“It was a fair orchard, full of trees and fruit and vines and greenery. A Sufi there sat with eyes closed, his head upon his knee, sunk deep in meditation mystical……. What is all beauty in the world? The image, like quivering boughs reflected in a stream, of that eternal Orchard which abides unwithered in the hearts of Perfect Men”
Words from the medieval Sufi poet Rumi that span the external world of “symbol” (the ancient Indians would have called it “Maya”) and the deepest interior world of mystical experience. He uses words brimming with natural imagery. The colours and produce of the orchard, trees reflected in water: such images speak to us any time, any place, and across the centuries.
I think my dedication to creating a garden in New Cairo, Egypt, arose from a sense that, after years in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf, I had become disconnected from the natural world and had in some way gone astray. For sure there were gardens in the towns, and the odd oasis in the desert, but it was difficult to feel much connection to them. Away from nature, I felt I had lost my bearings.
Returning to Egypt in 2011 just after the January 25th “Revolution” we encountered a country on the brink of turmoil. Our return was to a new house outside the capital city, surrounded by a plot of land filled with sand and builders’ rubble. To establish and cultivate a garden in a sustainable way on this land became my passion – almost an “idee fixe” – as if I were possessed by the idea of leaving behind the chaos and reconnecting with the essential rhythms of nature. And for the first time in years, we would eat organic, locally produced, fresh fruit and veg.
The challenges came thick and fast, from poor soil to irrigation disasters, from mis-identified fruit trees (a “satsuma” that turned out to be a kumquat!) to bugs and pests by the cartload. The theory of good organic practice is one thing; the temptation to cheat – just a little tiny bit – was occasionally alluring. On the whole, we stuck with the plan, and the garden developed well: herbaceous borders, fruit tree plot and kitchen garden with a gem of a herb bed. Then we added bees – the hives placed on the roof – and after a while we were self-sufficient in honey: “Polyfloral” as one local health shop would describe it.
From time to time – sadly, not consistently – I have written about our experiences, and also more widely of nature, gardens and heritage in Egypt. Although in ancient times Egypt was a land of savannah and richly diverse wildlife, with a river valley and delta of exceptional fertility, now there is mostly desert beyond the valley. Within these limits there is extraordinary natural beauty and interest: at once rich and mysterious, historic yet deeply spiritual, Egypt is here for the exploring. I hope you will join me on the journey, and it will be as exciting for you as it is for me!