The Landscape Guide

Smaller gardens 

The plans  of houses and grounds in Egyptian paintings are not easy to understand without further information. Artists wished to put into one picture all the things they liked and thought good, and so to have them all at the same time. This led them into absurdly poor perspective. They wanted to see the house inside and outside, front view and back view, everything that grew in the garden, at the back or at the side, all at once. Drawings are partly ground-plan, partly elevation, and partly  bird’s-eye view. But when one’s eye has learned to interpret these drawing, the instruction one gets from them is many-sided.

It is then quite easy to understand a picture that comes from the tomb (at Thebes) of a high official who served under Amenhotep (also known as Amenophis) III. (Fig. 10), although there are certain difficult points in its interpretation. 

Egyptian garden plan, by Sennefer (Sennefur)


The painting of Amenhotep's tomb presents a complete plan of the villa, mostly as a bird’s-eye view. The original of this painting has been destroyed. The square of the piece of land at Meten’s country house is circumscribed by a wall with round tiles on the top. You could enter from the front by a large entrance gate, or by one of two side wicket-gates. A shady avenue follows the outside wall. A canal, outside the wall, adds to the feeling of complete seclusion which the picture suggests. You walked through the door straight into the house, which is shown much too large in comparison with its surroundings. The doors were the only break in the façade. No doubt the artist wished to suggest that the owner was a very rich person. He emphasises the beauty of his front gate. Here too was the porter’s lodge, perhaps also a reception-room for such visitors as were not allowed in the main building, which was hidden away in the garden. Between the gate and the house, occupying the whole of the middle space, was the vineyard. It consisted of four arched arbours, their rafters supported by posts. A path  in the middle formed the chief approach to the house from the gate. From this path two side-walks lead directly to the covered ways.

It is hard to reconstruct the master’s house, which is drawn too small. Perhaps it had a front hall, like most Egyptian houses, with three rooms below and an upper story. There were flower-beds at the side, and shady avenues around. The whole upper garden is intersected in symmetrical lines by avenues of sycomores, and different palm trees  (date and doum). 

In other ways, too, a feeling for strict symmetry is shown. The garden is carved out by walls into eight separate similar parts, only differing in their size. The chief section (with the house) includes the vineyard. Besides avenues it has two small and attractive open pavilions with flower-beds in front. They overlook two rectangular ponds, whose banks appear to be bordered with green grass. On the water there are lotuses swaying, and ducks swimming about. Two similar ponds, but pointing in a different direction, are nearer the front. On either side of the gate there is a space filled by two plantations of trees, fenced in a peculiar way. There are two more avenues composed of all three kinds of trees, planted alongside the walls, standing alone and cut off by a low wall. Thus we have here:

 (1) a square of land surrounded by lofty walls,

(2) the dwelling-house, carefully hidden away, shaded by trees, enlivened by the pond and its water-fowl and green border,

(3) the vineyard in the middle with all the trees of different kinds grouped about it in avenues.

We find nearly all these designs in Meten’s garden. If we look at the beautiful regular plan, the fine alternation of trees, planted with prudent forethought, the elegant shape of the sunk ponds, the judiciously disposed buildings in the garden—we recognise with astonishment that we here have a formal garden in an advanced state of development on the very threshold of our history. Rhythm, symmetry, and a happy combination of elegance and utility—a blend often desired in later days of hope and struggle—these have been fully attained, and with them a delight in quiet communion with Nature, expressing as she does the sense of beauty in orderliness. Moreover there is a tendency to separate particular parts—a scheme often met with in later times. The next pleasing feature is the complete supremacy of the garden, to which all buildings—the dwelling-house included—are subordinate.

With the later excavations at El-Amarna the form of the town house becomes more clear. In suburban houses the pylon-like entrance gate hardly ever leads into the garden. Straight ahead you get the large pond, which at El-Amarna seems to have been always filled from underground water. Behind the pond, and often at the side as well, we find in the best houses a kiosk with pillared hall and a terrace leading up. The dwelling-house is generally at the side, nearer to the street.

