The aura of trees

Every living being has its own aura, or energy field. Working this month on my chakras (energy centres, with their related channels up and down the body, the nadis) I am not surprised to read that we can learn to see auras. What really interests me is that it’s possible to develop the power by practising with trees.*

A huge and ancient tree may have a vast energy field – a kind of glow all around it that throws the plant’s shape into subtle silhouette. By training the eye on the tree and then moving our focus to the sky beyond, we can actually see the light energy as the particles vibrate on different frequencies, producing a swirling pattern of colours around its form.

I have always felt a profound connection with these wonders of nature. I rather think they are the true “wonders of the world”, far superior to the man-made monuments that have all disappeared, with the exception of Egypt’s Giza pyramids. As a child, I observed and drew them with passion; climbed in them; picnicked beneath them with the teddy bears; ate their fruit; collected their seed pods; composted their leaves and peelings. I helped my mother plant and tend an english oak, with the express wish to leave it for future generations (and scant regard for how big it was likely to grow in an urban back garden!)

Much seasonal colour and fragrance in Egypt is provided by trees, whose varied shapes and spectacular blooms are part of the landscape in countryside and town alike. Far more of them grace the streets of Cairo than you might imagine: Somehow amid the traffic and pollution, they hold fast, providing rest for the eyes and oxygen for the lungs by day.
Jacaranda 4.17

From Bombax malabaricum and Chorysia speciosa in March, through Jacaranda mimosifolia (above) in April and Delonix regia – the flame tree – in May right through to the gorgeous frangipani (Plumeria acuminata) whose waxy white and yellow flowers perfume our summer days, trees are integral to life in Cairo.

Right now, the flame trees predominate:

We can’t fit many of the big ones inside our garden. But we have set aside a fair amount of space for fruit trees, and the newest addition to the collection, the delightful pomegranate (Punica granatum) has just begun to flower:
Pomegranate flowers

Nearby, our lovely Calliandra haematocephala (the “powderpuff” tree – there’s a name to conjure with!) is flowering profusely. She arches over the grass, repeatedly flowering throughout the warm months; full of vitality, Calliandra is a great favourite with the bees just now.

I think the energy of trees works on many different levels; every part of them is filled with fascination for me, from the bark and the roots to the extraordinary variation in seed distribution. What we have around us in Cairo is just a snapshot of their vast wealth – and it never, never ceases to fill me with wonder.

* The Chakra Bible – Patricia Mercier, pub. by Godsfield Press, part of Octopus Publishing

Fields of surprises

Our journeys into Fayyum have been full of fascination: Beautiful countryside, occasionally with gentle hills, and wide open vistas across the fields; a protected area, with lakes and waterfalls; myriad birds, both resident and migratory, from hunter-diver kingfishers to bee-eaters wheeling and calling overhead; and, all around us, a sense of man’s presence since ancient times.

I love the farms and fields. There is such precision and familiarity about the wheat crop standing tall, now ripening fast to a lovely golden hue as harvest-time approaches. Precision because the cereals are sown in strictly-defined plots within the fields; familiarity because you see exactly the same scene in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings of paradise in the world beyond this, though the cereals would have been emmer wheat and barley.

Paradise, for an ancient Egyptian ruler or notable, was portrayed as a well-ordered and productive land of bountiful harvests, with crops ready for gathering, animals well-fed and fattened, and an estate manager keeping a careful eye on the farm workers – no chance of slacking, even in the next world.

Back to the present, and everywhere piles of harvested “berseem” (clover) are in process of being transported from field to animal pen as fodder for buffaloes, cattle, horses and donkeys. Bare plots are rapidly ploughed and replanted, and summer crops are already appearing: corn, for example.

Close to Lake Qarun, we are stopped in our tracks by a new discovery: The earth is ablaze with gorgeous marigolds (Calendula officinalis) in bloom; nearby, the air is suffused with the scent of flowering chamomile – most likely German chamomile or Matricaria recutita. I have never seen the herbs growing in the field in Egypt. Both contain valuable substances used in formulating natural remedies, especially C. officinalis; and I buy dried chamomile for infusions from a local health store.

