Ancient Egyptian temples and gardens played a vital role in Egyptian’s society and culture. Temples were the Loci between various spheres – human and divine, heaven and earth, chaos and order. They were built at sacred places that had astronomical and topographical connections. In addition, pharaohs tended to grow plants in their temples as gardens to demonstrate their power and splendour. A garden was also viewed as a cosmos, representing both Egypt and the Universe. It reflected the quality of a mythological landscape and a world of after-life. In brief, the design philosophies and elements of temples and gardens were deeply associated with Egyptian’s understandings of the broader landscape and culture.
2. The Temple of Hatshepsut
The Temple of Hatshepsut is located at Thebes, Egypt, clinging to the mountainside of Deir el-Bahri, the sacred place of Hathor. It is in line with the Temple of Amun at Karnak across the river. It is oriented to the western solstice sunrise and the final sanctuary could be lighted up by the sunshine. Hatshepsut’s tomb wasn’t placed in the temple, it was located at roughly opposite of the cliff, in Valleys of the Kings, on the temple’s axis. Several pharaohs chose the valley as the place for their tombs, because it wouldn’t be found and stolen as easily as connecting tombs with other elements which pyramids did. Also, viewing from Karnak, the sun sets at the valley, which indicates the end and renewal of a pharaoh’s life.
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The most intriguing design of the Temple of Hatshepsut is that it was built on a rising succession of platforms. At that time no other temples were designed in that way. It was believed that the architect Senenmut was forced by the natural landscape to propose this idea. One of the purposes of this temple was to replace the position of Temple of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep during the Beautiful Feast of the Valley when Amun visits Thebes. Hence, a three-level design was created to squeeze in the small and sloping space left between the Mentuhotep’s temple and the cliff. The different levels of terraces were connected by an ascending ramp and differentiated by colonnades. During the festival, the procession will start from her riverside valley and along the ramp up to her funerary temple. The rising courtyards create theatrical effects and makes the temple a focal point within the natural landscape. With no elements at a gigantic scale, it still gives people a spectacular feeling.
Walking from the riverside to the gateway, excavator Naville mentioned that the avenue had sphinxes along but no trees. The sphinxes were statues of the queen, they were 3 metres high each and stood at intervals about 10 metres. They were the guardians of the temple and demonstrated the power which the pharaoh had over the foreigners. At the entrance of the gateway, Naville found two roots of Mimusops laurifolia. There arrangement represented the sycomores on the horizon of the heaven. Namely, when visitor passed these trees, he entered the heaven. Naville was interested in finding how the plants were watered but it was quite unclear since no water channel was found. Furthermore, the scale of plantations was limited because at that era people still relied on manual watering.
In the first court, at the bottom of the ramp, there were two T-shaped pools with their head of ‘T’ against the ramp. They had sloping sides and were 10 metres wide. These pools reflected a form of places where rituals and receiving offerings were held. Papyrus, the home of Hathor, was found around the pools. Waterlilies, where the sun god had sprung up, and birds and fishes were also there. 66 pits cut in rocks around were found. Arnold stated that these were used for flowerbeds rather than trees; however, judging the pits from its 3 metres depth and the arrangements, Winlock had an opposite opinion. He believed that these pits were used for either bushes or trees. The gardens on both sides of the processional way created enclosure and accommodated large numbers of priests and attendants.
In the second and upper court, columns stood in formal quality. Generally, doric order was viewed as a style which came from Greece, but the Temple of Hatshepsut actually composed them 8 centuries earlier.
Hatshepsut dedicated this temple to Amun. She claimed direct descent from Amun. She was destined to establish a Punt in his house. And this led to the most famous expedition she sent. During Hatshepsut’s reign, due to the lack of military and the motive of economic, an outlet must be found. She ordered an expedition to Punt, which is now generally thought as Somalia. Incense-producing myrrh trees were brought back in baskets. They were planted in the garden to perfume the night air and protect the garden from the wind. However, the only tree pits excavated at Deir el-Bahri were around the pools and one or two on the two terraces. None of them contain any remains of myrrh or frankincense trees. But as the relief shown in the temple, scholars still believe that incense trees from Punt were planted. Apart from the exotic trees, native vegetations such as tamarisk, acacia and sycamore-fig could have also been planted there. Speaking of tamarisk, it is said that the deceased king was given birth by the sky goddess Nut in the field of Tamarisk.
Hatshepsut honoured Amun not only at Thebes but also at Karnak. Her reign was controversial at that time, so she had to create a more direct connection with the sun to legitimise her reign. She erected two obelisks before the Temple of Amun. They were coated with metal to shine under the sun and make her splendour visible. The establishment also indicated the place is where ‘her father’ rises. Additionally, Hatshepsut is the first pharaoh who promoted the worship of the Theban Triad- Amun, Mut and Khonsu.
Unfortunately, after the reign of Tuthmosis III, because of Hatshepsut’s unorthodox reign and the tradition of reusing temples, he obliterated many of Hatshepsut’s monuments. He also built a small temple in Deir el-Bahri to replace as receiver for the festival. Moreover, a rectangular structure Akhmenu was places at Karnak to block the view of Hatshepsut’s temple along the direction of ‘her father.’
