Horticulture in ancient Egypt was a flourishing business. Indigenous flora was prized, crops grown with the greatest of skill and exotic plants gathered from afar. In the fifteenth century BC, an expedition sent by Queen Hatshepsut to the mythical ‘Land of Punt’ (probably modern day Somalia) returned with 31 myrrh1 trees, their roots carefully bound and kept in baskets for the duration of the voyage. These were successfully planted beside Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir El Bahari, Luxor.
Tuthmosis III, Hatshepsut’s step-son and co-ruler, showed similar horticultural interest. Keen to have a permanent record of the flora he had seen when campaigning in Asia Minor, Tuthmosis commissioned artists to draw the plants, then had the pictures carved on walls of a small room in the Temple of Amun at Karnak. This is now known as the Botanical Chamber.
The plants kept coming. In the Graeco-Roman period (330BC-30AD) Egyptians imported and acclimatised many fruit and nut trees, including apples, hazels and almonds. Five hundred years later, the reign of Khedive Ismail saw another burst of plant collecting. After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, exotic plants such as breadfruit, the sapodilla plum and mango were propagated in the horticultural and acclimatization gardens on Cairo’s Gezirah Island. King Fouad I continued the tradition – it was under his patronage that the rose gardens at Gezirah and the botanical garden at Aswan, close to Egypt’s southern frontier, were formally established.
Aswan has always been of great strategic importance. A garrison town for military campaigns against Nubia, its famed quarries provided the granite used for many of Ancient Egypt’s sculptures and obelisks. In more recent times it has become famous for the dams that control the Nile’s annual flood. Completed in 1902, the Aswan Dam was heightened twice in an attempt to regulate the flow of water. The 1960s saw the construction of the much larger High Dam, a massive undertaking that included the relocation of ancient Nubian monuments such as the Philae temple complex and the Temple of Ramses at Abu Simbel.
Aswan was Field Marshal Lord Horatio Kitchener’s base when he led a British-Egyptian military force against the Mahdists of Sudan in the 1890s. After the battles were won he was appointed Governor-General of the Sudan and given the task of restoring good governance to the country. By 1899 the Egyptian government was so grateful to Kitchener for his contribution to both war and peace that they presented him with a small island immediately adjacent to the city.
Neatly placed between Elephantine Island and the arid West Bank of the Nile (a mountainous area studded with tombs of kings and nobles), ‘Plantation Island’ was the perfect present for a plant-loving man. As Kitchener indulged his passion for botany, he imported and planted many exotic plants and trees. It seldom rains in Aswan, but the combination of irrigation from the Nile, plentiful sunshine and long hot days meant that everything thrived. Kitchener must have been loathe to leave his garden when, in 1900, he was posted to South Africa to command the British Forces during the Second Boer War. By 1911, when he returned to Aswan as British Agent and Consul-General, the island would have been a botanical paradise.
When Kitchener died in 1916, the island became government property, was entrusted to the Ministry of Irrigation and renamed the ‘Island of the King’ in honour of King Fouad I. In 1928 King Fouad decreed that the garden should be turned into an experimental station for plants from equatorial regions. After the Egyptian revolution in 1952, President Nasser changed the name to ‘Island of Plants’ or Geziret el-Nabatat. However, it is more commonly known as ‘Kitchener’s Island’, ‘Plantation Island’ or ‘Plant Island’.
Aswan tourism became important after the Victorians ‘discovered’ Egypt in the 1890s. Wearied by weeks visiting ancient temples and tombs along the Nile, wealthy tourists often stopped a while at this frontier town. Many of the better off stayed in the elegant Old Cataract Hotel, famed for guests such as Tsar Nicholas II, archaeologist Howard Carter and Winston Churchill. Agatha Christie wrote much of Death on the Nile when living here in 1937. All of these visitors would have admired the tropical lushness of Kitchener’s botanical oasis as they sailed by in a felucca, and some would have ventured ashore.
In September 2019 we followed in their footsteps, landing at the jetty and walking up granite steps to a lush 17 acres of exotic trees, shrubs and colourful flowers, all set among neat walkways paved in local Aswan granite. Native Egyptian flora such as date palms and the sycamore fig (prized for shade) is interspersed with exotic treasures: Syzygium grande, the sea apple (imported from Malaya); Ailanthus altissima or tree of heaven (from China) and Jatropha curcas, the purging or Barbados nut, from tropical America, all feature.
The garden’s seven distinct collections start with timber trees such as ebony, sandalwood and African mahogany (Khaya senegalensis). Familiar delights such as papaya and grapefruit feature among the tropical fruit trees. The medicinal and aromatic plant collection includes tamarind, carob, cloves, cardamom, ginger, marjoram and the evocatively named ‘toothbrush tree’ – the siwaak (Salvadora persica). Spice plants are important, as are ornamentals such as jasmine and tulips. Oily plants – oil palm, coconut palms and olive trees – are of particular interest. Some of these specimens are also included in the collection of palm trees: more than 25 different varieties from around the world. The most impressive are the two magnificent rows of royal palms (Roystonea regia) which line the main avenue.
One of the garden’s official roles is to test the suitability of introduced plants for the Egyptian climate. The Ministry of Agriculture has a nursery and greenhouses for propagation of experimental oil and fruit crops, a tissue culture laboratory and a seedbank with many species of fruits and seeds. The garden is reputed to supply rare tropical plants and timber trees to many parts of the world.
It’s 3,500 years since those first myrrh trees arrived in Egypt. Ancient dynasties have come and gone, great wars have been fought and plagues have swept the land, but the Egyptian people’s passion for plants has always survived. The remarkable Queen Hatshepsut would have thoroughly approved of her botanical legacy.
First published in Gardener’s Journal, February 2021
- Myrrh is a natural gum or resin extracted from a number of small, thorny tree species of the genus Commiphora. Myrrh resin has been used throughout history as a perfume, incense, and medicine. Myrrh mixed with wine was common across ancient cultures, for general pleasure and as an analgesic.