May 5, 2012

The Gardens of Cairo and Memorials of Jesus, 1839

The Gardens of Cairo and Memorials of Jesus, 1839
P.D. Holthaus

Gardens of Cairo

[Returning from the Pyramids] . . . we again reached the Nile, opposite to Old Cairo. We sailed for the Nile island, Roda, and saw the ancient building in which the Pharaohs once resided. On this island are very beautiful gardens and walks, which belong to Ibrahim Pasha, and particularly a splendid botanic garden. Foreign plants and flowers of all kinds adorn it, and diffuse around their precious odours. Many slender palms and fountains give shade and coolness. Through the middle flows a broad canal, with several islands; and in a large pond are many singular gold and silver fish. There is also a lovely shell grotto, by which a sentinel is constantly posted. Several other gardens extend themselves close up the Harem of Ibrahim Pasha, which, on that account, you are not allowed to enter. At the southern end of the island is the Nile Meter [Nilometer], a white column of marble, on which are marked the heights of the Nile’s risings. The height of the water is every day proclaimed through the streets of grand Cairo. . . .

In successive days I visited all the remarkable objects of Cairo, and those several places that are memorable through their connection with the Sacred records. The very next morning I mounted an ass and rode again with a guide to Old Cairo. In a Coptic Christian church, I saw under ground, in a rocky cave, the place where Mary and Joseph, when they were persecuted by Herod, are said to have lived with the child. A cradle hewn in the stone, marks the spot where the young child Jesus slept. They show also the sleeping place of Mary, and the well from which she drew water, as well as a little bath.

The next day I rode with a guide, nine miles to the north of Cairo, to the tree where the parents of Jesus, with their child, passed the night, as they fled into Egypt. This tree stands not far from a village, in a citron thicket, and in a garden full of balsams, and where many other precious plants grow. This, called the Tree of the Mother of God, is an old fig-tree, which has divided in the middle, and has thus two stems. Its boughs still put forth green leaves, and still bear fruit. After I had cut my name and place of birth in this oldest tree in the world, I returned through a beautiful and romantic country, and through two villages surrounded by palm-trees, and orchards, towards Cairo.

Through a singular avenue of acacias and fig-trees, we arrived, six miles from the city, at Shubra. Here Mehemed Ali has his pleasure-palace, and a wonderfully beautiful botanic garden. The paths are all paved with mottled stones; the flowers, plants and fruits, extremely diversified. There are spice, pepper and cinnamon trees. In a magnificent and richly-wrought fountain, you see lions and crocodiles, out of whose jaws the water springs, and a gas-light is suspended above it.

Today, one of the little frequented treats of Cairo is the wonderfully restored Nilometer on Roda Island. In Robert Curzon’s day it still measured the prosperity of the whole country from the flood of the Nile as it had nearly a millennium earlier. A ‘bad Nile’ spelled hardship and poverty for all the people of Egypt. Curzon visited it at low water; Captains Irby and Mangles when high water gave prosperity. In 1826, John Came was fortunate enough to witness the day of the cutting of the Nile bank, allowing the river to flow into the city, while G.A. Hoskins enjoyed another Cairo festival.

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