Egypt – Fauna And Flora

Amongst the former, the camel ranks first as, next to the date-palm, the most characteristic feature in the whole natural panorama. From the sea to the cataract, this most eastern of animals meets the eye everywhere ; stalking with long noiseless stride, cargo-laden, through the narrow streets of Alexandria near the harbour ; or inland, yoked singly with buffalo or even donkey to the plough ; or yet again higher up, wending their way in solemn file along the high river-bank between Cairo and one or other of the stations at which the great southern caravan routes strike the Nile. The common Egyptian camel is the two-humped Bactrian variety, called by the Arabs djemmel, and is much taller and stronger than the more graceful hadjim, or one-humped dromedary, which is only used to carry single riders on rapid journeys across the desert. The chief breeders of the animal are the Ababdeh Bedoween, who share with the Bisharis the great Eastern wilderness south of Kenneh, and provide cattle for most of the caravans on both sides of the river. These djemmel camels usually carry a load of six hundredweight, and, though fed for three-quarters of the year on nothing better than chopped straw and an occasional handful of beans, they are good for eighteen or twenty years’ hard work. It is noteworthy that, al-though the camel was known in Egypt in the time of Abraham, no trace of the animal is found in any of the antique paintings or sculptures. This does not, however, prove that it was even rare in the country, since fowls and pigeons, which abounded from the earliest ages, are equally absent from the monumental records of farmyard stock.

The ass is the next most prominent feature in Egyptian animal life. In the field, the constant fellow-worker with the camel, the buffalo, and the ox, he is, out of it, the universal mount of both rich and poor. Between, how-ever, the lordly white or cream-coloured Mecca donkey—as large and powerful as a mule—and his puny, ill-fed, over-worked relative at the other end of the asinine scale, the difference is as great as between the portly Bey or Effendi who ambles past on the one, and the half-naked fellah bestriding the bare back of the other. Their market value, too, is proportionate—the one costing as much as 1001. or even 1501., while the other may be bought for nearly as many piastres. The low-caste animals are, of course, far the most numerous ; but even of them some fine specimens, ridden by less wealthy owners or plying for hire, may be seen in Alexandria and Cairo, where especially since last year’ s destructive epidemic amongst horses, which both mules and asses escaped—these last now carry three-fourths of the street passenger traffic. The best of these low-caste donkeys are bred in Upper Egypt.

The modern Egyptian horse, which is seldom seen out of what may be called the two capitals, is a poor specimen of his race, and suffers from his double competition with the ass and the camel. Within the past few years, however, the Khedive has made successful efforts to improve the breed by crossing it with English blood, and up till the epidemic of last autumn he maintained a fine stud near Cairo, which had already in this way supplied a large number of excellent cavalry mounts. But the mysterious malady swept away nearly the whole, and in little more than three months destroyed, it was estimated, 600,0001. worth of horses between the mid-Delta and Upper Egypt. His Highness’s own stables, as well as his son’s, were almost completely emptied ; and for a time Prince Mehemet Tewfik, the heir apparent, might be seen jogging in every morning to his Ministry of the Interior astride an ambling hemâr. Barley and clover being in-dispensable to the Egyptian horse, the dearness of his keep precludes his employment for agricultural work; and except, therefore, for the better class animals which are fit for saddle or carriage use, the price ranges little higher than for a good (common) donkey or mule. This latter itself is in great local request, and shares with the high-class Hedjaz donkey the honour of mounting the wealthier old-fashioned grandees.

The once divine ox has sadly degenerated since a single specimen of his kind sufficed to fill one of the huge sarcophagi that excite the wonder of the visitor to the Apis mausoleum. Hard work and bad food, however, sufficiently account for this decadence ; and now, never pampered nor rose-wreathed, except when a French butcher in Cairo stall-feeds and bedecks a single victim for the sacrifice of mardi-gras, he toils three-fourths of the year at the plough or the water-wheel, and ends an honoured life by turning into such beef as is seldom met with out of Egypt. It is but fair to add that most of the present stock is not indigenous, but descends from the large importation from Turkey and Bessarabia which followed the desolating murrain of 1863-4.

The buffalo of the Delta and Nile Valley, though hardier and heavier than its bovine relative, has few features in common with its huge wild namesake of the American prairies. It is almost hairless, of a dark slate colour, and with its low-humped back, reflexed horns, and savage-looking face, is the ugliest, yet in reality one of the gentlest, of Egyptian animals. Its milk, besides being largely used fresh, also supplies most of the sour cream (yaourt) that forms a common article of fella diet, and in the absence of wheel-carriages, its chief work, like the ox, is at the plough or the sakkia.

