Egyptians show their whole relation to Nature in their love for gardens - not an extravagant Nature, but one who deserves the care and pains of man, because of her great beauty, her protecting shade, her wonderful flowers, and her costly fruits. To dwellers in the Nile valley, Nature was the setting for all that was dear: happy fêtes, poetry, and love. All were bound up with the garden and its products, especially flowers. Few Oriental nations can think of a festival without flowers, but nowhere are they so completely a part of human life, and so essential, as in Egypt.
In architecture flowers gave the forms for columns, for the growth of capitals, and all ornaments (Fig, Temple of Edfu). In the house flowers are the chief decoration. The inside of a room often shows nothing but great bunches of flowers in prettily decorated vases, or votive tables decked with flowers. But if a feast is held in a house, or made ready for the gods, everything is clothed in flowers. Garlands are on head and neck, the guest is presented with a nosegay, or at least a single flower, as he enters. The servants are not only busy with preparing the dishes, but are always weaving new wreaths, and with each kind of refreshment new flowers are handed round. The guests carried them in their hands all the time, and also enjoyed their perfume.
Naturally the lotus comes first among the flowers—that native of the Nile valley which in old days, growing wild, had covered in its superabundant wealth every stream, canal, or lake, and had changed the whole country in the months of inundation into an immense field of flowers, whitish-blue and shining red. Every picture of the Old Period has lotus, but in the garden decorations of the Middle and New Periods, both pictures and inscriptions have a number of other flowers to show: after foreign plants had been brought in from all the countries that the Pharaoh’s ships could reach, the lotus still held its own, and also the papyrus—that other wild marsh plant of Egypt: indeed, these two became a sort of symbol for flowers in general.
When at last the painter had learned to copy individual flowers with real and admirable truth, as in the palace floors at Tel-el-Amarna, he adhered to the time-honoured method of drawing lotus and papyrus conventionally (Fig. 26).
In the same way the sycomore, the oldest tree represented in art, has maintained its former significant character among other realistically painted trees, Thus in the pavement of Amarna the papyrus shrub is severely conventionalised, while the other plants, anemone, poppy, thistle, and reed, are drawn so as to suggest natural form and movement.
The Middle Period shows most of these plants in the tomb excavations. In addition there are frequently found chrysanthemums and cornflowers, which did not need to be raised in every garden.
It is not known how the beds were arranged in private gardens. Generally flowers are represented in separate clumps, but in the Middle Period vegetables were planted in square beds. Unger describes a picture from the tomb of Rameses III. at Medinet Habu in which he saw a bed of crescent shape alongside a large canal. The flowers—always one kind to one bed—were apparently planted in rows. The need for flowers demanded skilled gardeners, especially in the later days. Rich people very likely had a great many men to attend to their gardens, as they had for all services, and the head gardener often has his name written in the inscription above the picture. In one papyrus the same word is used both for the gardener and the garden: the man’s duty was to attend to the vegetables in the morning, and the vines in the evening. At a review of the royal garden of Seti II., twenty-one gardeners appeared, men, women, and children. One wonderful art, that the gardener was bound to learn, was the weaving of wreaths, This was an art that was much esteemed, for the Egyptian wreaths were complicated, and demanded real skill: they were used both for the living and the dead, and in great numbers.
The sincerity and depth of the love for gardens and flowers is
shown once again in Egyptian poetry. The love poems, like those of
the Jews, are full of playfulness, and (in praise of the beloved)
full of comparisons with flowers and trees. The lovers meet in a
garden, as in the song about the sycomore. There is a love song in
the Turin papyrus which, in the fashion of an Italian ritornello,
attaches each strophe to a flower, and indicates the meaning by a
play on words. One of its strophes gives a particularly graceful