The ancient Egyptians derived considerable pleasure from viewing a variety of animals. Exotic birds and beasts, from distant lands, were avidly imported as marvels; they stirred wonder and excitement among royalty and members of the privileged classes, who took delight in their peculiar characteristics and behaviors. Although public zoological gardens as we know them did not exist in pharaonic Egypt, it is most probable that rare native and nonindigenous specimens were sometimes housed in menageries for display. Pictorial evidence suggests, and this has been corroborated by zooarchaeological findings, that some animals were used to stock hunting parks for sport. Of these extraordinary animals, some entered Egypt as highly appreciated political gifts, tribute from neighboring states. Fellow potentates in other ancient Near Eastern kingdoms were similarly inclined to occasionally keep an assortment of animals from far-flung regions both for show and hunting. Receiving and possessing rare creatures was always a matter of considerable royal prestige. An important underlying motivation for collecting such zoological treasures, beyond the general fascination with wildlife, was the symbolism—the royal display of personal, political, and militaristic mastery over remote countries through the domination of their fauna. The animals became living proof of a monarch's might and influence.

As Egypt's power and influence spread, particularly during the height of its empire, under the eighteenth dynasty, so did the procession of animals entering the Nile Valley from farther and farther away. The admiration of birds and beasts from the distant unknown was also duly celebrated in artistic works; it developed into a recurring theme in Egyptian iconography. Indeed, recording the arrival and inspection of those curiosities was accorded considerable space within the decorative program of both royal monuments and the grand private tomb-chapels of the core aristocracy. Several of those compositions, moreover, rank among the best known and greatest masterpieces of Theban tomb painting and provide the most vivid evocation of the dazzling variety of foreign animals that flowed into the country.

The Egyptian penchant for acquiring prestigious exotic creatures probably goes back before the emergence of pharaonic civilization, when nonnative species came into the Nile Valley from the tropical African hinterlands and from western Asia. The earliest-known occurrence of the importation of a rare foreign beast, preserved in art, comes from the fifth dynasty mortuary temple of Sahure at Abusir. The decoration of that edifice included a remarkable scene, featuring what is likely to have been the safe return home of an Egyptian trading expedition, sent under royal patronage to visit far-off Byblos on the Phoenician (eastern Mediterranean) coast. Part of the Egyptians' haul consisted of several delightful live Syrian bears (Ursus arctos syriacus), which were naturalistically portrayed in painted low relief; they were, likely, notable additions to the king's collection.

During the New Kingdom, there was a much expanded interest in the exotic, and this found one of its major expressions in the depiction of foreign fauna and flora. Egyptian trade with the African land of Punt is first attested in the Old Kingdom, but it is best known from the eighteenth dynasty, made famous by the great sea-borne expedition sent by Hatshepsut and immortalized in a series of spectacular painted reliefs on the walls of the southern half of the middle colonnade of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari. Among the wealth of costly commodities from Punt, shown being triumphantly transported back to Egypt, are thirty-one myrrh trees (Commiphora myrrha), which were to be transplanted into the garden of her temple, as well as a collection of live creatures: among them were domestic cattle (Bos taurus), baboon (Papio sp.), green monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops), leopard (Panthera pardus), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), domestic dog (Canis familiaris), giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), and a long-legged bird, possibly an ostrich (Struthio camelus). Some of those prizes were surely displayed in Hatshepsut's menagerie.

Determined not to be outdone by Hatshepsut, his aunt and immediate predecessor, Thutmose III likewise exhibited a bent for acquiring natural history exotica. In two chambers set to the rear of his festival temple at Karnak, and conveniently referred to by Egyptologists as the “Botanical Garden,” this warrior-king recorded in delicate, low relief some of the plants and animals he had gathered while on a military campaign into West Asia (the Near East) during the twenty-fifth year of this reign. This collection of fauna and flora was presented as a tribute by Thutmose III to the powerful chief god of Thebes, Amun. While most of the 275 plants, shown complete with their root systems, adorning those walls may appear to be genuine botanical specimens and seem to form the world's oldest herbal, today's general consensus is that almost all are products of artisans' imaginations. They sought merely to indicate something as alien as possible. Several foreign species have been identified though: pomegranate (Punica granatum) and two plants from the Arum family (Dracunculus vulgaris and Arum italicum). Of the fifty-two animals extant on the walls of the chambers, thirty-eight are birds, and a few of these are unique in Egyptian iconography: the darter (Anhinga rufa), diver (Gavia sp), and the great spotted cuckoo (Clamator glandarius). A small animal illustrated there has been tentatively identified as a Persian gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa), which, if correct, would make it another true import. Also prominently represented in the “Botanical Garden,” as objects of wonder, were several head of cattle of the two-tailed and three-horned variety! Such oddities may be simple flights of creativity or, perhaps, even farmyard freaks, the kind well-known to herdsmen and veterinarians.

