Last weekend was a treat for the gardener – an escape from late summer pruning and clearing up, preparing raised beds and chucking compost about – with a diversion into a wildly romantic garden in the northern city of Alexandria.
Tucked away in the district of Smouha, the Antoniades villa and garden is a magical estate of shady pathways, formal gardens with classical statuary, once grand promenades and a secluded courtyard with fountains and water channel. It has a special atmosphere – enhanced, I think, by the clear light and expansive sky of the Mediterranean.
The mix of formal design and planting with stands of conifers and trees from across the world may well have been persuasive in its time; now, however, the conifers are running away and, though some hedges are well clipped, many shrubs and trees are a riot.Colour is muted: At this time of year, Plumbago capensis and Lantana camera are most prolific, with occasional splashes of red from Bougainvillea spectabilis, but most eyecatching of all are the glorious Hibiscus rosa-sinensis.
Perhaps this gives the garden its special charm, as a faded memory of Alexandria in a very different era, when grand houses and splendid gardens were de rigueur for the rich.
Here and there the formal planting is well maintained and the water sufficient for the garden to thrive; a statue of Venus suggests the illusion of a European garden but then the spell is broken by Hypatia, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and a leading light of Alexandria’s intelligentsia in the C4 CE.
The work of French architects and landscape designers, the estate was once owned by Sir John Antoniades, a wealthy banker of Greek origin with a trans-Mediterranean business empire and a knighthood from Queen Victoria. But its creation was also part of a wider effort by the ruler of Egypt in the 1860s, the Khedive Ismail, to beautify both Cairo and Alexandria with grand buildings in the French style, botanical collections, orchards and zoological gardens.
Even more fascinating is the site’s link with the city’s deepest past: It is on, or very close to, the land where Callimachus once lived. The inventor of the library catalogue system, Callimachus (c.305 – c.240 BCE) was a scholar, poet and librarian at the Great Library of classical Alexandria. Even more interesting, the Academy (or Mouseion) and Library were established by the Macedonian kings of Egypt, following Alexander the Great’s vision, with both zoo and botanical garden alongside – which makes the link with the site today even stronger.
My wandering was filled with admiration for a once-lovely garden now overlaid with a melancholy air…. Classical Alexandria was the scene of an extraordinary flowering of intellectual and cultural life before fading as the Graeco-Roman world disappeared and Cairo rose to prominence. The Antoniades Garden seemed to hint subtly, in the breezes that blew across it, at this past.
May it be preserved as part of our common heritage!