The Garden of the Afterlife

Those poor unfortunate souls among you who read my last post may remember that I’m working as a research assistant for Professor Jamel Velji, a religionist who specializes in the apocalypse. Among my projects for the summer has been helping Prof. Velji design a new course called Mahdis and their Movements about Muslim messianic movements and helping him edit his existing course called The End of the World as We Know It to include a unit on Ancient Egyptian pseudo-apocalyptic. Between the two subjects I have noticed an interesting connection: the afterlife is visualized on earth as a garden.


The image above is a photograph that Prof. Velji took in the British Museum in London; it comes from the tomb of the 18th-Dynasty (ca. 1350 BCE) scribe Nebamun in Thebes, Egypt. The descriptive plaque in the British Museum refers to this tomb painting as “Nebamun’s garden of the west”, explaining that “Nebamun’s garden in the afterlife is like the earthly gardens of the wealthy in ancient Egypt.”

The ancient Egyptian conception of time was not linear but cyclical, based on the cycle of the sun: in the morning the sun-god Re is born in the east, in the evening he dies in the west, and overnight he returns underground to be reborn in the east. For this reason the Egyptians saw burials as actually moving closer to the sun: the deeper and darker a burial chamber, the closer it would be to Re during his nighttime travels. What this also meant was that the west, being the site of Re’s daily (re)death, was also the appropriate burial place for Egyptians.



The map above (sorry it’s so small) depicts the city of Thebes, the holy city of the god Amun, who was the chief god of the New Kingdom (18th-20th Dynasties), excepting the Amarna Period; Thebes was therefore the religious capital of Egypt from approximately 1550-1352 and 1356-1077 BCE. On the east side of the Nile we see the two major temples at Karnak and Luxor. On the west, beyond the floodplain, are the funerary sites: the desert bay at Deir el-Bahri, which houses funerary temples for Mentuhotep II of the 11th Dynasty as well as Hatshepsut and Amenhotep I of the 18th; the Valley of the Kings, famed as the site of Tutankhamun’s tomb; the Valley of the Queens; the mortuary temple of Rameses III at Medinet Habu; the Tombs of the Nobles at Dra Abu el-Naga, a complex which includes the tomb of Nebamun; and many, many more.

In the temple at Karnak resided the solar barque of Amun-Re (the two gods had been merged early in the 18th Dynasty). Normally he lived in the east, the land of the living, but once a year, during the Festival of the Valley, his barque would complete the solar cycle, crossing the Nile from east to west and then, when in the land of the dead, visiting the innermost chapels of the Deir el-Bahri temples to symbolize going underground before returning eastward for his rebirth at Karnak.

All of this symbolism draws clear ties between the west and the land of the dead; logically, Nebamun’s tomb is in the west. The garden depicted on the tomb walls is therefore a garden in the afterlife, not in the present life. But what do gardens have to do with the afterlife? Well, Egyptian conceptions of the afterlife saw it as like the present life: the land would be sowed and tilled; the people would eat, drink, and be merry. For a wealthy man like Nebamun, the ratio of rest to work would mirror that in life itself: the wealthy were buried with servant figurines who would do the manual labor for them; Nebamun himself would spend his time relaxing around the garden depicted on his tomb wall.

Turning the page to Islam, we see that the afterlife (at least for those who merit entry to paradise) appears as the opposite of the current life: where life is a time of labor, the afterlife is one of relaxation. The very word “paradise” (in Arabic firdaws) refers in Islam to the highest level of Heaven. Heaven is known as jannah – which directly translates to “garden”.

File:Alha Generalife1.jpg

The image above comes from the Patio de la Acequia, in the Generalife gardens adjacent to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. This garden, as with others in the Islamic world, is a place for resting, not for walking. The other emphases of an Islamic garden are water and shade – two features that stand in stark contrast to Islam’s arid desert homeland. Together these features make the Islamic garden a representation of paradise on earth.

One of the most famous gardens in all of Islamic architecture is depicted below:

I’m sure all of my readers recognize the image above as the Taj Mahal. The elements of paradise-on-earth in the Taj Mahal garden are all there: water and greenery, places to relax and reflect. But the Taj Mahal takes the connection between garden and afterlife one level deeper:


On the left is an aerial view of the Taj Mahal grounds. The image on the right may be familiar to those of you who read my last post: it’s Ibn Arabi’s diagram of the Plain of Assembly on the Day of Resurrection, from the Futuhat al-Makiyya, which just keeps on popping up throughout my research. Do you see the resemblance between the two images? According to at least one scholar, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan designed the Taj Mahal grounds to resemble Ibn Arabi’s diagram, placing himself and his beloved consort Mumtaz Mahal at the foot of the throne of God on the Day of Resurrection. Such a connection is furthered by the Qur’anic inscription (from Sura 89) on the Taj Mahal’s gateway, the last thing a visitor reads before entering the gardens: “Oh thou soul at peace, Return thou unto thy Lord, well-pleased and well-pleasing unto him! Enter thou among My servants — and enter thou My paradise!”


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