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City gardens: fit for a pharaoh

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An Egyptian style garden at Sphinx Hill, Oxfordshire credit: Chris Elliott, by kind permission of the owners

For urban gardeners a patch of outdoor space provides a precious oasis from the rush and stress of busy city life. And, while ancient Egyptians faced very different pressures, they viewed their gardens in much the same way – as a place to escape from the outside world and to relax physically and spiritually.

Chris Elliott is an Egyptologist and an expert on ancient Egyptian garden design. He’s recently written a book for English Heritage that charts the influence of ancient Egypt on British architecture and interior design over the past two centuries. But, as he explains, gardeners can also draw inspiration from how members of this ancient civilisation cultivated their own little pieces of paradise.

Walled gardens

Like many contemporary city gardens, ancient Egyptian gardens were classically courtyard gardens built on quite a small scale. They were usually arranged in a formal, linear pattern around a central pool of water, with the planting laid out symmetrically – a style that still works well in an urban setting today.

Ancient Egyptian wall painting credit: Dietrich Sahrhage

Planters were also used. “We know from references in texts that plants were grown in brickwork containers and most probably unglazed pots as well,” Mr Elliott says.

Around the garden would have run a wall which, according to Mr Elliott, served two vital purposes.

Firstly, it marked a private space, keeping out the rest of the world. More importantly, however, it provided protection from the Egyptian heat and dry winds, enabling gardeners to grow plants that would otherwise have suffered in the hostile conditions.

And while we might not need to worry about a desert climate, walls can still serve the same protective role for British gardeners.

“If you’ve got an urban walled garden you’ve got a microclimate,” says Mr Elliott. The walls protect plants from wind and frost and can raise the ambient temperature in the garden. As cities tend to be warmer than rural areas anyway, a walled garden in an urban environment can provide conditions conducive to growing Mediterranean plants such as olive trees, fig trees and vines – all of which would also have thrived in ancient Egyptian gardens.

Making the most of water

Water, and the River Nile in particular, was revered by ancient Egyptians, unsurprisingly for a civilisation that saw so little natural rainfall.

“Herodotus [the ancient Greek historian] called Egypt ‘the gift of the Nile’,” says Mr Elliott. “There is no other country which is so intimately linked to the river.”

He adds that water was so important to ancient Egyptians that they evoked it in their gardens “almost as a matter of course”.

An Egyptian style garden credit: Chris Elliott, by kind permission of the owners

This led to the traditional arrangement of Egyptian gardens around a central pool of water, which ran along the long axis of the space and was usually either rectangular or T-shaped. While it might have held a symbolic role for Egyptians, today a simple rectangular pool is a relatively easy way to bring life and light to a small garden, particularly within a more formal layout. Ancient Egyptians would have added fish – which Mr Elliott says were probably ornamental but might also have been eaten – and water plants such as water lilies and papyrus.

 

The Egyptians’ respect for water also led to the development of some simple but practical methods to conserve precious rainfall.

“I know it sounds ironic now with the year that we’ve had, but given that we’ve also had very, very dry weather, even drought conditions, we can learn from the ancient Egyptians,” says Mr Elliott. “The Egyptians were very good at doing a lot in a climate where there was very little rainfall.”

Tricks such as planting in square beds with raised mud walls helped prevent run-off from parched ground when the rains did fall. Placing stones around planted areas served a similar function. Today, Mr Elliott suggests gardeners could try putting terracotta edging, tiles, or even thick rope around their beds to serve a similar function.

“Almost anything that stops the water running off the soil before it has a chance to soak in can be used,” he says.

Pleasure and practicality

While the evidence suggests domestic gardens were predominantly used for pleasure by ancient Egyptians, they also served a practical purpose. Plants were grown to eat, as well as for their medicinal properties or for use in religious rites.

So they would have found space for herbs like coriander, cumin and fenugreek, and vegetables such as onions and garlic. Cos lettuce was seen as a particularly potent symbol and was planted to offer to Min, the god of fertility.

Some plants which might have been planted for their uses in Egyptian times, such as flax (typically grown for linen), and safflower (used as a dye), were also attractive to look at and today can be planted purely for their decorative value.

Landscaping and loggias

Hard landscaping can also be used to subtly evoke the feel of an ancient Egyptian garden.

Mr Elliott says it appears ancient Egyptians used terracing in their gardens, and they also built booths, or loggias, to provide shelter.

The booths would have been fairly small, rectangular in shape and with a bench or seat inside.  While these constructions would have provided shade from the burning sun in ancient Egypt, in modern British gardens a covered seating area could still provide a pleasant place to enjoy the garden with protection from the weather, but more probably from the rain.

Alternatively, Mr Elliott adds that sometimes pergolas made of trellis work and supporting trees or vines seem to have been used. While these might not provide much protection from the rain, he suggests they could be a practical way for modern gardeners to create a pleasantly private and shady spot.

Egypt in England by Chris Elliott was published in November by English Heritage. It is available in hardback for £25.

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