were an important part of daily life, whether as fresh floral decorations or as decorative elements represented in durable materials. Until the beginning of the New Kingdom, only the blossom of the water lily and the papyrus head appear to have played a role, as a model for rosette shapes. Occasionally, the chrysanthemum or camomile served the same purpose. These plants are part of the natural vegetation of the Nile countryside, flourish unaided, and could be collected as needed. In addition, the Egyptians also planted water lilies in manmade pools.
Two types of water lily grew in the Nile, mainly in its shallow branches and in the canals: the blue lotus (Nymphaea coerulea) and the white lotus (Nymphaea lotus). Besides color, these two types are differentiated by two further characteristics, which may also be recognized in Egyptian representations; the blue lotus has pointed flowers and floating leaves with smooth edges, and the white lotus has rounded petals and leaves with toothed edges. The blue lotus also has an intense perfume. As yet, only the one Egyptian term, sšn, has been identified for water lily flowers. Because water lilies open in the mornings and close again at night, the Egyptians saw in them an image of rebirth or regeneration. The flowers were used to symbolize the deceased's entering into the underworld and the rebirth in the hereafter to a new life. A connection was also drawn to the sun god Re, since the youthful morning sun, in the form of the god Nefertem, emerges from a lotus flower. In the imagery of the Egyptians, an intense scent of flowers indicated the presence of a god, and thus in many tomb scenes, the deceased is shown with a lotus flower in hand, which is also often held to the nose in order to breathe in the divine perfume. At festivals, women usually wore lotus flowers in their hair; for certain special occasions—as for the fishermen's competition—men did too, as may be seen in many tombs of the Old Kingdom.
The Nun bowls, fashioned out of blue-green faience, are decorated with lotus flowers. Together with papyrus plants, they symbolize the primeval waters Nun, from which all life springs. In pharaonic times, the papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) grew in thickets with ample fauna along the Nile. For the Egyptians, papyrus became the symbol of fertility and life par excellence. Thus the motif of papyrus stalks with their sweeping flower umbels is the most commonly used plant decoration—whether in architecture as a column or in transom windows, as the handle of a mirror, as a jewelry element, or as an amulet. In the Old Kingdom, fresh papyrus stalks with flower heads were part of the offering goods that the deceased took into the grave. They would guarantee life in the here-after. Often, these papyrus stalks were entwined with lotus flowers, and these arrangements became the forerunners of the bouquets so often used in New Kingdom art.
The papyrus plant was the symbol of Lower Egypt, as represented on the Narmer Palette of the first dynasty. It is often designated as the plant emblem of Lower Egypt, which, when intertwined with the plant emblem of Upper Egypt, the so-called “southern lily,” symbolized the unification of the two parts of the country. The botanical original of the southern plant has not yet been found. During the New Kingdom, papyrus and lotus flowers maintained their dominant position as floral decorations, decorative elements, and symbolic plants. From various representations, however, it is known that the Egyptians began planting a series of newly imported flowers alongside indigenous plants in the gardens of their houses and temples; these demanded intensive care, and above all good watering. Thus in New Kingdom tomb paintings of gardens, the flowers are being watered with the help of a shaduf. These scenes, the wall and floor paintings from Tell el-Amarna, and the faience wall inlays, provide information about the new flower types. For example, the cornflower (Centaurea depressa) and the red poppy (Papaver rhoeas), imported from Asia Minor or the Palestine region, can be seen for the first time. An exception is in the so-called Botanical Garden of Thutmose III in Karnak. There, foreign flowers such as arum (Arum italicum), dragonwort (Dracunculus vulgaris) and a type of iris (perhaps Iris albicans) are depicted; those plants, however, did not appear in other garden scenes, so they probably did not catch on in Egypt.