As sheep and goats herd together, and differ but little in size, colour, and coat, they may be here conjointly mentioned. Both are very prolific, the gross total of a year’s lambs and kids exceeding 800,000-the sheep especially lambing twice in the twelvemonth, with usually two at a birth. Of these latter the breeds differ, according as the rams were from Barbary, the Sennaar, or the Hedjaz. The first of these three varieties is the most numerous, and is of the mouflon type, with a heavy fat tail, a long bushy chin-tuft, and a thick but coarse oily fleece of wool. Their horns are large, with a triangular base, and rounded angles terminating in a sharp point. The goat abounds most in the Delta, where the commonest breed is of Syrian origin. The type of the animal in Upper Egypt is smaller, with an abundant fleece of long silky hair, resembling that of the Angora goat. In both sections these animals supply the greater part of the milk and butter used in the country ; the former is good, but of the latter, as made by fellah dairy-women, the less said the better. As the food of both animals is the same-the weeds and dry acrid plants on the edge of the desert—the flesh of both has the same rather sour flavour, but is still superior to that of the Syrian sheep, which is largely imported and sells at a lower price.

The pig in Egypt is as ” unclean ” to all delicate-stomached Christians as to the Moslem or the Jew. It divides with the dog and the kite the scavengering of the towns, and what even the kelb refuses as too filthy to be eaten, the khanzir ravenously devours. In this respect 3,500 years—when, in the 18th dynasty, the animal first appears in the sculptures—have but little improved either its habits or its local repute as an article of food. ” As well,” says a recent writer, ” might you dine on a rat taken from a sewer, or a vulture caught in the ribbed cavity of a camel it was busy in eviscerating. It were all one to sup with the ghools.” No chemistry of nature can, in fact, transmute the filth on which the Egyptian pig generally feeds into fit nutriment for man ; and even the least nice of foreign tourists, therefore, will do well to avoid pork at a Cairene table d’hôte. It is chiefly killed and offered for sale by Greek butchers, whose co-religionists do not so generally share the prejudice which the Copts feel quite as strongly as either Arabs or Jews to the flesh of this animal.

The dog completes the list of the larger domesticated animals of Egypt, where, as throughout the East, he is also regarded as unclean though in a much less degree than the swine. In Alexandria and Cairo, as in Stain-bud, these animals segregate themselves into sets belonging to each ” quarter,” and woe betide the cur of one town who adventures into another. A similar geographical antipathy divides the town dog from his country fellow, who, nearly as savage as the wolf or the jackal, hovers in packs on the borders of the desert, and lives mainly by nightly forays on stray cattle, or anything that can be picked up round the villages. The two septs strictly respect each other’s boundaries, or, if an individual does not, he pays the penalty of his skin, or even his life, for the trespass. As a rule, European dogs do not thrive in Egypt ; but where they do become acclimatised a bull-terrier, or even a pointer, scatters these native pariahs from his path almost as easily as Gulliver might have cleared his way in Lilliput. There is, however, a race of large rough-haired dogs near Thebes, who are celebrated for their fierceness and courage.

The domestic cat, anciently sacred to Pasht, is still treated with especial kindness in Egypt, but the hospitals founded by Moslem piety for its. care when sick or destitute have fared even worse than most other charitable foundations, and the garden or court-yard of the Cadi’s house is now, as it was forty years ago, when Mr. Lane described this kindly trait of Egyptian character, their only legitimate refuge.

The indigenous wild animals of a country which offers so little cover and feeding-ground as Egypt may be counted almost on the fingers of one hand. The crocodile is now seldom seen below Girzheh, more than 300 miles above Cairo, and the hippopotami still move rarely below the Fourth Cataract ; while on land, the hyena, the jackal, the fox, and (on the borders of the desert) the gazelle, are the chief mammals worth mentioning. Of smaller types only the hare, the ichneumon, the rat, and two or three different varieties of the lizard—the bigger specimens of which are often palmed off on travellers as young crocodiles—are the only examples that need be noted.

