Magli, Architecture, Astronomy and Sacred Landscape in Ancient Egypt, 2013]

The Dahshur Plateau. The modern town is on the flood plain on the right and the two pyramids can be seen on the left in the desert, with the stone causeway that led to the Bent pyramid clearly visible.                         From Google Earth

Despite seeming  a bit odd this duality is a known feature of some other early funerary projects such as  Djoser’s Step Pyramid complex,  perhaps a reference to Egypt being two kingdoms – Upper and Lower Egypt -making  one of pharaoh’s titles “ruler of the two lands”.  The Bent and Red pyramids are visually the same height, [ie the difference in ground level was taken into account in the design, so the pyramidons or caps on the very apex looked level]. The angle of the slopes is the same on the lower part of the Bent [ie before the building problems] and the Red.  Despite the building problems  the Bent pyramid was not abandoned but finished and still could have functioned as a burial site.  In fact both pyramids have funerary chambers and a complex of annexes, including  temples, both were reached by causeways  although that of the Red Pyramid is unexcavated. The thinking now is that the Bent  pyramid was designed as a cenotaph or symbolic tomb.  Hieroglyphic inscriptions also show that both were associated with Sneferu.

The Red Pyramid was called “Sneferu shines” while the Bent Pyramid was “Sneferu shines” with an additional hieroglyph meaning “south”, and  the whole complex at Dahshur was referred to as “The two pyramids – Sneferu shines”.


Djew represents the mountains that hold up the ends of the earth and represents the afterlife

To reinforce the significance of this double project it has been discovered that “when viewed from the (already old and revered at Sneferu’s time) necropolis at Saqqara,  the two pyramids form a giant version of the symbolic hieroglyph djew.  This sign was associated with afterlife and was already extremely ancient” . [Magli , “The Giza “written” landscape”]

screenshot of the two pyramids from Discovery Channel programme about Sneferu.

All fascinating I’m sure you’re thinking but as so often on here I can hear the “so what’s”  beginning to start?  It’s because the two  pyramids are part of a much larger designed landscape, that picked up on several other important factors  associated with life, death and the afterlife for the ancient Egyptians and which seem, from at first sight, to be almost unbelievable to the modern eye.

Its difficult to imagine at first sight because the Dahshur landscape has altered drastically over the intervening 4500 years but recent archaeology is beginning to reveal quite how much.  It’s clear for example now that huge amounts of material was required to build the cores of the pyramids, and it was obtained from  the surrounding landscape. In the process the plateau was  flattened and shaped into a more aesthetically and mathematically pleasing form.  Since then  sand has blown in from the desert altering the  the terrain,  in places making it as much as 7 or 8 metres higher, while also  filling in the quarries and wadis [very steep valleys or ravines formed by water during the very rare rains] and covering buildings and other man-made features.

The dual pyramids were not built at the very edge of the Nile flood plain but a considerable distance out into desert and high above the high water point when the Nile flooded.

Distance from the river and everyday life and existence is thought to have been a mark of distance from the common people, and pharaoh being virtually divine had, of course, no need for daily necessities.  Later burials in the necropolis  show similar signs. The more important people were the further out into the desert they were buried.


From the plateau heights where the pyramids stood there were several deep wadis cutting through the steep scarp. When the Nile flooded it reached the bottom of these wadis but for most of the year of course these areas were dry.  [The Nile has migrated east several kilometres since then].  Yet travel around  the country was fastest and most effective by boat, and the same was true after death as well as in life. The body of the Pharaoh was taken by boat to his tomb and this required a harbour or at the very least jetties and quays, and if the Nile was not in flood some sort of waterway or canal to allow access.

At Dahshur it’s been discovered that the nearest wadi to the Bent Pyramid was substantially altered. Its quite easy to see from the photos above and below that both the course and the sides of the ravine have been made more regular.

Next  a huge harbour – 95m x 145m – was constructed on the edge of the valley floor.

From there a 140m long brick causeway led  up to  a temple complex, while another  causeway, this time of stone and 700m in length  went from the temple  on to the pyramid itself.  Of course this was partly practical:  the construction of the harbour and the subsequent alterations to the valley were needed to bring in other building materials and supplies for the thousands of people employed working on the pyramid project.  Ditto the causeways.

But they were constructed in line with  religious belief and had ceremonial uses after the death of the pharaoh.  In fact it’s been discovered that looking along  the stone causeway on winter solstice sees the sun appearing  to set precisely behind the apex of the pyramid. [Belmonte & Shaltout, In Search Of Cosmic Order- selected Essays on Egyptian Archaeoastronomy. 2009]  By contrast The Red Pyramid’s causeway was probably orientated due east for the sunrise, although that can’t be proved definitively because it hasn’t been excavated yet.

