The perimeter of nature
An excursus on the history of the garden can only begin with an analysis of the structure and role of the garden in Ancient Egypt.
In the history of human evolution, from the abandonment of the nomadic condition to the adoption of a sedentary way of life largely based on an agricultural economy has derived the need to defend crops from wild animals. Man has satisfied this need by building fences, protections and barriers and thus laying the foundations for what would, over time, become private property. The initial idea of defining a place in view of the satisfaction of a personal need has slowly enriched itself with new purposes, first of all that of creating within the perimeter space oasis of botanical experimentation destined to beauty and harmony.
The first representations of gardens (understood in the most modern meaning of the term, i.e. a private place surrounded by a perimeter) have very ancient origins: the research carried out allows us to suppose that, as early as 5000 years ago, the civilizations settled in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern basin had structured, alongside the places of cultivation intended for the production of food, those for the pleasure of sight and smell.
In short, the concept of the garden was born long before extensive agriculture and in any case, everything suggests that the first agricultural areas could (r) also accommodate floral crops; on the other hand, even today, good agriculture is still associated, just to give an example, rose plants on the heads of the vines to announce the arrival of vine diseases and plant garlic (allium sativum) near crops subject to aphids to ward them off.
The garden in ancient Egypt
Thanks to the favourable climatic conditions and the fertility of the soil constantly renewed by the Nile, the civilization of ancient Egypt was one of the first to develop a garden culture. The wall paintings found in the tombs (not only of pharaohs, but also of officials or illustrious figures), testify that, already in the Ancient and Middle Kingdom (3150-1785 B.C.), there were cultivations with a well-defined structure that gradually led to what would later become the garden of delights.
The continuous development of cultivation techniques, contacts with neighbouring peoples and territorial expansion meant that these structures became increasingly refined and sophisticated. An increasing variety of plants was selected not only from neighbouring lands, but also from the exchange between the internal territories of Upper and Lower Egypt. The comparison between the paintings of the tombs dating back to the 4th-5th dynasty and those that can be dated between the 18th and 20th (beyond the stylistic aspect), allows a clear reading of the passage from a phase in which the crops used were limited to date palms. (Phoenix dactylifera), the dum palm (Hyphaene thebaica), the sacred sycamore (Ficus sycomorus) and the Tree of Egypt (Mimusops schimperi belonging to the persea genus, a distant relative of the avocado), to a more evolved phase in which also imported plants begin to appear, such as incense trees (Boswellia sacra) arrived from the nearby Land of Punt (the current Horn of Africa) at the will of the Queen Haetsepsut.
An essentially Mediterranean footprint
It should be noted, however, that the growing concessions to exoticism never managed to alter the essentially Mediterranean imprint of the Egyptian garden, a peculiarity guaranteed above all by the constant presence of the vine (Vitis vinifera) and the fig tree (Ficus carica). It is precisely from the plants and cultivation techniques developed over the centuries with these essences (Figures 2 and 3) that the typical frames of the Mediterranean landscape are created: grape pergolas supported at first by poles and then by increasingly structured columns, walkways and avenues surrounded by formal espalier or potted crops, in short the foundations of the most modern gardens of classical style (Romans and Greeks above all).
The role of water in the design of the Egyptian garden
Such a flourishing vegetation, in an environment that is by its nature difficult and harsh, could not ignore water. It is along the entire Nile ridge, in fact, that the most valuable examples of domestic gardens are developed: in the back of the riverbank, houses of residence (or even simple stay) and extensive crops dotted the landscape creating a ribbon of vegetation in stark contrast with the reddish, barren and rocky inland. The presence of distribution channels was fundamental to allow the irrigation of the charming green belt and rudimentary lifting systems (shaduf) made it possible to supply the plants with their water needs on a daily basis (Figures 5 and 6).
But water was not limited to being the fundamental element for the subsistence of crops: archaeological findings, confirmed by tomb paintings, show that it had also become a means of enjoyment and embellishment of gardens. In the period of New Kingdom (the phase of maximum expansion of the ancient Egyptian civilization, between 1552 and 1069 B.C.) is certain the presence of ornamental basins and formal partitions, according to solutions later resumed in Renaissance gardens and in more contemporary ones by great landscape architects such as Russell Page o Pietro Porcinai. In short, water became one of the load-bearing elements of the backbone of the garden, with irrigation canals no longer considered a simple means of distribution but elements of definition of its architecture. The artificial basins in which the Nile crept in soon turned into private pools or pleasant landing places for those arriving from the river, liquid delicacies embellished with small temples and islets, very fashionable especially during the reign of the most recent dynasties (Figure 1). In such a context, autochthonous aquatic plants such as the lotus (the Egyptian one, unlike the Indian one, belongs to the family of the water lilies Nymphaea) and the papyrus (Cyperus papyrus), became part of the weaving of the gardens (we all remember the biblical episode in which the basket with little Moses goes to run aground among the reeds and papyrus in the garden of Pharaoh's daughter - Figure 4).
The garden in everyday life
From the distribution of the irrigation channels in almost orthogonal grids descended a general rule of "harmony, symbiosis and colour in a well defined very rigid and formal structure". The hosts participated and enjoyed this ensemble with a sort of proud ostentation and, at the same time, jealous protection. From the information gathered thanks to archaeological discoveries emerges in fact a picture in which, although the garden was the representative element of the house - and, as such, intended for the entertainment of guests - its most beautiful and secluded corner was very often intended to house the nucleus, absolutely private, intimate, and proportionally much smaller than the rest of the property.
The predilection of the ancient Egyptians for the garden also poured into noble and religious buildings, determining the fashion of the ceilings and floors that reproduced the places of plant joy. Alongside them, the taste of the time required the inclusion of architectural elements decorated with naturalistic motifs, such as, for example, the profusion of columns ending in striking capitals in the shape of lotuses and papyri, symbols of the incessant process of rebirth that the Nile gave to its lands.
The predilection of the ancient Egyptians for the garden is also expressed in the desire to be able to enjoy that pleasant refreshment forever. This is the meaning of the numerous views of gardens painted inside the burial chambers: the most exquisite of earthly pleasures in the immortality of the underworld.
(End of part one. Continue)