If the native mammalia of Egypt, however, are not numerous, its ornithology is abundantly rich. A recent writer catalogues more than a hundred species which fell under his personal observation during a Nile voyage,* and in the works previously referred to in a foot-note, nearly two hundred more will be found scientifically de-scribed. Such a wealth of feathered life cannot be even sampled in so cursory a notice as the present. It may, however, be said that the chief profusion is to be met with in Lower Egypt ; although in the Said, the district between Beni-hassan and Esneh, and the great plain of Edfon, also teem with bird-life in swarming variety. Of tame fowl, the hen, the duck, the pigeon, the goose, and especially the turkey, abound everywhere ; but of the whole of these it may be remarked, as indeed also of almost all the mammalia common to Egypt and Europe, that they are smaller in the former country than with us. Thus an ordinary Egyptian hen is not much larger than a French or English pullet, and her eggs little more than half the size of those of our own barn-door cacklers. The once sacred ibis still abounds, and in the marshes of the Delta pelicans and flamingoes are nearly as plentiful as plovers on the Nile shallows, and wherever creeks have been left inland by the subsiding inundation. Snipe, sand-grouse, and especially quails, are also abundant—these last on their annual flight north in winter and, early spring, when they are netted and. shipped alive by thousands to Europe—while of aquatic birds the sports man will find a very embarras des richesses.

Few or none of the larger ophidia are met with in Egypt, but the asp, the common and horned snakes, and the small spotted viper—all more or less venomous :are in plenty. They abound on the borders of the desert, but seldom approach the towns or villages, into which, how ever, the hardly less venomous scorpion and a species of black tarantula penetrate freely, hiding in fissures of the walls or under the floor-matting. The performances of ser pent-charmers, though less common than formerly, are still not obsolete ; but the fangs of the snakes played with are in every case extracted. This is done generally by pinning the reptile to the earth when caught with a forked stick, and teasing it with a piece of strong woollen cloth, at which it bites, and which is then jerked sharply back, breaking the teeth and destroying the poison-ducts.

Fish abound in the Nile, the Birket-el-Korn, Take Menzaleh—with the salted produce of which a considerable export trade is carried on with Greece and the Levant—and one or two of the larger canals, but, as compared with those of the sea, they are generally insipid, and, in the case of the numerous unsealed varieties, unwholesome. A few however, such as the bultee, the shall, the kishr, the binee, and the karmoot, are more delicate. Alexandria and the neighbouring coast consequently supply the greater part of the fish sold there and in Cairo.

Lastly, though not least in practical interest to foreign residents or travellers in the country, during three-fourths of the year, flies, mosquitoes, fleas, and other insects of prey—though these last less profusely in the better class houses—swarm everywhere, from the mud-huts of the fellahs to the salons of Abdeen. Whether Moses introduced these special plagues or not, they have survived all the dynasties,” and are as irritantly active now as when. Pharaoh Menephtah hardened his heart and would not let the Israelites go. Use, however, seems to have rendered the natives indifferent to all three, but to foreigners they are a very sensible drawback on the pleasure of residence in or travel through the country, from Alexandria up to Nubia, where, strangely, fleas are as rare as snakes in Ireland, and hardly trouble you at all out of your own dahabeeyah.

The native plant-life of Egypt is much less rich in variety than its animals. The purely indigenous trees, indeed, hardly exceed half a score. Among these the date-palms holds the first place for number, usefulness, and beauty- Tike the camel, it is seen everywhere—singly, in clumps, or in great groves large enough to be called forests-* There are no fewer than twenty-four varieties of this tree, which are, however, grouped into three categories distinguished by the size, shape, and especially the colour of their fruit ; and by the Arabs it is also further distinguished as being of two genders, the male called dakar and the female entayeh, the generic name of the tree itself being nakhleh. It needs no culture, but the best fruit is obtained by those that are watered at the base and pruned once a year of the lowest of the five or six rings of long feathery leaves that spread out, fan-like, from its top- In Upper Egypt, where the best dates are grown, the rich clusters of fruit—in shape not unlike huge bunches of grapes—begin to ripen to-wards the end of June, a month earlier than in the Delta. They are gathered while still not quite mature, and allowed to fully ripen afterwards off the tree. The average yield per tree is about four cantars a year. Besides forming, while fresh, a chief article of peasant diet, especially in the Said, the dates are also dried and kneaded into a sort of bread, for consumption during the other months of the year. Nor is it the fruit alone of the tree that is valuable : its leaves are worked into mats and baskets ; the fibrous sheaths which attach them to the tree into brooms, and various sorts of cordage; its branches, stripped of the leaves, into roof-coverings, bed-frames, fowl-crates, and chairs ; the trunk itself, which is only cut down when it ceases to produce, serves for house-building and many other purposes ; and, finally, the very date-stones are used to feed the camels and for fuel. The down-palm, which grows only in Upper Egypt, differs materially from the other tree, in that its bark is smooth, and that a few feet above the ground its trunk divides into two main branches, which again bifurcate ; and this is repeated till the whole becomes, in fact, a cluster of trees on one stock. Its fruit also, of which there are two growths a year, is enclosed in a red-dish husk, and is much larger but less delicate than that of nakhleh.

