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Posts tagged ‘Ancient Egypt’

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

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.


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.



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.