One of the fun things we’ve done, since coming back to Egypt, is to explore areas of Cairo we haven’t been to before, or don’t know well. You never know what you might come across.
Every so often, you stumble on a treasure. For a start, Cairo is a greener city than you might think, though it’s easy to miss this, since trees and shrubs are all too often covered in dust and grime from the traffic. Plants get urban-stressed too!
A few weeks ago, on an expedition to view the Nilometer* on the southern tip of El-Rodah Island, south of El-Gezirah in the heart of downtown Cairo, we parked the car just beyond Garden City to walk over to the island.
Intrigued by a gateway on the upper level of the river bank, we found ourselves diverted unexpectedly into a small paradise. Entering between pots of bougainvillea and taking a flight of steps down, we followed a path winding among beds filled with potted cuttings and plants, and shaded by stands of trees, banana and yucca, all this running in terraces along the river.
There was a shady corner was set aside for an informal cafe, with benches and floor cover, presumably intended for the nurseryman and his mates. A wooden rowing boat was moored nearby. The site ended in an abundance of greenery running wild at the southern limit of the plot.
Much like all the nurseries I’ve seen here, outside Maadi where they are a bit more up-market, this was informal – though nicely arranged – without labels, any kind of information, or price tags, but a truly delightful haven.
Then we glimpsed a streak of blue across the water; we’d registered some persistent and rather strident bird calls without realizing the source. Now we saw them on the bank across the water: a pair of river kingfishers, launching themselves from the dense mass of bushes on the island’s edge, flying low over the river in search of food. This unexpected sighting was pure joy: in the heart of one of the world’s most built-up metropolises, a breath of fresh air.
*The Rodah Nilometer: probably ancient in origin, this structure dates back to the C9. The principle is simple: an octagonal pillar of stone is set in a basin at river level (well below current ground level), with entry points for the Nile waters. The pillar is marked into 16 cubits (1 cubit = 54.04 cm). During the annual flood, as the water rose within the container, officials could gauge the height of the water and thus measure the flood. From this, it was possible to estimate agricultural yields and thus to set taxes. Ancient Nilometers still exist elsewhere, such as at Elephantine Island (Abu) in Upper Egypt. In a variation on the theme, some ancient tomb reliefs show officials out in the fields, measuring land under cultivation and assessing crops of barley and emmer (wheat), again with a view to setting levels of taxation.