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Wandering – again

I had intended to write about the garden and, in particular, the raised beds. There’s enough work to be done, and a number of points – interesting, baffling, despair-inducing to write about. But, as you see, I got diverted…. again!

Across the fields Fayyum

Definitely not my garden…. The nomad spirit took over once more yesterday, and I abandoned veg. beds, borders and even the fascination of the compost bins in order to wander off to Fayyum, most lovely of agricultural regions close to Cairo and truly worth the agony of an hour or two on the Ring Road.

First thing was Lake Qarun, so obscured by mist that we couldn’t locate the horizon. As ever, it was weirdly still, like a mirror, though the winter wildfowl were abundant. Then, a glimpse of daily life in the fields, where it seems little has changed over the millennia since the men of Alexander’s Macedonian army were settled here in order to cultivate the land. Irrigation channels criss-cross the fields:

Irrigation Fayyum

And, once the corn harvest is over, the remains of the plants are carried off as fodder to the livestock in the fields by the most traditional of transport:Carrying the fodder FayyumThe soil in Fayyum is rich and its produce abundant, possibly because the area once had a much larger system of lakes, extended through engineering works by the kings of the Middle Kingdom some four thousand years ago. It follows that there must have been plentiful, rich debris left in the soil. The area, fed by a tributary of the Nile, was in any case naturally productive. Here’s Toby Wilkinson* on the subject:

From the very beginning of pharaonic history, the Fayum was a popular location for royal retreats and summer palaces. In the Middle Kingdom and Ptolemaic periods in particular, it was the focus of major irrigation and land reclamation activities, in effect creating ‘another Egypt’ in the Western Desert.

The fields are wonderfully cultivated – it’s always a pleasure to see how neatly ploughed they are whether big or small.

Ploughed fields FayyumAmong the crops we came across fields of sugar beet:

Sugar beet Fayyum And, towards the western edge, medicinal herbs such as calendula:

Calendula Fayyum 11.18As well as what may be tanacetum (tansy) interplanted with corn:

Corn interplanted with TanacetumOn a previous exploration of Fayyum in the spring, we found fields full of chamomile as well – we could actually smell the herb well before we spotted it – and this is the only area in Egypt where I have come across so many plants with pharmaceutical applications, outside Sekem’s Heliopolis University nursery beds.

But, intriguingly,  a loop round to the west, well away from Lake Qarun, is a reminder of just how singular Fayyum is. Approaching the archaeological site of Madinat Madi arguably from the wrong direction – from the west rather than from the east – we rattled our away across a desert landscape of desolate beauty:

In the desert W. FayyumEven so, take a close look at the ground beneath your feet and you’d be surprised at the tracks in the sand….

Desert FayyumIt is possible that the spirit of Namibia is running away with me here. The only lions in the area are the stone statues at Madinat Madi (as far as I know!) so the most this is likely to be is a desert fox, I imagine.

By twilight, we were back among the fields and the irrigation canals. The cattle were being herded home from the fields

Taking the animals homeAnd a calm, still atmosphere prevailed over an irrigation canal – it seemed to sum Fayyum up beautifully:

Dusk by the irrigation canal


  • The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt – Toby Wilkinson, pub. by Bloomsbury
7 Comments Post a comment
  1. janesmudgeegarden #

    Your post is wonderfully exotic to me, Sylvia. I wonder if artefacts ever appear to farmers if the Fayyum was so popular with the ancients.

    November 21, 2018
    • Yes! The best story of all is how the farmers of Fayyum turned dumps full of ancient papyrus. not to mention the mud and straw bricks used to build pyramids there, into compost for their crops! It’s the subject of a play, The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, an absolutely brilliant piece that was on in London a couple of years ago. Also, lots of beautiful Greco-Roman mummies turned up, with paintings of the deceased that have become famous as the Hawara portraits – you might like to Google them and have a look. Sylvia

      November 22, 2018
  2. janesmudgeegarden #

    What I like about blogging- learning something new. Those portraits are exceedingly beautiful and were so interesting to read about, as was the information about Fayyum. Thank you Sylvia.

    November 22, 2018
  3. Wow! Even though this is not related to the gardening that I normally read about there, it is fascinating nonetheless.

    November 24, 2018
    • Hello Tony – Fayyum is a wonderful area, always a new journey, full of fascinating discoveries. A guide took us around one ancient site where there was so much broken pottery in the “agora” that we were literally crunching it underfoot (dreadful thing to do – whatever was he thinking of?) Best of all is Wadi Hitan, the valley of the whales, further west, where the remains of fossilised mangrove swamps and whales can be seen. They are about 45 million years old….

      November 28, 2018
      • Wow! I had never heard of fossilized whales. What an odd place for such fossils. Even though the regions has obviously changed a lot in 45 million years, it still seems odd that whales were there.

        November 29, 2018
      • Hello Tony – much of Egypt was under the sea 45 million years ago – the Tethys sea, I think. The whale fossils have vestigial limbs and apparently this was the point in prehistory when they were turning into purely aquatic mammals. They were not always so and this may explain the odd phenomenon of whales suddenly beaching themselves – a sort-of return to their primordial state. Sylvia

        November 29, 2018

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