By the help of a ground-plan like this, it is easy to complete and explain many other garden pictures. There is a Theban picture, from a tomb of the same date as the one just described, which (Fig.11)

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 gives a visiting scene at a great house; here too the house stands inside the garden enclosed by a wall. The entrance door leads straight into the garden; and thence the visitors proceed to the house, which has garden ground all round it (this the artist indicates by one large tree and two little plants behind the house); there is a second way in at the back. The house has an open porch in front, where the guests, who have walked through the garden, are politely received. The most conspicuous place seems to have been allotted to the vine arbour, where the ripe grapes hang on a pergola with pretty columns, and among the trees are figs, pomegranates, and sycomores, which in their own avenues provide fruit and grateful shade. The picture shows no pond; but water is a necessity—an Egyptian garden is unthinkable without it—and it is unusual not to have it shown in a picture.

There is another garden of an opulent kind where guests are being received (Fig, 12).

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 From the canal which waters the villa one arm reaches out into the garden, and widens at the end into a tank. Around it are avenues of trees, which are also continued up to the house. Such T-shaped canals are often found in gardens. We can see from the Apoui garden in a tomb at Thebes how tall things grew with care and good watering (Fig.13),

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A very attractive building stands in the middle of a large garden, to which one goes down from the gate by an open stair; on both sides is a canal, and all along it are beds of corn- flower, poppy, papyrus, and the like. Great avenues of fruit-trees with splendid fruits are standing among the flowers. Gardeners are busy with shadoofs, fetching up water to pour over the plants.

Most of these places are small dwelling-houses built in suitable proportions, and may possibly have only been intended, like the villas of Italian grandees at a later date, as temporary homes at a favourable time of year: this is suggested by the fact that there is no sign of kitchen arrangements; certainly nothing of the sort appears on the groundfloor of our plan of the enclosed estate. Again, the Setna Romance only describes a suburban villa. Setna, we are told, walked to the west side of the town, where he came upon a very beautiful house. It was surrounded by a wall, and had a garden, and before the doors there was a terrace.

But the tombs show us larger places too. The high priest Mërire from El-Amarna was one of the friends of King Amenhotep IV(also known as Akhenaton).—that great innovator who introduced into Egypt the cult of the sun’s disk as the state religion. He changed his residence from Thebes to the plain of El-Amarna. The picture that adorns the tomb of Merirë shows a number of buildings, all with their different purposes (Fig. 14). 

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Some are living-rooms for the high priest, some for the inferior clergy, and others are store-rooms or treasure-houses for the Temple properties: they are all inside garden-grounds. Even between the granary and the treasure-house there are plants, flowering in beautifully decorated pots. The entrance is particularly charming with a porch like a baldachin, and in the front court there is a pretty pavilion.

The Egyptian still likes, as he did at an earlier period, to have special parts separated off by walls and doors. So the courts are further subdivided, and most of them planted with rows of trees. Single trees have a little wall of earth, and a ditch round them, to hold the water better. The chief garden-site includes the corners at the extreme end. Before the house, amid avenues of trees, is a sunk pond with steps leading down to it. There is a similar pond in front of the neighbouring house, which shows no ornamentation. The garden-house has a concentric form. There is a circle of trees round the basin, and there are pillared halls beyond. In the middle there appears to be a raised platform with a path sloping upward and an altar on the top. In a straight line behind this is the main garden, separated from the house by an intermediate court and double gates.

The central part of the garden includes a very large rectangular sunk pond, and in the middle—possibly with a view to times of drought—is a deep well, beside which stands a shadoof. Round the basin are trees of different kinds; the familiar sorts of palm, sycomore, and pomegranate are particularly neatly and prettily drawn. A second shadoof stands on the farther bank, and in front of it among the trees can be perceived yet another building which may be a summer-house, or perhaps a second altar.