If you want to know, or want your child to know, how the environment has influenced the farmer’s character, his life style, traditions, customs, tools, and ethnic dress in Egypt — then this culture garden at Mansouriya is the place for you and your family to visit.
The Sun Bird garden in Mansouriya, south-west of Cairo near the Giza pyramids, is unlike any other garden. This is a place where you can not only enjoy nature, but also learn: how fruit and vegetables are cultivated and what their seeds and flowers look like. On this living museum of contemporary life one can also observe how farmers live, what their homes are like and the traditions and customs they follow. The display encompasses a glimpse of the life of all the farmers of Egypt, from the Nile Delta in the north to Nubia in the south.
This “culture garden,” as its owner likes to call it, is a place where adults and children from at home and abroad can see the birds and animals which help the farmer in his daily life. Visitors can tour sections demonstrating such traditional crafts as pottery, weaving and the production of honey. The culture garden is divided into sections representing Egypt’s governorates, of which Fayoum and Sinai are particularly interesting. Here are illustrations of migratory birds and plants indigenous to the area, as well as examples of local traditional crafts and customs: wedding parties, the arrival of a new baby, and festivals — religious, social and folkloric.
“This project came to mind when I was still working as a tour guide,” Sun Bird’s owner, Leila Sadiq, says. “I found I was always having to answer questions from travellers on bus tours as to the name of a plant, an animal or a bird, or how the farmers lived or why they wore their clothes in such and such a way. In this garden, I have supplied all the answers. It is not only for foreign tourists; it’s for Egyptians too. Some of them have never seen a field or a farm, and know nothing about rural life. This place will provide them with this kind of knowledge.”
The name of the garden, Sun Bird, Sadiq says, is symbolic. This is the name given to a small bird which lives in the Nile Valley and flies from flower to flower, feeding on nectar. The bird’s bright colours of violet, yellow and green represent, it is said, the colours of the Nile, the desert and the rich green valley. In the garden this delightful bird, one of the main attractions, flies from tree to tree.
The garden covers two feddans, and on every tree and plant is a sign, written in Arabic, English, French and German, providing information.
Guides show visitors round the sections of the garden, while small children can spend the time playing in a large green area. Older children can try their hand at cultivation or making pottery. As for adults, there are shady palms under which to sit and relax on mastabas (benches) covered with mats and cushions. As visitors enter Sun Bird they are served cold mineral water and other refreshments. Later, fatir (traditional pastry) is served hot from a baladi (country) oven by one of the farmers.
This ambitious project is not run by a tourist company or a group of investors. It is owned and run by one enthusiastic woman, an ex-tour guide, with the help of a group of farm workers. They cultivate the land, bake the fatir and do the cleaning and maintenance. Sadiq herself designed all the sections into which the garden is divided, drew the maps and executed the paintings of the birds.
Sadiq says that although all the fruits and vegetables grown in the garden are the same varieties as those on sale in markets and supermarkets, many people do not know how they grow or what they look like in their natural environment. They do not know which are indigenous to Egypt, whether they have become extinct and reintroduced, or whether they are imported. “Sweet potatoes, for example, are known worldwide, but the plant itself grows only in certain countries, including Egypt. Here is where people can learn such things. They have an opportunity to react with Nature and see how generous she is,” Sadiq says.
No artificial fertilisers are used at Sun Bird, so there are no large, standardised tomatoes or green peppers. Rather, the produce comes in the shape that nature gave them, in various sizes, and in varying shades of colour. This applies to okra, regular potatoes, sweet potatoes, artichokes, aubergines, pumpkins and limes. “Artificially grown fruit and vegetables are sold at greengrocers and supermarkets. Here I want to show people the way they grow naturally,” Sadiq says.
The section on Fayoum is well recommended. A large concrete map shows details of the great depression in the Western Desert, outlining its history, geology, agriculture, resident birds and birds which migrate through the area in September and April. The traditional crafts of Fayoum, especially basketry, are shown. “Fayoum is extremely fertile, and wheat was cultivated there on a large scale in Roman times. The area then was one of the granaries of Rome,” Sadiq says. “Once a visitor sees this section and has all this information to hand, he or she will be inspired to visit Fayoum itself.”
Traditional dress is always of interest, and on display here are galabiyas (loose gowns) from the different regions of Egypt — from the north coast, the Delta and Upper Egypt, to the oases of the Western Desert and Sinai. Here one can become acquainted with different traditions and customs concerning wedding celebrations: the bridal dress, the wedding feast, the contribution of the bride’s family to the marriage, the gifts of friends and the entertainment.
“Pottery played an important role in Egyptian history. It was extremely important for utilitarian reasons. The clay used in pottery manufacture used to come from Qena or Aswan in Upper Egypt, and people in ancient times did not fire the pottery or use a glaze, as we do today: they dried the pottery in the sun and its natural colour survived,” Sadiq says.
In the Sun Bird’s pottery section are examples of all the instruments used in its manufacture, including a foot-operated wheel. Also on show are cooking pots, butter or ghee pots, pickle pots and oil pots, along with pigeon houses and other items. Pottery chips are of great use to farmers, who put them on the roofs of their houses for the dual purpose of protecting them from rain and insulating them from the heat of the sun.
Few people have the opportunity to enter a farmer’s home. This, then, is your chance to do so. You will notice that the door and the high windows are so designed to prevent passers-by from seeing inside. You can see the farmer’s brass bed, the oven in which his bread is baked, the plates from which he and his family eat, the oil lamp, the oil cooker and the pigeon cage. You can even look inside a home typical of the Ababde, a tribe of the south-eastern desert, which has its own distinctive features.
“This place could be attractive to tourists at the end of an excursion, or for conferences, since businessmen also need to relax in a green space at the end of the day. Here they will learn aspects of Egypt that they would not otherwise be exposed to,” Sadiq says.
Sun Bird neither seeks nor needs wide promotion. “People tell one another about this place, and the word gets round. I also have a nice brochure which I distribute to schools and nurseries — that serves us well enough,” she says.