Is there Paradise on earth?
Oh great strider
Who sows greenstone, malachite, turquoise – stars!
As you are green so may Teti be green,
Green as a living reed!
The beautiful poem, part of a Pyramid Text from King Teti’s tomb (dating to the Old Kingdom, c. 2300 BCE), refers to life after death: any natural beauty the king may wish for is in the realm beyond. In fact it is a hymn to the goddess Nut, she who bestrides the sky and strews stars with their green light across the firmament. But the allusion to green reeds, clearly by the banks of the river, is also an affirmation of life as we understand it, in the here and now. It is a wonderful example of how the ancient Egyptians viewed their universe.
Now, almost 4000 years later, the reeds remain part of the Nile environment:
This brings me back to my chosen earthly form of paradise: Aswan (ancient Syene), situated on the Nile almost 900 km south of Cairo and close to the First Cataract. For me, it is a bright, green star, a wondrous oasis of peace and tranquility. To sail on the river there is to enter another dimension.
Aswan has attracted western visitors for at least two hundred years: almost in the tropics, yet possessed of a very dry climate, it is positioned at a narrow stretch of the Nile valley where Egypt – “the land of the sedge and the bee” – meets Nubia.
In the river are islands of many sizes and shapes, composed of heaps of rock – Aswan being famous for the pink granite from which countless columns, pillars and obelisks were carved in ancient times.
Visitors have tended to be oddly dismissive. Florence Nightingale hated it, Amelia Edwards acknowledged only that it was “green.” Surprisingly, these Victorian ladies relished riding the rapids in the Cataract, perhaps a C19 version of whitewater rafting!
I could not disagree with them more. But then, Aswan has developed since their time.
For me, to visit the Botanical Garden is to step into an earthly paradise. Its origins are eccentric: an island “given” some 120 years ago to Lord Kitchener, sometime British military campaigner in Sudan, it was turned into a tropical botanical garden in this driest of climates. The collection focuses on trees of potential scientific and economic value from across the world, from Central and South America to India, Malaysia, Australia and back again to the Caribbean.
A week ago, I spent a magical morning wandering among its beautiful avenues, admiring the extraordinary forms and foliage of trees from around the world, my breath taken away by the vistas and the sense of harmony with nature.
The gardens remain important for scientific research, yet they are also a haven for wildlife, for local school kids, for visitors from Cairo and from much further afield.
The memory of stepping off the sailing boat and onto the island, of passing through the gate into this earthly paradise, will stay with me long after other details of the visit to Aswan have faded.
May all our gardens be green – green as a living reed!