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Posts tagged ‘Nile flood’

Osiris rising

For millennia, July 19th was a magical moment in Egypt: the day when Sirius, the Dog Star, rose and the annual flood began, crashing through the cataracts above Aswan before making its way along the length of the country to the delta and the sea.

Along its route, a succession of Nilometers was constructed to measure the water each year, to estimate the agricultural harvest likely to follow and to assess taxes due.

So perhaps I should begin by wishing you a happy new year, ancient Egyptian style, as this day traditionally marked a new beginning for all tillers of the land.

What the Nile flood meant, in good years, was renewal with the deposit of a thick layer of fertile silt brought down from the highlands of what is now Ethiopia (80% of the Nile’s waters in Egypt are sourced from the Blue Nile, which rises there). It followed that, every year, farmers would sow their seeds in fresh soil – a soil so rich that the harvests were celebrated in detail over a period of literally thousands of years in carvings or frescoes on the walls of tombs and temples, decorative pavements, papyrus scrolls and artefacts.

I think the annual event was reflected in the Osiris myth, in which the murdered god was brought back to life by his sister-wife Isis. The story, commemorated in annual festivals, also appeared in certain funerary rituals such as the sowing of wheat seeds in a mould shaped to resemble Osiris’ form, their germination representing the principle of regeneration. You can see these in the National Museum in Cairo, part of the extraordinary haul of treasures found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb.

So at this moment in mid-July, I pause for a while to reconnect with the country’s ancient past, and to remember that the Nile, for all that she has been tamed by barrages and controlled by dams, is still an awe-inspiring presence in the land.

On Kasr El-Nil Bridge

There was another aspect to the river, besides the theme of annual renewal, of course: the floods were unpredictable.

Perhaps we think more usually of their failure. Insufficient water at this time of year meant low levels in the irrigation canals that criss-crossed the land, and a scant supply to support the sowings in September-October and then again in the spring. With this came famine.

Other years, the waters came down with extraordinary force. Recently, I have been reading the letters of Lucie Duff Gordon, written in the 1860s during an extended stay in Luxor (Upper Egypt), where it was hoped the dry climate would help her recover from tuberculosis. What devastated the countryside then was not drought, but flooding: the Nile overran its banks, destroying villages, ruining cotton and food crops alike, bringing disease that killed most of the cattle, and leaving the villagers destitute.

It is a sobering and moving account written by an intelligent and sensitive witness. Lady Duff Gordon did not hold herself aloof from the villagers, but participated fully in their daily lives, from sharing picnics by the threshing floor to taking coffee and hubble-bubbles with the menfolk. Her observations of the tribulations of the farmers are remarkably perceptive and interspersed with horror at the indifference of both the Khedivial administration and the boatloads of tourists who passed by and looked the other way.

Nowadays, we may feel somewhat removed from such vulnerability to nature’s forces, but we forget her power at our peril. The soil in my garden is, in part, a gift of the Nile: Simply put, I am its trustee for a while, before moving on.

Letters from Egypt – Lucie Duff Gordon, pub. by Virago Travellers. See also Katherine Frank’s biography of her: Lucie Duff Gordon – a Passage to Egypt.

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Pick of the summer fruit

For the best flavours of summer in Egypt,  you need look no further than fruit markets and street stalls in towns and villages up and down the country.

Until very recently in the country’s history, this would have been the season when everyone held their collective breath as the Nile floodwater crashed along the river valley from the south, bringing potentially fertile silt with it. Or not, as the case may have been. On the river’s gift depended the following year’s harvest…

It’s a different story now. The flood doesn’t happen in Egypt, owing to the dams upstream from Aswan, and the summer brings an abundance of fruit, from apricots and grapes to pomegranates and watermelons. For the pick of the fruit in August, let’s try mangoes and prickly pears.

The region east of Cairo, particularly around Ismailiya, is famous for mangoes – Mangifera indica. But you also find the trees in Cairo, even – surprisingly – growing in small gardens close to blocks of flats. Older varieties grow enormously tall and dense, and produce abundant fruit; recently, new cultivars such as “Keet” have been bred to remain small and compact, though they don’t crop as heavily.

Among Egypt’s most popular varieties, “Alphonse” have traditionally dominated the market, along with “Owais”. Popular as a simple fruit dessert, they are also whizzed up at roadside juice shops for passers-by to pick up on the run – though the juice is so dense it may be impossible to drink through a straw!


Mangoes   8.16Recently, my husband was given an incredibly generous present of mangoes from the countryside north-east of Cairo, following a visit to a clinic in Qalyubbiyah governorate. Wondrous colours and flavours – but I’m not sure of their identity!

Wherever you go in the height of August – in Cairo or by the seaside in Alexandria and along the north coast – you will certainly come across my second pick of the bunch: prickly pears.

Again, the Latin name indicates its origin: Opuntia ficus-indica. Known in Egypt as “teen shoky”, the fruit are a great snack in the heat of the day. Heaped up on carts or barrows that are wheeled around the streets, they are peeled to order on the spot by the fruit-sellers and handed over either on polystyrene trays or in plastic bags.

