“That district abounds in date palms and fruit trees, in sea-fowl and the fish known as al-buri.”
There are 8 million date palms in Egypt and the majority of the crop is for domestic consumption.
Driving there we saw bundles of reeds stacked against walls and houses and nobody seemed to know what the were for – but when we arrived in Baltim we saw fishermen using them to build their ‘summer homes’ on the shore of the lake and the Mediterranean. My guide, Galal, told me that in winter the fishermen use their nets vertically to catch quail and other birds. This is very probably the ‘seafowl’ Ibn B refers to. If we go by his dates, he was in the delta in spring and summer and thus would not have seen this winter pastime, but we already know for certain given his own conflicting dates, that he made the journey through the delta on several occasions and here just lumped all the towns together. As for us, we were not as lucky here as we had been the day before and did not find either the hermitage of ‘Shaikh Shams ad-Din al-Falawi’ which according to Ibn Battuta was in Nastaraw, today called Mastaraw, or the tomb of Marzuq. Half-buried in the sand we could see the remains of old barrel-vaulted graves, and as this region was known for its ascetics it seemed reasonable to assume that one of them might have been that of Marzuq, but nobody we met knew anything about them and any writing on the graves had long been erased. The town sits on shifting sands which in the intervening seven centuries has probably moved the poor sheikh to the bottom of the sea. He has not survived the passage of time even in memory.
Summer homes in Baltim
"I traveled next through a sandy region to the city of Dumyat.”
The coastline may have changed considerably from the 14th century but the new International Road, which runs along the top of North Africa, still keeps sand dunes at bay along the northern tongue of land between lake Borullus and the Mediterranean. The city of Damietta, as it is known in English, is forever linked to the Crusades. Taken by French King Louis IX in 1249, the Egyptians offered him Jerusalem if he would leave Damietta, but he refused. But a year later perhaps as a result of plague, the Crusaders fell to illness and disease and Louis decided to accept the offer. But now the Egyptians were in a position of strength and under the famous Mamluk general, Baybars, they attacked Damietta and captured Louis who had to pay a huge ransom to get released. (Hence the origin of the phrase; “a king’s ransom”)
Baybars, who became Sultan in 1260, ordered the town of Damietta to be moved further inland to protect it from sea attack and so it remains today – Egypt’s 3rd largest port after Alexandria and Port Said. We had a funny moment here when trying to find the hermitage of Sheikh Jamal ad-Din al-Sawi. I had gotten a tad testy with the guide in Mastaraw – our police escort was trying to be helpful but not surprisingly they were not quite sure what a lone traveler was doing wandering a sandy peninsula nobody ever went to in search of some obscure 14th century mystic. I had the distinct feeling that they thought if they only kept saying there was nothing there that I would give up and we could all go off and have a cup of tea. The guide had been thinking the same thing and when we arrived in Damietta, he immediately stopped the oldest looking man on the street and asked him where the old part of town was. We set off, drove around in circles until the guide now bereft of all patience leapt into a taxi and sailed off with me, the driver and the police escort in tow, much to the amusement of the bystanders. We were taken first to a mosque which had just been pulled down and was being rebuilt by the Ministry of Antiquites who went on to tell us there was no such hermitage as al-Sawi.
Undaunted we drove off to the next place - which proved to be a large hole in the ground, a construction site. It appears that with the ground water level rising and the mosque’s foundations being non-existent that the building was in danger of collapse. It had been dismantled and was going to get put back together when the foundation had been built. I had to laugh, but the driver who told the site foreman what we were looking for then took me to a spot lying undisturbed which had a stone floor and under this, we were informed, was the tomb of the revered saint. I remain sceptical. Jamal al-Din al-Sawi was the founder of the sufi sect known as the calandariyya who were recognizable by shaving all the hair from their heads including eyebrows, and were known as wandering dervishes (dervish or darwish being the Persian for sufi) as they had no organizational rite nor tekke, or convent. When he died in 1233 he was buried in the hermitage which could now be part of the dismantled mosque but again it is interesting that his fame has diminished and the people working at the Ministry of Antiquities have never heard of him. Damietta is nowadays the center of Egypt’s furniture industry and there are hundreds of shops turning out chairs, sofas, beds and tables in styles ranging from simple pine to Louis XV. Donkey carts loaded with these furniture pieces transport them from the factory to the shop. Stopped at a traffic light, one enterprising lad stuffed a card through the open window into my hand; it advertised the furniture-making skills of Abu Hashish….
“Outside Damyat is the sanctuary known as Shata, a place where the divine power is manifested. It is visited by people from all parts of Egypt.”
My guide, Galal, thought this referred to the 55th sura of the Koran, the Rahman sura; “He has let free the two bodies of flowing water meeting together: Between them is a Barrier which they do not transgress:” This is rendered as meaning salt and freshwater, and it is apparently the case that at the point where the waters of the sea and river meet they do not intermingle and according to my guide this was indeed a place which people used to consider blessed and came on pilgrimage. (Shata could be translated as “beach” although this is normally translated as ‘shatti”) We started off south through Fareskur to Dikirnis, the town Ibn Battuta called Ashmun ar-Rumaan;
“ From there I traveled to the town of Ashmun al-Rumman ….it is a large and ancient town on one of the canals derived from the Nile and it has a wooden bridge by which all vessels anchor. About mid-afternoon the baulks are lifted and the vessels pass up and down.”
Dikirnis today still has a steel bridge which was built to open to allow ships to pass but there is no longer any commercial traffic on the Nile and the river here is now clogged with water hyacinth. We ended our Delta sojourn with a visit to Tinnis, the ancient Pharaonic capital of Tanis.
“Tinnis was formerly a great and famous town but it is now in ruins.”
Ancient Tanis was the most important of the delta towns in Pharaonic times and was the main center of weaving in Egypt in the 10th and 11th centuries. Today, the new town of Tinnis is of no importance while the old site has been plundered of its monuments. Little remains of Egypt’s early civilization in the delta even though several important dynasties were founded here. In contrast to Upper Egypt, the delta climate is hot and humid, the earth is fertile and the Nile has changed course over the years – conditions which are are not conducive to preserving stone, carved and painted records. Also there are no stone quarries here and all the stone had to be brought from the south. While re-cycling of building materials always took place, in Tanis succeeding generations found it more convenient to build with whatever existing stone they could cart off, rather then haul it from several hundred miles away. The site is most interesting for the tombs of Psusennes I (1039-991BC) and Osorkon II (874-850BC) which were found by Pierre Montet in 1939, but the important discoveries were overshadowed by the outbreak of WWII. Fallen obelisks, chunks of carved stone and the fallen statue of mighty Ramses II all contribute to the sense of long past glory.
Many thanks to my old friend and colleague, Khaled Baheer and his team at South Sinai Travel, for their invaluable help and assistance in arranging this trip for me.