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.

 

 

The healing garden – in Egypt’s earliest monasteries

Assailed by the crowds, traffic, fumes and every-man-for-himself scramble of Cairo, it’s easy for the individual to lose sight of anything but the concern of the moment: how to cross the road (if at all!), how on earth to manage the school run or get to work on time – and so on, and on. In hard-scrabble neighbourhoods, with broken infrastructure and severe pressure on housing, the situation is even tougher.

Hardest of all, to my way of thinking, is the noise. There are few places where you can get away from it. Noise pervades every neighbourhood, it rises to a crescendo at peak work and travel hours, and it frequently carries on all through the night, for Cairo is a city where someone, somewhere is always awake, and Egyptians, as a rule, don’t do anything quietly.

But there are sanctuaries in Egypt that remind you, the moment you step through the gateway, of eternal values – those that we lose touch with at our peril. Places of space, simplicity and silence where everyday concerns are left behind and calm returns to the mind.
S Antony street crop
And in a rocky and sun-baked landscape only occasionally relieved by vegetation – particularly after winter rains – these monasteries are truly shelters where the productive garden plays a central role and plants have an immediately calming, healing effect.
S Antony general
The oldest monasteries in Egypt, S. Antony and S. Paul, date back to the mid-C4 and are sited near the modern Red Sea settlement of Zafaraana. Here you sense a link with Christianity’s earliest period, for they are places of withdrawal, prayer and study, where monks also actively serve the community in a number of ways from providing work to running clinics, and receive visitors in large numbers in these days before Easter.

The monastery of S.Antony is named for one of Egypt’s earliest hermits. In the late C3 the 18-year old Coptic Christian, Antony, traumatized by the death of his parents, withdrew from society to live in the deserted tombs and fortresses of the Nile valley. Much later, in his fifties, he moved to a cave above the site where the monastery was subsequently founded. Paradoxically, this was to escape from the crowds of followers who wanted to join him in the solitary life. You can still visit the cave if you care to climb several hundred stairs to reach it, passing on the way the lonely abode of a latter-day anchorite from Australia.

Some kilometres to the south, S. Paul’s commemorates the life of Paul of Alexandria, a follower of Antony.

Positioned at the foot of a steep escarpment and protected by high walls, S. Antony’s benefits from a natural spring that yields 100 cu.m. of water daily. A small basin in a courtyard allows you to try it – cool, fresh and flavoured by naturally occurring mineral salts, it’s the best thing on a hot summer’s day!

Here within the walls are gardens filled with fruit, vegetable and herb crops.
S Antony
S. Antony’s has abundant date palms and olive trees, and extensive climbing vines; recently, at S. Paul’s we also found pomegranate trees, and a mulberry in fruit:
S Paul mulberry
The gardens of the two monasteries, although organized along different lines, yield onions, lettuces, rocket, herbs and, to judge from recently planted seedlings, melons. We found labourers from the countryside (“fellaheen”) tending the crops at S. Paul’s, the small beds neatly divided up and edged with stones, with pottery water jars placed here and there among the greenery.
S Paul palm crop
In this day and age, the communities are not self-sufficient in food, and supplies are regularly brought in by road. But there must have been many times when self-sufficiency was important, given the isolation of the sites and the – at times – insecure conditions in the surrounding desert. Our guide, Father Ruwais, noted that S. Antony’s did not have a gateway until around 80 years ago; so, for 1600 years, anyone wishing to enter or leave the monastery had to be winched up through a trapdoor high in the wall.

Fortunately, we were free to walk in and out via the gateway, without let or hindrance. And our kind host sent me away with a freshly made fried aubergine sandwich: it was absolutely delicious, though whether the bread was the product of the monastery’s own bakery, I really couldn’t tell!