The sycamore (Arab. gimmis) is in girth the largest of Egyptian trees, specimens of it from twenty-five to thirty feet in circumference being sufficiently common- Its trunk, on the other hand, is short, and its branches spread out almost horizontally, forming with their thick evergreen foliage an impervious shade from even a Cairene sun. The beautiful avenue on the Shoubra road is composed of these trees and acacias, which, arching and interlapping overhead, form a splendid natural gallery nearly four miles long, that even in midsummer affords the cool gloom of a cathedral cloister. Sycamore-wood rot-proof, and in old times was therefore much used for mummy-cases. It is now chiefly employed in the construction of gun-carriages and water-wheels. A coarse kind of fig grows upon the trunk of the tree, but does not ripen unless cut.

As the sycamore is the largest, so is the broad-podded acacia (Arab. lebbek) the prettiest native tree of Egypt. It is also an evergreen, and, as it grows rapidly if well watered, it has been largely planted round the new villas and along the boulevards which within recent years have so modernised Alexandria and Cairo. What the sycamore, too, has done for the Shoubra road, this tree is fast effecting for the long causeway from the Nile bridge to the Pyramids, which is already nearly as completely shaded for more than half its length by a double row of fine thriving lebbeks.

The Acacia nilotica, or thorny small-leaved acacia (Arab. scant), a congener of the last, is found almost every-where, but attains its finest development in Lower Egypt. It gives but little shade, but its wood is in great request for boat-building, and its fruit, called carat—which does not however grow abundantly below Thebes—is valuable for tanning. In the desert between Cairo and Suez it also exudes a fragrant gum, which is much esteemed by the Arabs. There is another species of the acacia, called in Arabic fetneh, which flowers from December to March. It attains the height of about twenty feet, but is, seldom met with out of gardens-

The tamarisk (Arab- tarfeh) is a hardier tree than any of the preceding, requiring but little moisture, and producing a thick foliage, nearly equal in shade-value to that of the lebbek. It is commonly grown round water-wheels, and its wood is mostly converted into charcoal, its fruit being utilised for dyeing and tanning.

White and black poplars are also grown in Lower Egypt, but as they afford no shade, and their wood is of little value, they are not much propagated.

Cypresses (Arab. sarou) are more numerous, and not being in Egypt, as in Europe, symbols of mess, they are much grown as garden ornaments, single’ or it avenues.

Black and white mulberry-trees (Arab. toad) abound in eastern Lower Egypt, where the leaves of the latter are gathered for silkworms, and the fruit of the former for sale as a favourite article of fellah diet in the season. And finally,

The olive-tree (Arab. zeytoum), which chiefly flourishes in the Fayoum. Mehemet All gave a great impulsion to the culture of this tree, but except in the province named, it is not now very largely grown. Its fruit here is coarse, and though good for oil is not much eaten.

These are the native trees most commonly seen is Egypt. Of alien, but now perfectly naturalised species, the number is legion, especially since Mehemet Ali cultivated the splendid gardens of Shoubra, and Ibrahim Pasha similarly converted the island of Rhoda into a nursery of the finest native and foreign trees and plants. The efforts thus made to extend and improve the flora of the country have been continued by the Khedive, with the result that the gardens of his Highness’s palaces, and those of many private proprietors, both at Alexandria and Cairo, are now rich in nearly every variety of tropical and sub tropical shrubs, which in this bright winterless climate thrive as luxuriantly as in their native soil. Of fruit-trees may be mentioned—the banana, which flourishes best in Lower Egypt, flowering in October and November, and producing the long luscious fruit so dear to vegetable gourmets ; the fig-tree,, in three varieties, whose fruit, if not equal to its Smyrna congener, is still good ; the Indian fig, a species of cactus, valued also for its fruit, and which forms pretty and effective hedges ; the pistachio, abundant and very productive ; the orange and lemon, also very plentiful, and the former, especially in the Delta, producing excellent fruit ; two varieties of the pomegranate, the fruit of one of which is deliciously sweet, and that of the other slightly bitter ; the guava, as productive here as in its natural tropics ; the vine, not a great success, and chiefly cultivated for its raisins, of which one variety equals the best Turkish sultanas; the walnut, excellent for the quality of its wood, but not producing much or good fruit, a remark that applies also to the cherry-tree ; and finally, the almond, the pear, the peach, and the apple, which, if not equal to the best varieties of their European namesakes, contribute their fairly good quotas to the abundant fruit-crops of the country.