We tend to think of Botanic Gardens as being very much a western invention, and that the earliest ones were founded in northern Italy in the 16th century. Of course it all depends what you mean by a botanic garden, but there’s certainly an arguable case for saying that botanic gardens in the widest sense of the word – as large deliberately gathered large collections of plants – existed hundreds, indeed thousands of years, before the foundation of the botanic gardens of Padua, Pisa or Oxford.
The earliest example I can find of plants being deliberately hunted down and collected come from ancient Egypt around 1500 BC where two pharaohs were so proud of their achievements that they not only ordered the deliberate collecting of plants but put them on their temple walls.
The two Pharaohs were Hatshepsut, only the second-known female monarch, and her step-son/nephew (i.e. he was born to one of her husband/brother’s secondary wives) who was also her co-ruler for a time, Thutmosis III.
Hatshepsut ruled around 1500-1450BC and built, as her lasting architectural legacy her own temple funerary complex cut into the cliffs at Deir el Bahari. She was also the brains behind the world’s first recorded plant hunting expedition. She came to power as Egypt was recovering from a period of instability and invasions and she was keen to re-establish maritime trading routes down the Red Sea and perhaps as far as the Persian Gulf and the African coast of the Indian Ocean. These routes opened up contact – although probably only second-hand – with the civilisations of the Indus valley which were emerging at the same time.
Apart from the obvious kinds of trade one that might not immediately spring to mind is that in aromatics and resins, although these played a significant role in Egyptian religion, magic and medicine. Some trees and plants, like Pistacia [which makes terebinth] were easily available from within the country itself, but the one that was prized above all others, known to the Egyptians as ntyw came from the Land of Punt.
The whereabouts of Punt are unknown and much argued about – but it’s likely to have been either on the Arabian side of the Red Sea, or somewhere along the northern coast of the Horn of Africa. There are convincing arguments for both so if you want to know more then see the detailed but fascinating discussion in Meeks, Locating Punt, 2003] and/or Charlotte Morgan’s analytical 2014 article “Where is Punt?”
Like earlier rulers Hatshepsut was interested in obtaining supplies of these resins for use as incense for temples, but also in embalming as well. Several other expeditions are recorded including that of the Pharaoh Sankhere around a thousand years earlier. However it would appear that then it was merely supplies of the resins themselves that were imported. Hatshepsut went one stage further. She decided to acquire live plants presumably so that Egypt could produce its own supplies.
The expedition was successful and its story can be seen on the walls of her mortuary temple in a series of paintings and reliefs. Although some of the images have faded or been obliterated, enough remain to show what happened in considerable detail, and luckily some of those now lost were copied and published by 19thc archaeologists.
Of course we don’t know how accurate the details in the paintings actually are, but it seems a safe assumption that they are at least representative of what occurred. They record 5 ships, each calculated to be over 20m long and bearing several sails, and carrying a total 210 people including sailors and 30 rowers.
Such specific images are extremely rare, as although there are thousands of depictions of boats in Egyptian art there are only 3 groups of sea-going ships, this being one of them.
The ships can be seen setting off, arriving in Punt, loading their cargo of, if the paintings are to be believed, 31 sizeable live trees with their roots carefully wrapped and put in baskets for the duration of the voyage, as well as large quantities of prepared resins as well as other plants, animals and other goods and then returning home.
This is, as far as I am aware, to be the first recorded deliberate movement and transplantation of trees. Of course it might be that records of earlier expeditions have not survived and Hatshepsut’s mission has been, as one observer suggests, “over-estimated because of her own propaganda.”
If Punt was an unknown destination then it’s equally unclear what kind of trees ntyw are. The most likely candidates would be Boswellia and/or Commiphora trees whose resins make frankincense and myrrh respectively. The reliefs show two distinct but conventional forms – one with masses of individual leaves, and the other with just bare outlines of branches and leaves. This could mean two different species entirely, but the outline trees are only seen during the loading process and the more luxurious growth only once the trees are back in Egypt. The accompanying inscription refers to them being green, young or fresh [depending on translation] so perhaps it is more likely that the trees are not particularly mature specimens, which would make sense since younger trees have a better chance of surviving transplantation.
So what did Hatshepsut do with her new trees?
It’s quite possible that the trees from Punt may have been destined to ornament the courtyard of Hatshepsut’s own funerary monument. This was a huge and impressive construction built during her lifetime at Deir el Bahari, next to the funeral temple of of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II, which had been built some 500 years earlier.
This would not have been uncommon. As we saw in a recent post about Pharaoh Sneferu there was a tradition of building gardens in the compounds of mortuary temples. Indeed in front of Mentuhotep’s temple archaeologists have uncovered regular rows of 10m deep tree pits which contained at least 55 tamarix T. aphylla and 2 rows of a kind of fig Ficus sycamorus forming a sacred grove. There were also 2 large flower beds.
Hatshepsut’s temple, although it was much grander, had fewer tree pits. Egyptian archaeologists have claimed in the past that the remains of at least one Boswellia [frankincense] tree was found during excavations off the front courtyard of the temple complex, but that claim has been disputed and the only documented archaeological remains in the tree pits are those of the persea tree, Mimusops laurifolia, another imported tree, from the regions to the south of Egypt.
Perseas are members of the same family as avocados. Mimusops is evergreen, with yellow or green fruit with sweet flesh, and shiny seed kernels. Its leaves and fruits have often been found in tombs.Her monument also boasted a lower garden area with pools full of papyrus.
