The art of gardening and horticulture can be said to have its beginning with the first farmers, when they started to cultivate vegetables as opposed to field crops. Vegetable plots tended to be located close to the home, as these plants needed more watering and special care. More often than not the plot would have had an enclosing barrier to prevent livestock from eating the plants growing inside it.
While there may initially have been a need for self-sufficiency, over time gardens have also been a way for people to enhance their surroundings. The art of gardening can be found in the ancient literature, art and archaeology of most early societies, from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome and Byzantium to the early Islamic and medieval worlds. There are even hints of the existence of Minoan and Etruscan gardens.
Actual evidence for horticulture and gardening, as opposed to agriculture, can be dated back to the third or fourth millennium BC at least, to the early civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. In countries with hot summer climates, measures were necessary to ensure that the fierce sun would not scorch plants. One solution – as mentioned in an early Mesopotamian myth – was for the gardener to plant a wide branching tree to create vital shade, allowing more delicate plants to grow below its ample canopy.
Trees became an integral part of a garden. In ancient Egypt, trees were planted to make sacred groves around royal tombs. One of the earliest was created in the Old Kingdom, fourth dynasty, for Pharaoh Sneferu at Dahshur (c2613–2589 BC). Trees were also used in urban gardens to provide shade, and there was a conscious preference to included fruit- or nut-bearing trees. The most favoured trees in Egypt were three species of palm tree (the date palm, doum palm & argun – phoenix dactylifera, hyphaene thebaic and medemia argun respectively), the sycomore fig (ficus sycomorus) and the beautiful persea (mimusops laurifolia).
One tomb owner called Ineni, architect and royal gardener of pharaoh Tuthmosis I (c1504–1492 BC), mentions having 540 trees, from over 15 species, in what must have been a large garden or orchard. Meanwhile, the tomb of high-ranking Egyptian official Meketre (c2055–2004 BC) contained a remarkable wooden model of a smaller domestic walled garden, featuring a large rectangular pool surrounded by seven large fruiting trees. A range of trees and plants, such as pomegranates, were introduced into Egypt over the years. Pharaoh Tuthmosis III even had images of notable plants that he had brought back from a military campaign carved onto the walls of a room in the temple at Karnak. This room is now usually called the Botanical Garden.
Model of a walled garden with central pool and columned portico, from the tomb of ancient Egyptian nobleman Meketre. (Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
Some Assyrian kings in Mesopotamia extracted a tribute of fruit trees from the cities they conquered in more northerly regions and were known to have created large gardens, orchards and game parks. Images of both Sargon II and Sennacherib’s gardens were carved on reliefs in palaces (at Khorsabad and Nineveh respectively). Despite being stylised, they give an indication of the possible layout and features that the gardens may have contained, such as pathways, pavilions and altars.
In each ancient culture we find a variety of deities responsible for fertility and agriculture, including specific ones intended to protect plants and crops. Gardens also featured frequently in ancient mythology. Many myths were woven to explain the features of a particular plant, such as the Greek tales of Daphne or Nárkissos (narcissus). There were also tales of rivalry between competitive plants to determine which was the most useful or beautiful. The Mesopotamian tale of the tamarisk and the date-palm is perhaps the earliest of these, but the theme is also found in myths about the one-upmanship of the olive and bay tree in later cultures. Legends about beautiful gardens were popular, from the fabled Homeric Garden of Alkinoös and the Garden of the Hesperides with its famous golden apples, to the Biblical Garden of Eden, or the Islamic Garden of Eram. Favoured gardens could be seen as a paradise on earth and on occasion, garden owners in several ancient societies compared their own gardens with mythical ones.
In some places, traces of a garden’s design are discernable. In the Roman period, plant beds and pools were not always rectangular: straight lines were often alleviated by semi-circular or rectangular recesses. Topiary (invented by the Romans) was carefully clipped and hedges were given architectural recesses to soften the lines of a pathway, as at Fishbourne Palace in southern England.
Design is especially noticeable at Pompeii and Herculaneum, where volcanic ash and tufaceous mud from the eruption of mount Vesuvius in AD 79 covered and preserved gardens. Evidence of both large and small gardens has been discovered in these Roman towns. Some were surrounded by a peristyle of columns (such as in the House of the Golden Cupids), while in others only a narrow strip was available to be planted. For the latter, the house owner was often found to have painted the wall behind the plants with a suitable verdant scene. This would have given a wonderful trompe l’oeil effect, enlarging the appearance of the garden.
Peristyle of columns round a garden in the House of the Golden Cupids. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)
The gardeners who toiled in gardens are often depicted on Egyptian tomb walls, and in mosaics and illuminated manuscripts of later periods. Ancient texts reveal the nature of the work they carried out. Fortunately, because agrihorticultural manuals were considered so important, several have survived. Each society had a name for a gardener, sometimes differentiated by the specific tasks they performed, such as water carrier, vegetable gardener, ornamental gardener (landscape gardener) or head gardener. The hard work of gardeners was often highly thought of and in some cases individual gardener’s names have survived. There are even instances of several generations of gardeners.
Garden plants are mentioned in the contemporary literature of each period, and in surviving herbal and agricultural manuals. Literary plant descriptions can be compared with botanical discoveries made through archaeology, and this data has been collated to provide a plant list for the major cultures of the past. It is interesting to see how many ancient plant names have survived, in an adapted form, into our modern Linnaean Latin botanical naming system.
In ancient Egypt, flowers were cultivated in order to make bouquets, not just for gardens’ owners but also to honour the gods. Tomb paintings show offerings of foodstuffs and garden produce including vegetables and fruit, on top of which bouquets of flowers were placed. Flowers were also grown to make garlands and floral crowns, and there were even court florists. Archaeologists found that Tutankhamun’s innermost coffin had been decorated with a floral collar made from numerous flower petals sewn together.
Garlands, wreathes and floral crowns were also made by people of later cultures. The Achaemenid Persians employed numerous garland makers, and the Minoans, Etruscans, Greeks and Romans also enjoyed wearing these ephemeral items. In one section of his ancient work Deipnosophistae, Athenaeus of Naucratis names the various plants used to make specific types of garland, revealing those in favour at the time. In most societies, the rose was the most admired flower of all, followed by the lily, sweet violet and narcissus. However, the climate of different regions would have had a bearing on the plants that they were able to cultivate, leading to differences in the range of plant species available.
Over the centuries plants were introduced and propagated by ancient societies, first by the Egyptians, Assyrians and Achaemenid Persians, then later by the Romans, who disseminated a wide variety of plants throughout their provinces. Early Islamic gardeners and botanists in southern Spain continued this process, in turn introducing more plants to medieval Europe. Each period had its own characteristics, but it is clear that, across ancient cultures, gardens were seen as amenities that could also give pleasure to the people who used them. Although they required work and maintenance, they were still viewed as areas for relaxation and contemplation. As in the present day, the gardens of the past fulfilled a need to nurture and to enhance people’s surroundings.
Linda Farrar is author of Gardens and Gardeners of the Ancient World (Windgather, January 2016).