II With abundance, scarcity
To travel through the countryside to Saqqara, or for that matter anywhere along the Nile valley or in the Delta, is to journey into abundance. Fruit, vegetables, herbs, fodder for animals – all are present at almost any time of the year but especially now, in the season of Hator.
Food in Egypt remains largely seasonal. Now is the time to stop by the roadside and indulge in sweet potatoes baked in a portable stove; or to buy a cabbage so gigantic it’s almost surreal. Amazingly, this might be for a dish of great delicacy, mahshi kurunb, the individual leaves filled with rice and herbs, then tightly rolled up and stacked closely in a pot, covered with broth and cooked until tender. Friends in the countryside tell me the best results are achieved if the pot is set on an open fire.
Also in the fields: celery, cauliflowers – and clover. This last is food for livestock, and for bees, and clover honey is very much in season at the moment. The way from Saqqara to the Cairo Ring Road is filled with small shops selling the produce of local hives.
The fruit right now are citrus above all; but also bananas, small, sweet and tasty (the larger varieties are also available); and some dates. The pomegranate and mango season is over for another year.
In ancient Egypt, such abundance featured in countless tomb reliefs and paintings: a plenitude of food to eat, water or wine to drink, perfumed oils to pamper the body, lotus (water lily) flowers and bouquets to fragrance the air…
I think about this whenever I approach any of the pyramids at Saqqara, Dahshur, Giza: There’s such a sharp divide physically between the pyramid sites and the cultivated land: windswept and barren plateaux versus green fields and palm groves, in the case of Saqqara and Dahshur. From the air, the divide is even more obvious.
Generally, the pyramids were part of larger complexes including valley and funerary temples and covered causeways between them. They were conceived as gateways to the life beyond, stocked with everything the king was judged to need for the afterlife.
Beneath the Step Pyramid, extensive corridors and chambers, some lined in beautiful azure faience tiles, re-created King Djoser’s palace in life: the familiar reproduced for the life beyond, so he would not be disorientated.
The chambers housed tens of thousands of vessels containing the goods that would make his (after)life pleasant; Saqqara’s museum has several on show, made from a range of stone from alabaster to breccia to gneiss. It also has some of the contents of this and other tombs, including doum palm nuts and what may be white cheese.
Sometimes, there’s a jarring note. It serves to emphasise how precarious life was: from the causeway of King Unas (Fifth Dynasty) a scene of starvation and disorder.
Scholars are divided over how to interpret the scene. It may depict the fate of a desert tribe, far from civilisation (i.e. order and plentiful food) along the Nile; or a scene of people encountered by a party sent to quarry for stone in a remote area. I am inclined to go with an alternative reading: A portrait of bad governance, of chaos and deprivation when a king is weak and his authority wobbles, to be contrasted with all the plentiful food and prosperity under a regime of orderly governance, that is – the strong rule of Unas.
Whatever the explanation, the scene is highly unusual in Egyptian tomb art, which almost invariably focussed on a an irresistible message of plenty.