I. The land renewed
Travelling through the countryside west of Cairo today, on our way to the ancient site at Saqqara, we passed through a land renewed.
Not that the countryside isn’t always green and lovely; but at this time of year there is a particular freshness and beauty to be found, as the fields fill with new crops.
We are nearing the end of the month of Hator in the agricultural calendar: season of renewal and fertility, named for the goddess Hathor who was associated with sexuality, joy and – interestingly – music. Revered in the Old Kingdom over 4,000 years ago as the mother of the sun god and, later on, as the divine mother of the kings (before Isis edged her out), Hathor’s cult centre was at Dendera in southern Egypt. But her influence was felt far and wide.
You can see the connection: at this season, historically following on from the Nile flood that reinvigorated the land along the river valley, the fields are teeming with life. Sunny days promote fast growth, while cooler nights do not yet have the biting cold of winter. You catch the sense of renewal and optimism as soon as you set foot on the farmland.
Walking along a pathway in the shadow of the pyramids of Abu Sir (pronounced “Seer”), V Dynasty (2494 – 2345 BC) structures that have fared considerably less well than those of Giza, we passed rows of cabbages neatly interplanted with dura (corn-on-the-cob); women trimming cauliflowers by an irrigation canal; and vast stretches of crops for animal fodder, notably berseem or clover.
Further on, men were moving rapidly along a recently ploughed field, making drills with the adze (fas) and sowing wheat.
At the end of our walk, we came to a well-irrigated plot of brilliant green, host to myriad egrets that took flight as we approached. Such a scene is repeated all over Egypt at this time of year.
The countryside was alive with birds: pied kingfishers, all decked out in their black and white plumage, hovered busily over canals before diving down to catch their prey. Hoopoes skimmed over fields; hawks rode the gusts of wind overhead; and egrets were everywhere – the “farmer’s friend” as Egyptians call them.
Not every creature saw the need to rush: while a donkey was occupied pulling along a cart loaded with fodder to keep them happy, the water buffalo looked at life from a relaxed viewpoint.
Once again, egrets kept the buffalo company, hopping on and off their backs to pick insects from their hide – a neat sort of friendship:
Fields stretched into the far distance each side of the road to Saqqara; perhaps according to the lie of the land, or the nature of the crops planted, or maybe according to the individual farmer, they were more or less neatly demarcated, ploughed and planted. Some, I thought, were models of cultivation.
We reflected as we passed along the road, canal on one side, fields stretching into the distance on the other, on the unchanging practice of cultivation in this extraordinary land. Modern approaches to agriculture notwithstanding – and yes, we came across tractors, water pumps and the like – the continuity with what we have seen of ancient Egypt was striking.