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Botany in Ancient Egypt – Part 1

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by Jemma

 

During my research into the Materia Medica collection (plant, animal and mineral based medicines used in from the 1800s) at the Manchester Museum, I have notice a recurring feature; many of the plants had in fact been used by humans for thousands of years and a large portion of these by the ancient Egyptians!

 

Plants featured heavily in Egyptian culture: in food, medicine, religion, perfumes and beyond. Early medicinal texts, such as the Ebers Papyrus from 1550 BCE, provide detailed insight into their extensive herbal knowledge. Unfortunately no complete record has yet to be found, but the fragments that have survived show just how knowledgeable these ancient peoples were when it came to plants and their uses. Many of the applications documented are the same used right up until the introduction of modern medicinal practices. Even today, large portions of herbal remedies used as ‘alternative’ medicines feature plants used for similar purposes as those used by the ancient Egyptians.

A page from the Ebers Papyrus. Image taken from http://www.crystalinks.com/egyptmedicine.html
A page from the Ebers Papyrus. Image taken from http://www.crystalinks.com/egyptmedicine.html

 

Not all of the plants known to and used by the Egyptians were native to their homeland. Their extensive knowledge on the topic can partly be attributed to trade. Caravan and water routes connected Egypt to trade routes around the world, allowing the exchange of tradable items like spices and fabrics. Silk traded from China has been found on Egyptian mummies dating from around 1000 BCE. As well as the benefit of trade, this connection to the rest of the world also made it possible for botanical knowledge to spread to Egypt from distant countries like China and India.

Image depicts the trade network known as the Silk Road (red – caravan routes; blue – water routes). Though the Silk Road was not established until the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), trade routes during the time of the ancient Egyptians could have followed similar paths. Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk_Road
Image depicts the trade network known as the Silk Road (red – caravan routes; blue – water routes). Though the Silk Road was not established until the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), trade routes during the time of the ancient Egyptians could have followed similar paths. Image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk_Road

Another notable factor that played a role in the vast accumulation of plant knowledge was that the Pharaoh’s actively sent out plant exploration parties. These parties, such as those sent by Queen Hatshepsut around 1500 BCE and by Pharaoh Sankhere in 2500 BCE, were sent to discover more plant resources that could be exploited.

 

There is one particular Pharaoh that is worth mentioning in regard to the mass accumulation of botanical knowledge in Egypt: Thutmose III. He was an 18th dynasty Pharaoh who reigned between 1479–1425 BCE (part of which was as co-regent with Queen Hatshepsut). During his rule, Thutmose led numerous military expeditions, from which many foreign plants and animals were brought to Egypt.

 

It was during his reign that the ‘Botanical Garden’ was erected in the temple of Akh-menu at Karnak. This ‘garden’ is a chamber whose walls depict carved representations of the plants and animals collected by Thutmose. Because of its physical isolation from the rest of the temple, the ‘Botanical Garden’ of Akh-menu is a particularly sacred chamber and believed to be the place in which the priests of the god Amun were initiated.

A section of wall at the 'Botanic Gardens' in Karnak
A section of wall at the ‘Botanic Gardens’ in Karnak
Another section of wall at the 'Botanic Gardens' in Karnak
Another section of wall at the ‘Botanic Gardens’ in Karnak

For part 2, click on the following link: https://herbologymanchester.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/botany-in-ancient-egypt-part-2/