During the eighteenth dynasty, it became the fashion to wear large collars of faience pieces, the individual elements of which were usually made in the form of flowers, leaves, or fruits. It is possible to recognize the bloom of the cornflower, a type of camomile, the white and the blue lotus, green leaf elements, and yellow fruits. Tomb paintings show that collars of the same type, made with fresh flowers, were worn at banquets. Servant girls can be seen tying these floral decorations onto the guests. Because the floral collars are usually very schematically drawn, however, only the petals of the blue and white lotus can be recognized. At Thebes, in the nineteenth dynasty tomb of Nedjemger, “Overseer of the Garden of the Ramesseum” he is depicted inspecting the manufacture of floral collars from fresh plant material. Although it may be assumed that those floral arrangements were produced in great numbers, only a few are known preserved. In the ruins of a house at Tell el-Amarna, a single such collar was found. At least six additional collars were “buried” together in a pit outside the tomb of Tutankhamun with the remains of a banquet and the embalming materials from the burial. Presumably, guests at a last burial celebration in the tomb of this pharaoh wore these collars, three of which have survived. They show us, much better than the faience models and wall paintings, how the collars were made and which plant materials were used for them. A piece of papyrus cut into the shape of a collar served as the base and was trimmed around the throat edge with linen, with which it could also be tied around the neck. Using thin strips of a palm leaf, the individual pieces of plant material were sewn onto the papyrus in rows, one above the other: the green leaves of the persea (Mimusops laurifolia) the olive tree (Olea europaea), the Egyptian willow (Salix subserrata), the pomegranate (Punica granatum), and presumably the wild celery (Apium graveolens); the colorful flowerheads or petals of the cornflower (Centaurea depressa), the bitterweed (Picris asplenioides), the blue lotus (Nymphaea coerulea), red berries from the indigenous withania nightshade (Withania somnifera), and blue, diskshaped faience beads.
At the beginning of the New Kingdom, the practice developed of providing the mummy of the deceased with a fresh garland of flowers when putting it into the tomb. Thus far, however, a floral collar has only been found on the mummy of Tutankhamun, which in its method of manufacture and the plant material used is very similar to those used at banquets; it lay on the chest area of the innermost of his three coffins. Apart from this, the Egyptians used special mummy garlands, which were made in flat strips and attached to the mummy's body in concentric semicircles; their method of manufacture was extremely simple. Green leaves were folded over strips of a palm leaf, then sewn together with thin strips of palm leaf. Inserted in with the leaves were either a few colorful petals or entire flowers on long stems. The wreath maker usually used the same types of flowers that were worked into the collars; in addition, the following flowers may be identified from garland strands: the indigenous Nile acacia (Acacia nilotica), the white acacia (Acacia albida), the sesban (Sesbania sesban), the hairy willow herb (Epilobium hirsutum), and the chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium), as well as those from Asia Minor or the Palestine region, such as hollyhock (Alcea ficifolia), delphinium (Delphinium orientale), and safflower (Carthamus tinctorius). The red petals of the safflower were also used by the Egyptians to dye linen and from the seeds they extracted a good quality edible oil. From the twentieth dynasty, mummy garlands also included the very fragrant flowers of the henna bush (Lawsonia inermis), which originally came from the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean and East Africa. Mummy garlands could also consist of green leaves only, when fragrant leaves were often chosen, such as mint (Mentha sp.), wild celery (Apium graveolens), or dill (Anethum graveolens). The mummy garlands were either laid on the mummy once it had been wrapped—and into whose linen bandages lotus flowers were sometimes tucked—or on the coffin.
Only a few mummies have been found with wreath-shaped arrangements on their heads. Thus, for example, a few leaf remains were found in the hair of Amenhotpe II, and small floral garlands once hung around the royal insignia on the brows of the first and second coffins of Tutankhamun. Late Books of Going Forth by Day (Books of the Dead) show, for the first time, a round floral wreath as the symbol of successfully withstanding the Tribunal of the Dead before Osiris. The Egyptians not only decorated the mummies with floral wreaths but also, in many cases, parts of the accompanying burial equipment; thus the statuette of the deceased in the eighteenth dynasty tomb of Kha, divine statuettes in the tomb of Tutankhamun, and jugs that contained food and drink. Often, the floral garlands were painted directly onto the jugs. From analyzing the plant remains on mummies, we know that the Egyptians also planted flower bulbs in their gardens from the New Kingdom. Yet it was not the beautiful flowers of the plants that were found on the mummy, but only the leaves of the bulbs. Thus bulb leaves from a Crinum variety, which is not indigenous to Egypt, covered the eyes, nose, mouth, and mummification incision of one mummy. On the neck of Ramesses II, were the remains of narcissus bulbs (Narcissus tazetta), and on the chest of a female mummy the bulbs of a type of lily.