The nopales cactus which produces “teen shoky” is found right across the Mediterranean region, often growing in relatively inhospitable terrain, somewhat like the fig. But, aside from Mexico, perhaps, I am not aware of another country where it is so popular.Prickly pears   8.16

Peeling the fruit is done with care: every spine has to be removed with the peel, or it may spike the gums or stick in the throat.

Lastly: an unusual, yet refreshing, cup of tea, flavoured with the tender shoots of our lime trees. Following the advice of an Egyptian friend, I add the fragrant leaf buds to lightly brewed tea for a pick-me-up even on the hottest day. It’s best made with Earl Grey tea, so the lime complements the bergamot flavour – and it works wonders!

Fragrant tea   8.16

Rescuing the raised beds – part 1

Excavating bed 4 2.16
This week, I’ve been working on raised bed number 4. Persistent overwatering from a faulty irrigation system had wreaked havoc with the soil over a period of months, if not a year or two. While the engineer and his assistant planted onions in about half the bed last month, I suspected that the soil needed a complete overhaul if any other crops were to thrive.
How right I was!
Excavating no.4 2.16
Clearly the sand, which I had once mixed with the black sedimentary soil of the Nile, adding a little compost, had filtered down to form a layer at the bottom of the bed. Meanwhile, the soil above had tended to set hard like baked clay, forming an almost impenetrable layer on top.

As I worked, I imagined this was akin to Schliemann’s experience excavating at Troy: working through layer after layer of soil, rock, bits of debris etc. A hardy plant like mint coped in the bed last year and sections of root were still there, but otherwise there were no signs of life. Not a single earthworm.

The tough nature of Egypt’s soil has been remarked upon by a number of experts and observers. Geographer Dr. Gamal Hamdan* noted the clay-like consistency of the soil deposited by the annual Nile flood reaching a total depth of up to 30 meters (over 90 feet) in parts of the country. Priest and social campaigner Henry Habib Ayrout** described it thus:

“It is an amalgam of fine particles carried down by the Blue Nile and the White Nile, consisting of coarse and colloidal clay, with an admixture of salts.”

(Note that the word “colloid” comes from the Greek “kolla” – glue – and “eidos” – form!)

For millennia, the Nile valley earth was enriched each year by a new, mineral-heavy deposit, unless the flood failed, so I presume that cultivating it was always a one-off event: plant, monitor, harvest, then wait for next year’s layer before repeating the process. And so on, always in “new” soil.

Well, I don’t have that luxury. So I dug out about one-eighth of bed 4, dislodging any number of truculent dark clods. Back-breaking and arm-wrenching as this was, I only managed a tiny bit of bed, or so it seemed:

Trench in bed 4 2.16

Next, following the practice of experienced cultivator and blogger Rebecca, in New Mexico, I started filling the trench with a) the odd well-dried log – of which I have very few – and b) armfuls of dry compost, topping it off with leaves and light soil (yes, really!) collected by the gardener while “cleaning” the herbaceous borders last month.

Dry compost fill 2

Once I got the bit between my teeth, I started adding dried debris from all over the garden:
Dry rocket compost 2.16

Now I am not one to go on about my age, but I’m no spring chicken and rescuing the bed really proved a bit too much for me. So, when they arrived yesterday there was a surprise in store for the engineer and his assistant: to complete the task I had begun. This meant digging out the rest of the section of bed and then, much to their astonishment, following instructions to fill it with all the dry debris we could find. No more logs available, sorry to say, and my husband had in any case pointed out that any apparently dried Indian laurels might just fight back and decide to grow again, but the drastic pruning of some basil and honeysuckle plants proved a godsend.

The lads made much better progress than I had done, and filled in around the plant debris with a mixture of finer particles of soil, sand and compost bought from outside.

I watched as they prepared the bed for planting, using a trowel to open a runnel for water and then inserting capsicum pepper seedlings. Small depressions in the soil were made, watered and then left ready for French bean seeds to be sown on Sunday. I made sure they watered carefully, without flooding – and watched with satisfaction as the liquid drained rapidly down.
Bed 4 after work 2.16
We moved on to bed 3, repeating the process in about a quarter of the bed, and planting more capsicum seedlings. Happily, while there were some Indian laurel roots in evidence, the problem was less serious than I had anticipated. The rosemary – planted as a cutting and mistakenly allowed to grow too big for me to move it – was hauled out with an adequate root ball and transplanted elsewhere. I hope she will settle happily, as I can’t bear to lose good plants.
Rosemary transplanted 2.16

As for the clods extracted from the raised beds, these were loaded into buckets and heaved up onto our gardener’s shoulders – brave man! – before being carried off to dry in the sunny garage area.
Unworkable soil 2.16

Question is: what to do with them? Usually, I try to break them up by hand when the soil is still damp, but according to advice from an engineer at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Agricultural Extension Services office, I should let them dry out and then whack them to bits using a hammer.

I need to think about this…

* The Character of Egypt (6 volumes) by Dr. Gamal Hamdan published under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture in Egypt.
** The Egyptian Peasant by Henry Habib Ayrout, first published in 1938 and translated from the French by John Alden Williams, AUC Press

For other bloggers’ experience of raised beds, try: