Gardening is when I tend to muse. I know I ought to concentrate, but I can’t all the time. There’s only so much focus I can manage on an unwieldy hedge of Indian laurel. Besides, for me, gardening is often meditative.
Various strands are coming together these days to take me, mind and spirit, away from the immediate tasks. For a start, “world affairs” (no, don’t worry, I won’t start). Then, the hyper-active wildlife around us, from our resident insects, including unusual numbers of grasshoppers this autumn, and birds – warblers, bulbuls, doves, hoopoes – to passage migrants such as the European bee eaters that have been visiting for a while to snack on the residents of our hives.
Plus a recent visit to Alexandria reminded me of something I tend to forget, living near Cairo: Egypt is part of the Mediterranean world.
Alexandria, founded in the C4 BCE by Macedonians, was one of the great trading ports of the ancient and medieval worlds. Nowadays, though its historic character is disappearing fast, it still has a distinctive atmosphere. Wandering through a busy street market filled with the produce of the sea and the fields of the Nile Delta, with artisans’ workshops behind the stalls, I felt I could have been in Sicily browsing the markets in Catania, or Ortigia, otherwise ancient Siracusa, founded by Greeks from Corinth.
You will see this in the slideshow. Each pair of photos places Alex first, then either Catania or Ortigia. The Alex images are smaller because I didn’t have my iPad and used a mobile phone instead:
Street markets are so revealing, wherever they are: Stalls overflowing with farm produce, the leaves fresh and crisp and sometimes beaded with dew in the early morning when nights are really cool. Herbs, salad leaves and veg were beautiful in both Sicily and Alexandria. Autumn in Egypt is pickling season, so there were plenty of olives, chillies, limes, while in Ortigia the tomatoes were amazing.
This musing on the phenomenon of our trans-Mediterranean culture and heritage has been brought into sharper focus by reading Amitav Ghosh’s book about Egypt, “In an Antique Land”*.
Ghosh weaves two different biographies into his work: one is his own stay as a graduate student in the Delta in the early 1980s, the other is that of a Jewish merchant trader of the Middle Ages. Links with Sicily are there in the second story, as part of Abraham Ben Yiju’s family moved from what is now Tunisia to the island in the C12 CE. But there are much wider networks, across the Red Sea to Aden, where Ghosh has established that Ben Yiju lived for a while, and beyond this to Mangalore in southwest India where he settled and traded in commodities including spices like cardamom.
It’s a brilliant investigation of a world of extended commercial and personal networks in an era before the term “globalisation” was coined. Ghosh also, however, looks with an anthropologist’s eye view at modern Egypt. Here again, networks across the seas are part of life and an entirely rural community, where most people depend on the land, is portrayed as part of a wider pattern of events.
I didn’t learn much about how the land is cultivated from Ghosh’s book, but then he is not an agricultural engineer. Divvying up great estates after the 1952 Revolution is in there as is the purchase of machinery (made in India); but very little about crops. There is no obsession with pests and bugs, and, of course, in the post-Aswan High Dam era, villagers are not concerned about the Nile flood.
But as an account of the experience of living with ordinary Egyptians, and as primary research into an era of extended contacts over the seas almost entirely lost in the mists of time, “In an Antique Land” is exceptional.
So, as my battle with the hedge of Ficus nitida ebbs and flows, I lose concentration and sail off, figuratively speaking, with the trading ships of another era carrying spices and textiles maybe, eventually, as far as London.
- In an Antique Land – Amitav Ghosh pub. by Granta