In Greco-Roman times, the Egyptians still provided mummies with floral decorations, but those were usually made in a new way and new imported plants were found in them. Individual flowers, petals, stamens, or twigs were bound together into small bunches and joined together into compact wreaths. The new flower types included the rose (Rosa richardii), the Indian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), immortelle (Helichrysum stoechas), lychnis (Lychnis coelirosa), jasmine (Jasminum sambac), and the little marjoram bush (Marjorana hortensis). Artificial flowers of copper leaf or colored wool were also added. The base for the wreaths was very often pieces of decorticated stalks of the sedge Scirpus inclinatus.
The flowers grown in Egypt's gardens were not only used for floral collars and mummy garlands, they were also used for large floral bouquets. The bouquets, or occasionally wreaths made in the shape of an ankh sign, were popular offerings to the gods, and they can often be seen in the tomb paintings. They were carried in the burial procession and were placed near the mummy when it was stood upright, in front of the tomb entrance, while the last rites were enacted. The drawings enable us to see how the bouquets were made. The central part usually consists of a few papyrus stems with large flower umbels; onto these, the same flowers, leaves, and fruits used in the collars and mummy wreaths were attached in circles, one above the other—cornflower, poppy, blue and white lotus, a kind of chrysanthemum or camomile, and the yellow fruits that are either persea or mandrake. In a few cases, the entire wreath still has a convolvulus (Convolvulus arvensis) vine wrapped around it or there are cos lettuce stalks worked into it. The pole bouquets of the temple and tomb decorations are also found as decorative elements on furniture and, particularly often, as the shape for ointment spoons. In a few graves, some pole bouquets have been found: in the tombs of Tutankhamun, Sennefer, Sennedjem, and Kha, but these all consist of completely different materials than those shown in the representations—they only contain the green leafy branches of the persea and the olive tree, some vine leaves, and the leafy stems of the melilot (Melilotus indica). As yet there is no explanation for the differences between representations and finds.
Flowers, called st̄j-šʒ by the Egyptians (literally “garden scent”), were not only enjoyed in the gardens or used as floral decorations but fragrant blooms such as the lotus and the lily were also turned into perfumed ointments. Flowers, especially during the New Kingdom, were of considerable economic importance. The Papyrus Harris I, for example, refers to a large number of readymade bound bouquets, in Egyptian rnpj, in its list of offerings for the god Amun, as well as strings of blue flowers. Because as yet the Egyptian names of only a very few flowers have been identified, hardly any details about the trade in flowers have been found in the economic texts. A few flowers, which certainly had a special symbolic meaning, were mentioned in love songs, but most of them cannot yet, with certainty, be identified botanically.
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- Germer, Renate. Flora des pharaonischen Ägypten. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Abteilung Kairo, 11. Mainz, 1985.
- Germer, Renate. Katalog der altägyptischen Pflanzenreste der Berliner Museen. Ägyptologische Abhandlungen, 47. Wiesbaden, 1988.
- Germer, Renate. “Die Pflanzenmaterialien aus dem Grab des Tutanchamun.” Hildesheimer Ägyptologische Beiträge, 28. Hildesheim, 1989.
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- Hepper, Nigel F. Pharaoh's Flowers. London, 1990.
- Keimer, Ludwig. Die Gartenpflanzen im Alten Ägypten, vol. 1, Hamburg and Berlin, 1924; vol. 2, edited by Renate Germer. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Abteilung Kairo, 13. Mainz, 1984.
- Manniche, Lise. An Ancient Egyptian Herbal. London, 1989.
Renate Germer; Translated from German by Julia Harvey