The gardens of ancient Egypt, Greece & Rome: Functional, recreational & ornamental paradises

Gardens in the ancient world had special meaning, function, and design. Sometimes it was a place to rest and relax, other times a place for growing and cultivating particular plants.

Nevertheless, it was a significant place in the lifestyle of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. The descriptions of the Garden of Eden correspond to the designs of ancient Egyptian gardens.

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Rectangular fish pond with ducks and lotus planted round with date palms and fruit trees, in a fresco from the Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, 18th Dynasty

In the drawings, texts, tomb reliefs, and pottery that archeologists discovered, it is obvious how important gardens were in the lives of the ancient Egyptians. It was an essential element, highly regarded and very popular.

The ancient Egyptian gardens depended upon the River Nile for water. They were surrounded by mud-brick walls and consisted of tons of different flowers, trees, fruits, and vegetables.

In the garden, the Egyptians grew eighteen varieties of trees, among which were the sycamore fig, jujube, pomegranate, nut trees, willows, palms, acacia, and tamarisk. The trees were an important element of the garden, a source of shade and food, providing protection from the strong winds coming from the desert.

Gardens of Amun from the Temple of Karnak, painting in the tomb of Nakh, the chief gardener, early 14th century B.C. (Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels). Photo Credit

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The Egyptian garden also had plenty of flowers including daisies, cornflowers, myrtle, roses, irises, jasmine, mignonettes, celosia, convolvulus, narcissus, ivy, lychnis, sweet marjoram, henna, and bay laurel. The Egyptians also grew olive trees and grapes for making olive oil and wine.

A funerary model of a garden, dating to the Eleventh dynasty of Egypt, circa 2009–1998 BC. Made of painted and gessoed wood, originally from Thebes. Photo Credit

Every garden had a pond, positioned in the center, in either a rectangular or “T” shape. Lotus flowers and papyrus were grown in the pond and it was often also filled with exotic fish. The higher classes had more than one pond and their gardens were divided into areas.

It was generally believed that the gods enjoyed gardens, so every temple was surrounded by them. The temple gardens were usually made of stone and had religious meaning; each god was symbolized by a sacred tree.

The Egyptians also had funeral gardens that were placed in the tombs of the dead so that the deceased could continue to enjoy them in the afterlife.

Egyptian blue lotus, found in garden ponds. Photo Credit

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The Acacia tree was associated with Iusaaset, the primal goddess of Egyptian mythology.

Ancient Greek and Roman gardens were greatly influenced by Egyptian gardens. As Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, new varieties of fruits and plants were brought to Greece that increased the interest in cultivation.

The first Roman gardens were of practical use: to provide fruits and vegetables for the household. However, later, the garden became more of an ornamental space for rest and entertainment. The wealthier citizens incorporated statues, water features, and different plants to make the garden look more attractive.

Reconstruction of the garden of the House of the Painters in Pompeii. Photo Credit

The most popular plants in Roman gardens were herbs, such as thyme, basil, mint, and savory, as they were crucial for cooking and medicinal use.

Depending on the size of the garden, different types of trees were planted. Among them were cypress trees, ivy, myrtle, and acanthus. The Romans were fond of roses, violets, narcissus, oleander, crocus, lily, gladiolus, poppy, amaranth, and iris.

In the towns, the garden, also known as hortus, was at the back of the house. Through the opening of the atrium, rainwater was collected that could later be used for watering the plants. It was considered part of the garden, although it was placed inside the house.

Reconstruction of the garden of the House of the Vettii in Pompeii. Photo Credit

Peristyle gardens were a place for relaxation. They had flower beds and small shrubs and were surrounded by columns. The gardens were also decorated with hanging disks and statues of the gods. Often they would have small garden rooms painted with birds, trees, and plants.

Some of the gardens in these ancient civilizations would be functional, some recreational, some ornamental, and some would be a mix, depending on the status the citizen held in the societal hierarchy of the time.