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.


Sanctuaries: from Assisi to Egypt

Writing about western Christianity’s monastic orders, Diarmid MacCulloch has highlighted the centrality of nature – and of gardens – to the practice of contemplation and silence:

The Carthusians had chosen to make a myriad of little paradises out of the enclosed individual gardens cultivated by their hermit-monks. The Carmelites, by contrast, remembering their mountain-wilderness, saw paradise in nature unspoilt by fallen humans.*

Throughout history there has been an intimate connection between nature, whether tamed or untamed, and the spiritual life. From rishis in forest ashrams in ancient India, to the close associations of gods and goddesses with the natural world in Egypt (e.g. the goddess Nut with the sacred sycamore tree), through to monastery gardens wherever Christianity appeared, the idea of finding sanctuary in nature has been an enduring theme.

And in our frenetic modern world, what better place to find our own sanctuary than in a quiet, well-planted garden with birds and insects for company as we collect our thoughts and spend time in quiet contemplation? Or, come to that, in a walk in the woods following in the footsteps of S. Francis?

On my recent travels, I have encountered some beautiful examples:

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From St. Francis surrounded by the thornless roses that are said to grow only in the garden of the Porziuncula Oratory close to Assisi, to the gentle atmosphere of the hermitage in the woods above the town; to the quirky garden of Andre Heller on the western shore of Lake Garda, its slopes planted with everything from bamboo groves to citrus fruits, the happy marriage of spiritual contemplation and nature’s generosity is inspirational.

In Egypt, the connection is still present, but you may have to search for it. First among the places I would turn to is the monastery of S. Antony, close to the Red Sea south of Ain Sokhna. Here you find a community of monks who cultivate a traditional garden featuring date palms, vines and a variety of vegetables such as onions and salad leaves:

S Anthony's Egypt
In the C4, Saint Antony’s main preoccupation was to get away from the crowds of enthusiastic followers who were flocking to him. Originally, he sought sanctuary in this lonely spot, choosing a cave half-way up the escarpment behind the monastery. I don’t suppose a garden was a priority for him, but it has developed along with the community of monks as a way to survive.

Finally, I would add it goes without saying that if you seek spiritual enlightenment in a holy place – a sanctum – you may encounter the unexpected. You might even meet an angel…

Angel, Assisi 5.16

Outside the church of Sa. Chiara, an angel alighted: Assisi, May 2016.


*See Silence: A Christian History by Diarmid MacCulloch published by Allen Lane, 2013

Written for the WordPress Daily Prompt, 25/7/16

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The Happy Hour, or: A working woman’s breakfast

Happy breakfast 1.16
So here we have it: the best way to start the day in Egypt if you have hard work ahead of you in the garden (or any other kind of physical work): ful medames, ta’ameyya (deep fried patties made with ful beans), olives, salad and some hot, fresh baladi bread (wholemeal flat bread).

Some people say ful medames is Egypt’s national dish – one enjoyed by the Pharaohs. I rather doubt this: beans were certainly among the rations handed out to workmen toiling to build the great monuments of ancient Egypt, but I am not aware of any evidence of beans in royal burials.

Lentils (Lens culinaris), on the other hand, were a cut above beans: a basket of them was placed in King Tutankhamen’s tomb. And I rather think Egypt’s national dish might truly be koshari: another highly nutritious meal made of rice, lentils and pasta shapes, served with a tomato sauce with or without chillis, and crisply fried onion slices.

Nowadays, broad beans (Vicia faba) appear in the Egyptian diet in two main forms. As ful heratti, which are fresh broad beans in their pods, usually eaten raw as a snack. And as the more widely known ful medames.

You will often see workmen and office workers crowding round stalls in the street while on their way to work in the morning, eagerly devouring dishes of the bean puree along with pickles and spring onions. Makes you wonder what the atmosphere in the office must be like a bit later on!

We have grown ful heratti and what a dream of a crop the young beans are when fresh off the plant and just podded. Below are the young plants back in autumn 2014:
Fuul heratti 11.14
Not too much to show in terms of the crop, however, as the plants suffered from the predictable aphid, tendency to fall over sideways, and other ailments. But the beans were out of this world, when we got them!

There’s another reason to cherish this particular plant, and that’s the interesting point that not only is a snack of raw beans incredibly nutritious, it may also protect you from Parkinson’s disease and even raise your mood. So you get off to a flying start if you’ve nibbled on the veg on your way to work, or when starting work in the garden.

