Egypt and its gardens
Egypt is much in the news this week, and while the country is best known for its desserts and ancient wonders, gardens were also cherished in the ancient days and were kept both for growing food and for honoring the gods.
Gardens at private houses and villas were mostly used for growing vegetables and were located close to a canal or the river. However, during the days of the Egyptian Empire, gardens were often surrounded by walls and they were enjoyed both for pleasure and for their utility.
Garden produce was an important part of the Egyptian diet, but flowers were also cultivated for use in garlands to wear at festive occasions and for medicinal purposes.
While the poor kept a patch for growing vegetables, the rich people could afford gardens lined with sheltering trees and decorative pools with fish and waterfowl. There could be wooden structures forming pergolas to support vines of grapes from which raisins and wine were produced. There could even be elaborate stone kiosks for ornamental reasons, with decorative statues.
Temple gardens had plots for cultivating special vegetables, plants or herbs considered sacred to a certain deity and which were required in rituals and offerings, like lettuce to Min. Sacred groves and ornamental trees were planted in front of or near both cult temples and mortuary temples.
As temples were representations of heaven and built as the actual home of the god, gardens were laid out according to the same principle. Avenues leading up to the entrance could be lined with trees, courtyards could hold small gardens and between temple buildings gardens with trees, vineyards, flowers and ponds were maintained.
The ancient Egyptian garden would have looked different to a modern viewer than a garden in our days. It would have seemed more like a collection of herbs or a patch of wild flowers, lacking the specially bred flowers of today. Flowers like the iris, chrysantemum, lily and delphinium (blue), were certainly known to the ancients but do not feature much in garden scenes. Formal boquets seem to have been composed of mandrake, poppy, cornflower and or lotus and papyrus.
Due to the arid climate of Egypt, tending gardens meant constant attention and depended on irrigation. Skilled gardeners were employed by temples and households of the wealthy. Duties included planting, weeding, watering, pruning of fruit trees, and harvesting.