“He caused plants to be born in the midst of the countryside, and he brightened the riverbanks with multicoloured flowers; he made the fruit trees produce their fruit to furnish a means of subsistence for men and gods.”*
So reads the hymn to the ancient ram-headed god Khnum, who was thought to have formed the gods – and the first human child – on a potter’s wheel. He then breathed the breath of life into them, so animating the living world around us.
In the late period temple of Esna (from which the hymn is taken) Khnum was worshipped as the creator of all beings and as an embodiment of the universe.
We might take it as a mark of Khnum’s extraordinary activity – who knows? – that the season of spectacular colours and glorious perfumes in Egypt is now opening. With the heat of summer come jasmine in all its forms from the simple climbing variety of the jasmine gate to the smaller, sensual Arabian variety; frangipani; roses both bush and climbing; pinks and carnations; lavender; and honeysuckle. The fruit trees promise us peaches (white and yellow), guavas, figs, dates of many different kinds, prickly pears and, for a brief moment in May, apricots. And this is by no means an exhaustive list.
On an expedition to El-Qanatar, in the countryside of Qalyubiya north of Cairo, we sneaked a peek inside the gates of a private garden beside the Nile. This was a stroke of genius, for once inside we found not one, but two spectacular wisterias climbing their way to the top of a pair of palm trees. Drifts of light mauve flowers and a sweet scent filled the air. Everything else seemed to pale into insignificance beside them, from the great stands of bamboo to the bougainvillea, which is not easily outclassed for colour. These are the first wisteria I have seen in Egypt: they made my day.
There are two barrages across the Nile north of Cairo just beyond the point where the river divides into Rosetta and Damietta branches as it flows north to the Mediterranean. Begun by French engineers in the 1830s, at the time of Mohammed Ali, the barrages were completed by the British following the occupation in 1882. In this way, the floodwaters that barrelled downstream every summer could be effectively regulated, and a dramatic increase in crop yields across the Delta, particularly of cotton, achieved – as the imperial authorities intended.
The area was planted with extensive parks and gardens among the grand villas and engineering works surrounding the barrages. The vistas are still attractive:
We have on record a number of accounts of the rich variety of plants in Egypt’s gardens, not to mention the abundance of fruit, at the time of the occupation. In the early C20, a minor official in the Department of Public Instruction, Joseph McPherson, gave a detailed description of the garden of the villa he rented in Heliopolis in letters home to his family. The extract below, from May 1903, illuminates the point beautifully:
“My dining-room balcony is connected with an alley of vine-trellissing about 50 yards long (grapes not quite ripe yet). The next side of the garden has a row of acacia trees whose fern-like leaves are almost hidden at present by glorious blue flowers. The most vulnerable side is protected by a row of prickly figs like gigantic cacti, covered now with great yellow blossoms and unripe fruit and millions of needles; outside… is a spiked fence hidden by clematis, which together with jasmine and tuberoses buries the garden house and half covers the chalet… (The) mulberries are just black ripe ….vegetables etc. generally seem to appear when wanted and are abundant in the garden.”**
In addition, McPherson writes of the apricot trees “as big as the biggest pear or apple trees in England.” He estimates that he was eating up to 40 apricots per day, “besides guavas and plums.” The mind reels!
In truth, though, this reflects much of what Egypt is still about. At every possible spot in and around modern Cairo pick-up trucks loaded with produce park at the side of roads and on roundabouts throughout the year. These days they bring mountains of orange and red carrots, radishes the size of cricket balls, onions and garlic, bananas, and oranges at £EG 1 a kilo.
This is a land where the astonishing abundance of Khnum’s trees and fields is laid before us on a daily basis – and where the countryside invites us to venture out and discover it for ourselves.
* From “Gods and Men in Egypt” by Francoise Dunand and Christiane Zivie-Coche, published (in translation) by Cornell University Press, 2004. It might be noted that there were several “creation myths” in Ancient Egypt, a civilization that lasted for some 3,000 years and that experienced momentous changes; and that Khnum was one of many gods associated with the creation. Further, the breathing of life into his creations brings to mind the ancient Indian idea of “prana”.
** “Bimbashi McPherson: A Life in Egypt” ed. Barry Carman and John McPherson and published by the BBC, 1983