This year, I have had some success with German chamomile planted in raised bed 2 – see the little picture above, lower right. I’m growing it on a very small scale, but it is now flowering and, according to my wonderful RHS Encyclopedia of Herbs*, I need to get harvesting the fresh young flowers for use in infusions or to freeze for later on. It can be dried, but the volatile oils will evaporate rapidly.

A little beyond these fields, we find yet another herb. At first glance, it looks like Queen Anne’s lace (Ammi majus), a common hedgerow plant in the English countryside when I was a child; but, on closer inspection, it is somewhat different. As we ask the farmers about it, one of them tells us it is “khella”, and it is used medicinally to treat kidney problems.

A little research in the Encyclopedia identifies it as Ammi visnaga, part of the Apiaceae family, related to carrots (Daucus carota) and ajowan or Trachyspermum ammi:

This is a plant with an amazing history in Egypt: mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, a medical text dating from the New Kingdom some 3,500 years ago, it was used to relieve fever and for the treatment of kidney stones. It is known to be a valuable vascular dilator that does not lower blood pressure – hence its continuing use today.

In the 1950s, investigation of the oil in its seeds identified a substance (khellin) that has proved effective in relieving the symptoms of asthma.

I read that the seeds are also added to “mesh”,  a white cheese with a story of its own. Described by Magda Mehdawy and Amr Hussein in their book on ancient Egyptian food* as “aged cheese”, it was – and perhaps still is – left to mature in clay pots for at least a year. Maybe this is the white cheese I have seen in the Imhotep Museum at Saqqara – food for a snack made some 4,500 years ago, which puts a whole new light on the term “aged”! Frustratingly, when I investigate the list of ingredients on a jar of the stuff in a local supermarket, I find no mention of “khella”. Clearly, it may have changed somewhat…

*Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Herbs, Deni Bown, pub. by Dorling Kindersley, London 

* The Pharaoh’s Kitchen, Magda Mehdawy and Amr Hussein, pub. by AUC Press, Cairo

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!

Sheer indulgence

We came back from downtown Cairo last week not with a few books from my favourite store, nor stocks of organic food from the bio-shop, nor even gifts of locally made soaps, skin creams and cotton towels for family and friends overseas.

Rather, we had a boot full of plants, a bag of pepper and aubergine seedlings, and a pomegranate tree stretching almost from boot to windscreen. It was rather fun turning corners, negotiating roundabouts and getting through traffic on the flyover all the while holding on to the tree with love, trying to keep her steady.

The pomegranate is one of my favourite trees, not only for the bright green softness of the young leaves, nor the slightly whimsical form of the branches. I love them also for their luminous orange flowers, and for the strange beauty of the fruit.

We had spent a productive morning at Cairo’s Spring Flower Show. Armed with a list of items we needed, we were remarkably successful in tracking them all down, from traps to deal with fruit fly (to protect our guava crop) to bedding plants as gifts for relatives.

But there’s much more to the event than this. It’s sheer indulgence to take the time to wander round and enjoy the show, set in the once glorious – though now somewhat faded – former royal gardens in El-Urman Park, among splendid palms and a fascinating collection of conifers from around the world.

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Businesses represented were mostly from Cairo and the surrounding countryside. The breadth of items, covering everything from gardening equipment to seedlings, beekeeping paraphernalia to irrigation materials, was impressive and useful; normally we would have to travel all over to track them down.