During the nineteenth dynasty, Ramesses II also demonstrated a predilection for obtaining exotic wildlife. His Nubian rock-cut temple at Beit el-Wali featured a scene of the importation of various wild and domestic animals, the spoils of Nubian war and tribute, which were shown paraded before the victorious king. These animals include the following: cattle, lion (Panthera leo), giraffe, monkeys, gerenuk (Litocranius walleri), Beisa oryx (Oryx gazella beisa), ostrich, cheetah, and leopard. Although often attributed to a pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty, it was likely Ramesses II who had rendered in sunken relief, on a pylon of the temple of the war god Montu at Armant amid a frieze of Nubian booty, the transporting to Egypt of a live adult black or white rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis or Ceratotherium simum). The arrival of that huge creature from sub-Saharan Africa must have been hailed as a heroic feat, worthy of public commemoration. Archaeological excavations at Qantir, the Nile Delta residence of the Ramessid kings, have revealed the vestiges of a menagerie or a hunting park, although it might have served both purposes. The results are yet to be completely published, but preliminary zooarchaeological reports indicate the presence of many unusual game animals, some of them clearly nonindigenous species. From Assyrian sources, we know that during the Third Intermediate Period, Egyptian kings continued sending them diplomatic gifts of exotic wildlife.

The Greek-speaking rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt were concerned with amassing fine zoological collections of their own. Ptolemy I is reputed, for example, to have publicly exhibited, among the booty of his conquests, a rare Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus), from Asia. Ptolemy II established a great royal zoo in Alexandria, housing birds and beasts from all parts of the known world; his collection is famous for its appearance in his grand procession of extraordinary splendor, which was staged in Alexandria sometime in the early 270s BCE. A detailed account of that pageant by the historian Kallixeinos is preserved in the work of the Classical-era author Athenaeus (c.197–208). The Alexandrian zoo, or remnants of it, may have survived into the reign of Ptolemy VIII (51–47 BCE).

Bibliography

  • Beaux, Nathalie. Le cabinet de curiosités de Thoutmosis III: Plantes et animaux du “Jardin botanique” de Karnak Leuven, 1990. The complete publication of the “Botanical Garden”; many of the proposed plant and bird identifications are speculative and should be approached with caution.
  • Boessneck, Joachim. Die Tierwelt des alten Ägypten. Untersucht anhand kulturgeschichtlicher und zoologischer Quellen. Munich, 1988. Provides authoritative discussion on some of the exotic animals represented in Egyptian art and brief reports on the animal remains recovered from the Ramessid menagerie or hunting park at Qantir.
  • Davies, Norman de Garis. The Tomb of Rekh-mi-Re at Thebes. Vols. 1–2 New York, 1943. Reprinted in the one volume by Arno in 1973. Publication of the famous tomb-chapel of the vizier Rekhmire at Thebes (tomb 100), with a magnificent scene showing the importing of animals and animal products from Nubia, Libya, Crete, and Syria.
  • Elat, Moshe. “The Economic Relations of the Neo-Assyrian Empire with Egypt.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 98 (1978), 20–34. Discusses textual evidence for the exchange of exotic animals during the Third Intermediate Period.
  • Helck, Wolfgang, Eberhard Otto, and Wolfhart Westendorf, eds. Lexikon der Ägyptologie. Vols. 1–7. Wiesbaden, 1975–1992. Massive reference work, with articles in English, French, and German, on most topics relating to ancient Egypt, including zoological gardens.
  • Houlihan, Patrick F. The Birds of Ancient Egypt. Warminster, 1986. Contains discussions and illustrations of the identifiable birds pictured in the “Botanical Garden.” (An edition of this book was also published in Cairo in 1988.)
  • Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. London and New York, 1996. Handsomely illustrated book with extensive bibliography aimed at a general audience; considerable space is devoted to surveying exotic birds and beasts and the evidence for menageries in ancient Egypt.
  • Houlihan, Patrick F. “Birds, Beasts, and Bugs in Egyptian Art and Hieroglyphs.” A History of the Animal World in the Ancient Near East, edited by Billie Jean Collins. Leiden, 2000. Provides extensive discussion of exotic animals represented in Egyptian iconography, with copious references.
  • Jennison, George. Animals for Show and Pleasure in Ancient Rome. Manchester, 1937. Chapter 2 is entitled “Zoological Magnificence in Egypt under the Ptolemies” and furnishes a good survey of our knowledge about the royal zoological garden at ancient Alexandria. For a more up-to-date translation of the text from Athenaeus, see Rice (1983) below.
  • Keimer, Louis. “Jardins zoologiques d'Égypte.” Cahiers d'histoire égyptienne 6 (1954), 81–159. A brief but valuable history of menageries and zoological gardens in Egypt, from antiquity to the middle of the twentieth century.
  • Newton, F. G. “Excavations at El-ʿAmarnah, 1923–24.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 10 (1924), 289–298; see also T. Whittemore, “The Excavations at El-ʿAmarnah, Season 1924–5.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 12 (1926) 3–23, and Henri Frankfort, The Mural Painting of El-ʿAmarneh. London, 1929. The excavators of Akhenaten's short-lived capital (Akhetaten) at Tell el-Amarna claimed that the North Palace contained a sort of zoological garden, with fish ponds, aviaries, and areas for viewing cattle, antelopes, and ibexes and consequently this view is frequently maintained in the Egyptological literature. This part of the city has been reinvestigated in recent years by Professor Barry J. Kemp of the University of Cambridge, who, in a personal communication, informs me that the old interpretation of the palace as having a zoological garden is almost certainly incorrect.
  • Osborn, Dale J., and Jana Osbornová. The Mammals of Ancient Egypt. Warminster, 1998. Contains useful information on exotic mammals imported into Egypt.
  • Pitsch, Helmut. “Zoologischer Garten.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 6: 1420–1423. Wiesbaden, 1986.
  • Rice, E. E. The Grand Procession of Ptolemy Philadelphus. Oxford, 1983. Up-to-date translation and commentary of the text dealing with Ptolemy II's great procession.

Patrick F. Houlihan