But from our point of view the most important feature was really only identified in 2o12. This was  a large walled garden laid out to on the north side of the  temple well away from the river or any natural water supply.   Excavations began in earnest in 2o13 and 2014, when half of the site  was finally  investigated by the German Archaeological Institute.

The garden was large, about 80m  by 55 m and surrounded by a substantial mud and brick wall. In the centre was a small brick building with a colonnaded courtyard and  the remains of a sunken pool.

On the western side where the excavations occurred  archeologists found 4 rows of 26 tree pits,  dug out of the desert sand, filled with fertile alluvial soil and served with irrigation channels.  They were about 2m apart and up to a metre across. More tree pits were discovered on the two adjacent sides, but were not fully investigated. Altogether it’s estimated there were 300 trees in the garden.

Narrow strips of alluvial soil were found elsewhere and thought to be flower beds.  Pollen analysis identified various kinds of indigenous palms and socomore trees but also cypress trees thought to be Syrian in origin.  It’s also possible, as a 2015 conference on the trade in plants in antiquity pointed out that Myrrh and Frankincense trees – from the Land of Punt  – were there because they are depicted on temple  reliefs.  However root survival suggests that none of the trees were particularly large.



Archaeologists think the garden complex was originally laid out when work began at Dahshur.  It was later altered and enlarged when the temple was built, and from various surviving inscriptions its thought the garden could only have been used for about 14 years which would explain why the trees were not large.

Rites in a ceremonial garden with ponds, from the tomb of Rekhmire

No-one knows why the garden was built or who used it. One thought is that it was for the officials overseeing the project but the building does not have sleeping quarters and it’s much more likely that the building and its garden was for  “ritual use conducted during the lifetime of the pharaoh , possibly in the context of the renewal of his kingship.”  It’s certainly known that for longer lived monarchs there were jubilee festivals which involved building a special building and gardens.  But the fact that water would have to be carried or channeled to the site meant the garden was a significant element of the  pyramidal complex and a deliberate act of landscape design.  The prevailing thought seems to be that the garden was abandoned once Sneferu had been buried, probably in the Red Pyramid.  Tree  pits have also been identified there too  but there has been much less investigation of that site and so  knowledge is perforce limited.

So what we have at Dahshur is a large scale piece of landscape manipulation although, as in later landscape design projects, many of the features were   largely as a  result of practical considerations, but which probably  had  religious significance as well. Nicole Alexanian and Felix Arnold, in their article on the landscape at Dahshur suggest that some aspects of the landscape relate to known funeral rituals from earlier in the Old Kingdom, which included sacred enclosures and pools, but they argue that the landscape here was not designed just for Sneferu’s funeral but for eternity and so there will have been ritualistic and mythical in intention. They also suggest parallels with other cultures where great landscaping projects had functions other than the obvious. The Taj Mahal for example was constructed as an earthly exemplar of paradise as described in the Quran, whereas the tombs of the  Tang emperors at Xian in China were reflections of their  palaces.

Excavations are continuing at Dahshur and will almost certainly reveal more but its already clear that the early pyramids were more than just burial sites in the middle of the desert but  the equivalent of artificial mountains set in an artificial and often green landscape. 

For more info on Egyptian gardens generally see: Linda Farrer, Gardens and Gardeners of the Ancient World, 2000 ; Alix Wilkinson, The Garden in Ancient Egypt, 1998, and her article in Garden History, Summer 1994, “Symbolism and Design in Ancient Egyptian Gardens”


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4 Responses to Sneferu… and his garden

  1. cboot says:

    It brought me up short when a lecturer explained the time periods involved. She stated, and of course it’s true, that the distance in time from the builders of the pyramids to Cleopatra, a figure we are sort of familiar with, is great rthan the period from Cleopatra to us in the modern day. But haw marvellous to find they were building gardens whether as memorials or for pleasure just as we still do today. And of course in this frenetic world we live in, 14 years might be a good run for a garden today…

  2. Pat Webster says:

    David, your articles continue to fascinate me. This one is particularly interesting and makes me want to read more. Thanks for introducing me to this early garden.

    • Thanks for the flattery Pat. I’m delighted that you enjoy my efforts – please keep spreading the word…
      and of course I love reading about Glen Villa – one day I hope to get to see it properly for myself

      • Pat Webster says:

        Not flattery, genuine response. And you’d be most welcome at Glen Villa.

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