May 7, 2012

Collecting Dewdrops, 1813 | Walking Through Egypt

Collecting Dewdrops, 1813
James Silk Buckingham


As night approached the captain insisted on mooring the boat, though, as the sky was clear, the moonlight bright, and no serious impediments existed to the navigation of the stream, we might have proceeded with safety; but in the East nothing is done in a hurry; time is deemed of little value, and custom is paramount above all reasoning. I therefore resigned myself to the order, and passed the hours till midnight in entertaining conversation with the veteran reis. Though he had lived upon the water for nearly half a century, he had never descended the Nile below Cairo, or even seen the sea; so that my accounts of the Ocean and its perils had all the terror and all the charm of a romance for him; and he looked upon me with additional veneration for the wonders 1 had described to him.

As we approached that part of Egypt which includes the province of Fayoum, where the celebrated Lake of Moeris, the Labyrinth, and the Pyramids, visited and described by Herodotus are placed, I devoted a few days to an excursion on horseback to this celebrated spot. We passed through large tracts of land devoted exclusively to the cultivation of roses, extending for miles, and producing millions upon millions of this queen of flowers, from which nearly all the rose-water, and otto or oil of roses, used in and exported from Egypt to all parts of the world, is distilled.

Let me confess to a piece of romantic or sentimental folly as some will deem it, or affectation as others may regard it, which I began to practise here. I had with me a small cut glass vase or bottle, procured at Cairo, into which I began to collect the dew-drops from roses every morning, wherever I found them, and there are few gardens in Egypt without a flower, intending to store them up, till the bottle was full, as collected from my own hand from day to day, and therefore the more worthy of being presented, to my dear wife; to whom I ultimately sent them round the Cape of Good Hope, from India, with some appropriate verses, which will be recorded in their proper place. I can only say, that after my morning’s devotions, this was one of the most agreeable occupations of the day; and I should have accounted it as a severe misfortune if I had either broken or lost this little treasure, which increased in worth and importance, in my own estimation at least, every day.

The time of my excursion was sufficient to enable me to see much of the memorable site of the ancient lake and its accessories; and some fifty pages of my Journal are filled with the result of my researches, but there is neither time nor space to record them here. I must content myself with transcribing one solitary passage only.

It is scarcely possible to describe in too glowing colours the riches and fertility of the soil over which we passed in the continuation of our route from Hillahoun to Medineh Faioum. All around us seemed one wide garden, crossed and intersected with a thousand meandering rivulets (for such the smallest of these serpentine canals appeared), realising the expression of Moses, who speaks of Egypt as being watered like a garden of herbs,” and strewed with groves and fields, flocks and hamlets, and a teeming population. The heart expands on witnessing such delightful scenes; and on recurring to the source of all this indescribable fertility, one no longer wonders at the veneration in which the ancients held the Nile: “than whom,” said Plutarch, “no god was ever more solemnly worshipped,” and the grand annual festival in favour of which, says Heliodorus, “was the most solemn of all those observed by the Egyptians, who regarded their river as the rival of heaven, since, without clouds or rain, he watered and fertilised the land.”

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