3. The temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu
The temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu is located on a small primeval hill at Thebes, the west bank of Nile River in Egypt. It is at the edge of cultivated land and the last and southernmost temple built at Thebes. Most of the temples at Thebes followed the local cardinal directions as determined by the river. However, in Medinet Habu, the sun never followed the axis and shined to the end of the temple. It was acknowledged that the design was not oriented to a celestial target but the rising of the brightest part of the Milky Way. In fact, the concept came from the traditional inter-cardinal pattern that was used at Abydos more than 1500 years ago. As shown in the image, the elements of the temple were oriented inter-cardinally.
The complex was highly fortified with outer walls and brick walls. The massive walls could protect inhabitants during times of troubles such as the civil war after 20th dynasty. The effective protection made the site an administrative centre during the reign of Ramesses III and other times. A landing quay was at the eastern entrance for boats which came from the canals of Nile could moor, and it was followed by the High Gate.
Inside the High Gate, the Small Temple that was initially constructed by Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III could be seen on the right. It had an 18 by 20 metres sacred lake surrounded by trees. The sacred lake provided a reservoir for the water which only came once a year, and when the sun rose above the waters, it symbolized the sun god emerged out of the primeval water (Eyre 1994, p.64). Additionally, The Small Temple served as a classic case of repeated usurpation, addition and growth through cannibalization. It was adjusted throughout different rulers, and it even outgrew the circling wall during the 30th dynasty.
The court between the High Gate and the first pylon was filled with trees. According to the archaeologist Holscher, he indicated that an east-west orientated oblong pool was laid on the south side with cultivation pots and trees surrounded. The water source of the pool is the ground water. On the east side of the pool stood a row of trees. Between the small temple and the first pylon are 13 trees. The tree pits were spaced at 3.5 metres apart in rows. Every pit is enclosed by small wall to keep out stray animals and it created the right soil and held water in the root.
The Temple of Ramesses III was designed with a quite standard Egyptian temple plan: the entrance pylon followed by an open court and a columned hall and at last an inner sanctuary. The first pylon was significant, it not only defended the intruders but also resembled the akhet or horizon hieroglyph. This was the place where the sun rose on the horizon between the outer world and the hidden sacred landscape. In addition, it stood as a bastion fighting off the harmful forces of chaos and protecting the order inside. Ramesses III’s description of his temple ‘towers of stone reaching up to the heaven’ was probably indicating the pylon.
Inside the entrance, Holscher stated that on the west side was a T-shaped pool which was the main lake. This reflected to what Ramesses III recorded, he dug a lake before the temple, supplied with lotus flower and grew trees and vegetation like the Delta. Holscher found a well in the court which could be providing water at that time, but no cultivation plots and tree pits were found. With inadequate evidences, he still assumed that there was a palace garden oriented north-south. Another fact that could support his statement is that, between the columned halls and final sanctuaries, illustrations of offerings indicated that gardens might exist in the temple.
After the courts, there were two hypostyle halls. A hypostyle hall is a hall crowded with columns. One of the purposes of this design was related to Egyptian mythology which the earth supported the sky with columns. These columns also represented the marshland which sprang up around the primeval mound of creation.
Along the axis, the inner sanctuary with the shrine of the pharaoh and the members of the Theban Triad were finally in sight. The purpose of this temple was not only dedicated for Ramasses III but also Amun-Re. During the Opet Festival, Amun’s statue from Karnak will visit Medinet Habu; it was a representation of living gods visiting the dead gods.
The Temple of Ramesses III was less dramatically designed than the other temples at Thebes. It still followed the general styles of Egyptian temples, which were formal, axially planned and geometric shapes used such as T-shaped pool. However, it wasn’t as symmetrical as the Temple of Hatshepsut which had twin pools and trees.
It’s also interesting that this temple has another name “the Mansions of Millions of Years of Ramesses III”, it indicated that the king would reside with the gods for millions of years. This term was accepted by Haeny instead of calling it a mortuary temple. He pointed out that the term “mortuary temple” was too deeply influenced by modern Western attitudes which focused on a dead person’s burial and tomb instead of sustaining the life of the deceased which the Egyptians had paid attention to. For instance, Lesko had proposed an idea that the vaulted ceiling rooms engraved with an astronomical chart in both Temple of Hatshepsut and Ramesses III were for placing offerings for the deceased Pharaoh. Haeny couldn’t agree because he thought that whether the burial procession ever entered the “mortuary temple” is unknown. He urged that modern people should accept the prospect of a continued life, which religions offers, in order to understand ancient Egypt more.
4. Conclusion (250 words)
Gardens were designed by three elements: function, entwined with meaning, dictated form.
Temples are not stable, they change with time
Illustrations on wall are also important
Strong connection to their culture
Buildings were oriented and ceremonial acts were engineered to maintain Maat (the cosmic order) on the land of the two lands.
Garden planting x2
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- Wilkinson, A. 1994, ‘Symbolism and Design in Ancient Egyptian Gardens’, Garden History, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 1-17, accessed 10 July 2019, <www.jstor.org/stable/1586999>.
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