Next door to Hatshepsut’s temple was that of Thutmosis III, although all that remains is a set of ruined foundations. Once again archaeology has revealed the existence of tree-pits up to 10m deep, which were well spaced and filled with black silt from the Nile. This garden area was surrounded by low walls to protect the trees and keep out the windblown sand.
But, apart from this traditional planting of trees at his funeral temple, Thutmosis seems to have been particularly interested in natural history, particularly plants. He is known, from inscriptions and paintings in tombs of his period, to have continued the importation of ntyw trees. There are for example, trees labelled as ntyw in large containers standing in amongst the commodities piled up for the use of Puyemre, in the afterlife, in his tomb which dates from the beginning of Thutmose’s reign. The tomb of Rekh-mi-re, another prominent official has a painting of servants carrying live trees which bear a remarkable resemblance to those of Hatshepsut.
Nor was Thutmose the last pharaoh known to have imported ntyw trees. Rameses III was still doing so 300 years later. One possible reason for the continued importation of live ntyw trees is because early attempts at transplantation were unsuccessful long term, perhaps because the species were unsuited to the Egyptian climate or if they were Boswellia then they are difficult to transplant from the rocky crevices in which they like to grow. This also makes Commiphora a less than likely candidate to be the ntyw because they are easily grown from cuttings and so could have been readily propagated in their new home. Certainly it’s clear from tomb inscriptions that incense resins was still imported into Egypt, often as tribute. Puyreme for example is shown “looking on the measuring of three great heaps of frankincense; receiving the specialities of Punt…and all manner of fragrant herbs.” [de Garis David vol.1 p80] Elsewhere the reliefs record tributes of gold, ivory, ebony & other exotic woods incense and frankinsence trees.
But Thutmose did much more than merely collect incense trees. He was a great military ruler and enlarged the Egyptian empire substantially, conquering much of the near East, westwards into Libya, south to Nubia [southern Sudan] and northwards right up to the Euphrates in modern day Iraq. Inscriptions and reliefs show his victories and boast that he captured 350 cities during his reign.
One of the ways in which these campaigns are recorded is a series of wall carvings at the famous Temple of Karnak, on the walls of two rooms – the vestibule and the ‘hidden’ sanctuary, with fragments in other places. They have been nicknamed the Botanical Garden, because they show a large number of exotic animals and plants some indigenous and some bought back to Egypt from his expeditions.
Because of its physical isolation from the rest of the temple, the sanctuary ‘Botanical Garden’ of Akh-menu is thought to have been a particularly sacred space and dedicatory inscriptions suggest the reliefs were an offering to the god Akh-menu or Amun, and contained “…all the plants that grow, all the flowers that are in God’s land …“ [For a discussion of their symbolism and function see Laboury, Archaeological and Textual Evidence for the Function of the “Botanical Garden” of Karnak in the Initiation Ritual, 2007]
Were this collection of “all the plants” just portrayed in a symbolic garden being offered to the deities by the Pharaoh in his temple, or, as I suspect, were they also growing together in a real garden. If so they would have to have been planted out in special areas so that they could be watered appropriately – probably like food crops along irrigation ditches but also away from the Nile itself to avoid its regular and important flooding. A similar question could be asked of the exotic animals and birds depicted in the reliefs.
The plants are stylised and sometimes difficult to identify but Nathalie Beaux, a Belgian botanist and egyptologist, has, with the help of others, analysed the carvings and identified the vast majority of the plants depicted.
She found indigenous plants such as lettuce, tamarisk, papyrus, persea and sycomore and lotus, but more interestingly also a series of “foreign” plants”, including pomegranates, iris, arums, kalanchoes, figs, & other kinds of palms and conifers – none of which are indigenous to Egypt . The pomegranate originates from near the Caspian Sea, the scarlet corn poppy from the Eastern Mediterranean, the Cedar from the coastal mountains of Lebanon, the Ebony tree from the southern Sahara, and there was also the sacred lotus – nelumbo nucifera- which comes originally from tropical Asia.
Below are a couple of sketches from Nathalie Beaux’s work with her identifications.
1: Ornithogalum narbonense 2: Nymphaea 3: Asphodelus aestivus 4 & 7: Iris atropurpurea, 5: Cordia ovalis? 8: Mimusops laurifolia 9: Iris albicans 10: Centaurea or Carthamnus or Scolymus 11: Euphorbia abyssinica or E. ammak 49: Vitis vinifera 50: Punica granatum 51 & 52 Vinis vinifera or Ziziphus spina-christi or Strychnios nux-vomica 6, 12 and 53 have not been identified. The insect at B is a cricket, and the birds at b are in the Passeridae [sparrow] family .
21 to 24: Arum dioscoridis 25: Melissa officinalis 26; Cornucopiae cucllatum 27: Mimusops laurifolia 28: Trachomitum venetum 29: Salix subserrata 30: not identified 56: Vitis vinifera 57: Convulvulaceae 58: Bellis sylvestris Birds: a. Anseriforme c. Columbidea e. Otididae d, f, g : not identified
I’ve looked in vain for a layperson’s guide to these plants but unfortunately although there are a lot of superficial mentions of Thutmose’s sanctuary [especially from travel companies who want to get visitors to go and see it] there is very little detailed commentary, apart from two academic texts in French listed below and this very short video. But I hope this has given you some idea of the scale and scope of Hatshepsut’s and Thutmose’s ambition.