Of Sappho and Dionysos

The past few days, I have stepped into a most beautiful, magical part of Egypt: A haven that is surprisingly close to Cairo.

I say “surprisingly” because Cairo is, after all, a C21 mega-city: from Memphis and Ono (Heliopolis) to Maadi and New Cairo, and from pyramids to “Intelligent Village”, it has, so-to-speak, seen it all.

But then there is Fayyum: An astonishing oasis of greenery close to a natural lake southwest of the capital, intensively cultivated since ancient times, site of a National Park, and situated on one of the world’s major migratory routes for birds.

Fayyum farms

Steeped in history – and the subject of a play I attended at a tiny theatre in London last January – Fayyum was the playground of Middle Kingdom rulers and their families some 4,000 years ago before Macedonian soldiers settled down to cultivate the land after Alexander’s conquest, and the Romans arrived with their obsessive planting of wheat, their ruinous taxes, and, of course, their baths.

Lunch on Friday was at Dionysias in the shadow of a Ptolemaic temple: bread, cheese, dates, water. The sort of rations a simple soldier might once have enjoyed – but where was the wine? It was missing, and the god for whom the town was once named may not have been pleased.

Dionysias

Fayyum is not an oasis proper as it is supplied by a branch of the Nile, the Bahr Yusef. The water supply has been regulated for millennia and a network of canals and irrigation ditches now criss-crosses the land bringing cultivation to a wide area, much of it some 40m below sea level. Under the pharaohs, the lake was named Mer-Wer, or the Great Lake, an ideal spot to hunt waterfowl and enjoy the breezes. More recently, King Farouk continued the tradition from a hunting lodge on the southern shore.

The agricultural wealth of the land is astonishing. I imagine this is partly owing to the Nile, but also to the fact that in prehistoric times the area was an inland sea. Later, it became a freshwater lake. Over time, deposits of marine flora and fauna would have accumulated, creating fertile land once the water receded or was drained, much like the Borghese garden and estate we visited in Sicily last October: (see In Persephone’s gardens)

But the accumulation of “waste” material takes on a whole new dimension in Fayyum. Most fascinatingly, it provides insight into Greek Egypt, for which there is perhaps less material evidence than for other epochs of the country’s ancient history, although the underwater exploration of sites near the great Ptolemaic capital Alexandria has begun to set this right.

For who knows how long, local farmers mined ancient waste tips in Fayyum for materials to use as fertiliser: Nothing like well-rotted compost to get the pomegranates to bear fruit and the wheat ears to fill out! When British archaeologists explored the tips from the late C19, they found discarded papyri among the debris (sabkha) … fragments of geometry by Euclid, of plays by Menander and Sophocles… and poetry of Sappho.

The sabakheen were recycling Sappho to fertilise their crops!

The obsessive rifling of rubbish tips by archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt is the subject of Tony Harrison’s play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, first performed at Delphi in Greece in 1988 and recently revived at London’s Finborough Theatre. It’s a clever, witty yet tough play in which Grenfell turns into the god Apollo and Hunt into the leader of the satyrs, the agonised search in Fayyum for fragments of literary value frustrated by wills, bills and condemnations to exile that overwhelm the rare scraps of poetry.

Meanwhile, the University of Oxford is leading a project to assemble, translate and interpret the fragments of ancient Greek, Latin and, from more recent times, Christian, manuscripts that were discarded among the Fayyum waste. Many of Sappho’s poems, tantalisingly reduced to mere wisps of words, are from the stash of “Papyri Oxyrhyncus”:

Earth is embroidered

with rainbow-coloured garlands…

…Nightingale with your lovely voice

you are the herald of spring…

…Flaming summer

charms the earth with its own fluting,

and under leaves

the cicada scrapes its tiny wings together

and incessantly

pours out full shrill song.

[From: Ancient Greek Lyrics, translated by Willis Barnstone, pub. Indiana University Press]

More from Fayyum in my next post: travelling through farmland and discovering fields of medicinal herbs, including one I had never heard of (Ammi visnaga), cultivated since ancient times and used in “mish”, Egypt’s favourite pickled cheese!

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