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Posts tagged ‘Tutankhamen’

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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A Cinderella moment


This time, I had intended to write about the waterlily (Nymphaea caerulea or N. lotus). But the post was bewitched – a magic wand was waved, the lily disappeared.

Why the waterlily?

Most precious of flowers to the ancient Egyptians, a symbol of rebirth, and one of several images representing Upper Egypt – the cradle of Egyptian civilization – it was once central to the country’s art and culture. One creation myth related that the sun god Re was born of a lotus (lily)* flower floating on Nun, the primeval waters.

Of all the images in ancient Egyptian art, one that I return to again and again is a painted wooden sculpture of the head of Tutankhamen emerging from just such a flower. As lovely as it is simple, it encapsulates the idea of rebirth perfectly. In the Book of the Dead, we read: “I am the pure one who issued from the fen… Oh Lotus belonging to the semblance of Nefertem.” The lotus was the symbol of Nefertem, a god associated with Re and also lord of perfumes.

Lotus flowers feature in wall paintings and reliefs within tombs from every period of ancient history. Usually, they are held to the nose of a human figure, a puzzling image given that the flowers are not noted for their scent. Of course, it may have to do with breathing in new life, fulfilling a similar function to the “ankh” or key of life.

So, in London last week, I made my customary pilgrimage to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. And, as usual, I made straight for the glasshouse where the lily pond is to be found. Every time I visit London, this is where I go once, twice or perhaps three times. The lilies range from the tiniest of species, with bright yellow flowers, endemic to Rwanda, to glorious white, purple or yellow flowering specimens with enormous leaves the size of tea trays. Each leaf has a nick in the edge for water to drain out, and a system of veins that marries intricacy with incredible strength: indeed, this was the basis of Joseph Paxton’s design for the groundbreaking glasshouse constructed for the Great Exhibition in 1851. Study an upturned leaf, which Kew gardeners will obligingly arrange for you, and you see exactly how he arrived at the concept.

Kew Gardens (96)SMALL

But on this visit, what had happened? The display of a certain kind of fruit outside the glasshouse should have been sufficient warning. Once inside the glasshouse, and Lo! A fairy godmother had evidently waved her wand and turned the precious waterlilies into – pumpkins!


I should have known: with each summer visit, I had observed bed after bed filled with pumpkin plants of every sort along the main path down to the orangery. They were part of Kew’s neatly named festival of “IncrEdibles”. ┬áBut it had never occurred to me that such interlopers could possibly displace my beloved waterlilies.

Pumpkins have a certain charm: you can eat them, for a start (but you can also eat the lily rhizome, or so I have read). And the aptly named “Turk’s Turbans”, displayed outside in the gardens where I would argue they really belong, are undeniably appealing:


Still reeling from an overdose of pumpkin, I have an urgent request to the fairy godmother of Kew: once Halloween is over, would she kindly return and wave her wand over the irreverent pile in the glasshouse. I’d like the pupmkins to be turned back into: lilies, please.

* Egypt has two species of waterlilies. Nymphaea caerulea, or the blue lily, with narrow, white petals at an acute angle, was once prevalent. It is often seen in ancient art and architecture (stylized forms of the bud and flower appear as capitals to pillars). N. lotus, or the white lily, has wider petals at an obtuse angle and was confined to the Delta and Fayyum regions. The Greeks caused the confusion in names, using the word “lotus” for plants that are absolutely distinct from the true lotus plant, Nelumbo nucifera, introduced by the Romans from Asia. Kew is an excellent place to compare and contrast the plants in close proximity.