Honey Islands on the Nile
By: Caroline Umphlet / Arab America
Egypt is full of surprises for foreigners; from incredible blue beaches and world renowned scuba diving spots to crazy nightlife in the city. Beekeeping is just another hidden gem of the ancient country. The Nile is home to a great diversity of villages and communities along the whole river, one of which is a cluster of islands that specialize in beekeeping and producing honey.
Although contested, researchers claim the first beekeepers date back to around nine thousand years ago, or 7000 BC. Research on prehistoric farming and agriculture revealed traces of beeswax on pottery found in North Africa and Western Asia, as well as Europe. The first farmers might have domesticated bees to use their honey or wax for medicines or food.
There is confirmed proof of organized beekeeping, also known as apiculture, in Egypt from around 3500 BC. There is also proof that Egyptians “constructed elaborate systems for honey production, including specialized rafts for moving beehives along the River Nile to maintain close proximity to seasonal, flowering plants.” The honeybee was respected and valued with high regard in ancient times. They were believed to “rise from the Tears of the Egyptian Sun god ‘Ra’ or ‘Re’.” The people thought the tears from this god turned into bees once they touched the ground. These bees then gave Ra’s loyal followers honey.
Honey and wax were, and continue to be, used for an extremely wide variety of practices and by all levels of class. The most classic way we all know of honey, as a sweetener for drinks and food, was used. Additionally, honey was a tool for doctors because of its natural antibiotic abilities as well as in cosmetics and paintings. Egyptians also left it by the jarful for the dead in their tombs. As we know, depending on class, the mummies were preserved through embalming methods. One of which was coated in honey, and then the coffin was sealed with wax. Bees played a much larger role in ancient Egyptian life than we realize.
The apiculture lifestyle is still very much quintessential to Egypt today. In the communities on these agricultural islands, a group of families, live their life as farmers without electricity. However, the beautiful landscapes and rich greenery make up for it. They have to take a ferry to the city in order to get on and off the islands for any goods they may need or to sell their products. The children even take ferries to and from school every day.
Beekeepers are generous enough to allow visitors to be able to take a nice tour of the honey islands. They must take a ferry over the Nile to get there. Of course, they offer complimentary tea if you have to wait. The visitors are taken through the farms, to see the farm animals, and maybe chat with the locals, if they know Arabic.
Besides the honey and wax, they also grow Egyptian bananas, and as aforementioned, keep animals.
The tour usually ends with trying a plate of feteer, a versatile Egyptian layered bread. Feteer can be sweet, made with honey/syrup, caramel, or chocolate, or made savory with cooked meat and vegetables. The snack is complemented by the island’s honey and molasses, or in Arabic “asil aswed” (black honey). The visitors are able to buy fresh, amazing-quality honey to take home.
Once again, Egypt proves its dedication to maintaining ancient practices throughout its long history. Beekeeping is a single drop in its ocean of deep ancient culture. As they pass down responsibilities, hopefully, the honey islands of the Nile will continue providing Egypt with essential products for generations to come.
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