Broad beans contain tons of protein, plenty of fibre – and a whole array of chemicals, vitamins and minerals. The chemical present in Vicia faba and implicated in Parkinson’s is Levo-dopa, a precursor of substances in the brain that are associated with smooth body movements. Among the vitamins are a healthy range of Bs; and among the minerals are magnesium and zinc that are both connected with elevated mood.

L-dopa is, more accurately, present particularly in the stalks, leaves and pods, but rather less in the beans themselves. As for the dried pulses used to make ful medames, they don’t contain much at all.

So the traditional Egyptian uses of broad beans are remarkably health-giving. It is noteworthy that, though not unknown in the country, Parkinson’s is not as commonly seen as in western countries.

As for the breakfast, I truly believe it is something of a wonder-fest, far removed from the fat-laden “full English” type; you might say it is worth its weight in gold. Added to this is the way ful medames is prepared, flavoured with cumin, lemon juice and olive oil. If you eat it with salad veg such as tomatoes and cucumbers, then it must surely rank as a complete meal.

And to get round the beans v. lentils issue, you can slow-cook your (previously soaked) beans with red lentils, as some Egyptian do, thus adding variety and boosting your breakfast’s status. Not just a load of old beans, you could say!

Sweet sensation: harvesting the honey

The bees are producing honey of amazing quality just now: beautiful, golden and gently perfumed, it is imbued with the taste of spring flowers. The supply is limited, but worth the wait (and its weight in gold!) And it puts a positive spring in our step…
honey in jar 4:14
There has been a bit of aggressive behaviour on the bees’ part: we think they are suspicious of my husband whenever he goes up on the roof and especially if they espy him dressed in all the gear he wears to harvest the honeycombs. Down in the garden, though, they are busy visiting the nasturtiums, now coming to the end of their season, the calendulas, borage, and the thyme that has begun flowering profusely in the herb bed. This morning, I found one of my friends totally absorbed in foraging inside a bright yellow rose, her legs already laden with packets of pollen:
Bee gathering pollen 4:14 crop
In the deep past, honey was, as it is nowadays, a precious commodity here in Egypt. It was the only sweetener the ancient Egyptians had, used in the baking of bread and cakes, and to make beer and mead. Not that ordinary folk were allowed to taste it: It seems that honey was more often used for offerings in temples, to provide food supplies for the departed within tombs, and then for royalty, priests and other high officials.

Honey was also used as a medicine and antiseptic. The ancients made use of its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, including in the treatment of open wounds. Now, I also use it to help heal cuts, especially to my hands, usually arising from a session in the garden.

Other uses I have read about were more esoteric, and a bit hard to, er, get your head round: like extracting wax from the combs to set the complicated wigs they used to wear…

More seriously, the bee was a symbol of royal power. As early as the First Dynasty (2950-2750 BC) of the Old Kingdom, one of the king’s names was “nesw-bit” or “He of the sedge and the bee”. This was most likely a reference to Upper and Lower Egypt respectively: so the bee was integral to one of the most potent political statements of all, demonstrating the king’s sovereignty over a united Egypt. Images of the insect appear in relief within temples, and on obelisks, sarcophagi and statuary. They are also seen in wall paintings in tombs, sometimes in the context of detailed pictures of bee-keeping activities.

While our bees are housed in wooden hives on the roof, and simply left to roam around our and neighbours’ gardens, in ancient times they were kept in long earthenware cylinders stacked up to eight high. It seems likely that the hives were transported to Upper Egypt and then gradually brought northwards along the Nile from October to February, a system that allowed the bees maximum access to flowers in the countryside along the river following the annual inundation.

At the same time, wild honey was harvested from the more outlying areas by professional honey-collectors, or “bityw”.

Although I appreciate honey, I’ve never been a “honey-freak”, unlike some members of my family. I don’t go miles to find rarefied blossom honey, and I doubt I can identify which flower is dominant in any given jar. And some of the world’s most highly-valued honey is too strong for my taste.

But I have come to love the produce of our friends on the roof and I look forward to trying each new harvest, best of all with fresh bread from a local Iraqi bakery. It’s the sweetest of all the produce of the garden, endlessly varied in texture and taste, and truly one of the most miraculous of all of nature’s riches.
bread and honey 4:14

Photographs by Adel Ismail and Nadia Ismail