Among the herbs were quantities of rosemary, thyme and oregano, but the selection was less extensive than last year. Seedlings, purchased by the plug, included aubergines, cabbages, capsicums, lettuces and tomatoes. I’m always interested in the packets of seeds: We usually buy basic seeds – coriander, dill, parsley, rocket – from a kind of general store or grocer’s shop, but more specialised seeds are harder to find. At the show, they come either commercially packaged or sorted into simple brown paper packets with handwritten labels:

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There were not so many fruit trees this year, as far as I could tell, but still there was a reasonable selection of citrus, mango, apple, peach, pear and so on. You can see bananas (which are not trees, but grasses) in the foreground here:

Fruit trees

But you have to be vigilant when you buy: Our pomegranate, lovely as she is, turned out to have been recently uprooted and placed in a suspiciously small container. At least it wasn’t an old tin formerly used for industrial glue or paint, which is common practice in Egypt! But this meant that the gardener had to be extra careful in easing her out of the pot and into the garden: More on this in a later post, as well as on the amazing cultural, historical and culinary story of the pomegranate tree.

 

 

In the season of Hator

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.

relief-fr-unas-causeway

Chaos and famine: relief from the causeway leading to the funerary temple of Unas, Saqqara

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.

 

 

In the season of Hator

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.

vista-of-fields

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.

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.

carting-the-berseem

Once again, egrets kept the buffalo company, hopping on and off their backs to pick insects from their hide – a neat sort of friendship:

water-buffalo

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.

ploughed-field

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.

Trees of life

Source of nourishing food and drink; provider of wood for building; of leaves for ropes and brushes; of fibres for making sieves and baskets. And of sweet fruit, highly nutritious and used in certain natural remedies – even, once, in the brewing of beer.

Palms are part of the landscape of the Middle East,  and they have existed in Egypt since prehistoric times. They are among the country’s most ancient trees.

The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) appears on columns of the temple of Philae in southern Egypt, and in countless tomb reliefs and frescoes.  In the inventory of the trees in his orchard included in the tomb he prepared for his future burial, one New Kingdom official (Ineni) listed 170 date palms, by far the most numerous kind of tree in his plot.

Wherever you go in Egypt, you will come across the trees. From the western oases to monasteries by the Red Sea in the east, pretty much all along the Nile Valley, in parks and lining streets, you see their distinctive shape reaching into the sky. Close to the ring road around Cairo there are stands of tall palms, handsome remnants of once-magnificent groves on what used to be agricultural land.

Palms are lovely, graceful trees. A well-tended grove of several hundred is a really magnificent sight.  We have just one, a Zaghloul, in our garden, which doesn’t work so well aesthetically (palms need companions, I think). This year it produced nearly 20 kilos of beautiful red dates: along with the lemon, it is our most productive tree.

Right now, we are eating yellow Barhi dates bought at a supermarket: crunchy, like the Zaghloul, but shorter and rounder in shape and more consistently sweet. Every year, I discover varieties I haven’t tasted before and try out something new from the astonishing variety of species or cultivars in the region.

But Egypt has a quite different kind of palm, most likely just as ancient as the date palm, yet little known nowadays, I think.

The doum (Hyphaene thebaica L.) has a distinctive bifurcate trunk, stands less erect than P. dactylifera, and produces fan-shaped leaves.

Doum fruits have been found in Old Kingdom tombs from about 4,500 years ago; the size of a small apple, they have a tough, shiny, brown casing enclosing a small amount of flesh, which can be eaten, and a nut containing sweet juice. The flesh was also ground into flour for bread.

Nowadays, the powdered fruit is made into a drink. I’ve no idea if it is still used for flour, but I rather doubt it as wheat has almost totally taken over.

The doum is commonly seen in Upper Egypt; I remember noticing individual trees, as distinct from groves, on the river bank when we did a Nile cruise from Aswan to Luxor many years ago. More recently, we found these lovely doum palms in the Botanical Garden in Aswan:

In his inventory, Ineni listed 120 doum palms, an indication of how highly they were valued. The next most numerous tree was the sycamore, with only 73. We know that both date and doum palms were planted in the temple complex at Amarna, the new capital city established by the pharaoh Akhnaten around 1360 BCE. Their fruit would have been among the foods he offered to the god.

Dates, meanwhile, were among the wages in kind paid to workmen at Deir El-Medina in Thebes, to the south. Bread, beer and some vegetables were completed by dates: All-in-all a good meal given the astonishing nutritional value of the date.

Ancient