Kom Ushim (Karanis)
Kom Ushim (sometimes called Kom Aushim) is the first village to be reached when travelling the desert road from Cairo, south-east towards the Faiyum and the centre for visiting several sites of interest. It is situated to the north-east of Birket Qarun. Kom Ushim boasts a small museum, almost hidden in its own gardens, which has been recently renovated and includes artefacts found in the Faiyum which date from the prehistoric to Roman periods. There are some good Middle Kingdom models from Hawara, the colossal head of a Roman god from Karanis and many items of pottery and coins found in the Faiyum. The museum is temperature controlled and very well-lit.
The museum also exhibits two of the famous ‘Faiyum Portraits’ (others can be seen in Cairo Museum). These were personal portraits painted on wood or linen which covered the face of the mummy towards the end of the Graeco-Roman times. During this time the Egyptians still had a great belief in resurrection after death, and the features of the deceased were painted to allow the spirits to recognise the body. The portraits were sometimes painted in encaustic powdered pigments mixed with beeswax and applied with brush or scalpel while others used tempera or water-based paints. The faces are always serious and have very large dark and staring eyes. They are often portrayed in the prime of life, or youthful and always wearing their finest clothes and jewellery. The portraits, which greatly influenced Coptic art in Egypt, provide a link between the art of the ancient Egyptians and later portraiture during the Middle Ages. While there have been mummy-portraits found in other areas of Egypt, the best collection came from the Faiyum areas of ancient Philadelphia, Karanis and Hawara.
Kom Ushim is best known as ancient ‘Karanis’, the largest of the Graeco-Roman town sites in the Faiyum. The town was occupied for a total period of around seven centuries and saw many changes after the end of dynastic rule in Egypt. The site can be entered from the grounds of the museum.
Although Petrie had examined the site earlier, the first real excavations at Karanis began in 1925 and were undertaken by the University of Michigan, who were the first to realise the potential for the investigation and study of Graeco-Roman sites in Egypt. The town has since provided a very valuable source of information on everyday life, religious cults, administration and industries during this period. There have also been numerous papyri and documents found – excellently preserved due to Egypt’s dry climate – which have the special significance of being able to be read in context with the architecture and artefacts of the town remains. The Michigan team found five datable levels of stratigraphy during their excavations over the three main areas they covered. The site has since been excavated by Cairo University and more recently by the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology.
The archaeological site of Karanis is situated on a huge mound which rises 12m above the surrounding plain. The town was founded by Ptolemy II in the 3rd century BC, primarily as a garrison for his troops, but prospered and grew, probably because of its accessibility from more populated cities to the north. At the time of building the town would have been on the shores of Lake Qarun. The houses are arranged in clusters around the two main thoroughfares which run from north to south and range in style from simple mudbrick dwellings to the more elaborate villas of the high-status officials. Remains of millstones and olive presses still lie on the ground and there were also six dovecotes found in the ruins, similar to those seen in the Faiyum today. Although many occupations and industries are represented in the town, it would appear that the majority were farmers who worked on the fertile agricultural land of the surrounding area. Ten large granaries and seven smaller ones have been uncovered at Karanis.
The town was built around two temples of the Ptolemaic Period and much of the information from excavations at Karanis reflects the religious preoccupations of its inhabitants – 27 different Egyptian, Greek or Roman deities are recorded there. The southern temple was built in the latter part of the 1st century AD, on the site of an earlier structure and is the largest of the two. It was dedicated to the crocodile-god (Sobek, or Suchos) who was worshipped here as Pnepheros and Petesuchos. The southern temple is built of limestone and though undecorated it follows the conventional Egyptian plan of a quay at the head of a processional way, leading through a paved colonnaded courtyard to the temple. The main entrance gate (usurped by Claudius) bears an inscription of Nero who is said to have originally dedicated the temple. A gate of Vespasian lies to the east, beyond a small sacred lake. The structure contains three chambers, the largest room gave access to a vestibule from which the sanctuary was entered and from the roof there is a good view of the town of Karanis and the fertile land to the south. Deep niches in the walls of the vestibule were used to contain the mummies of the sacred crocodiles which would have been incorporated into the temple rituals. Many mummified crocodiles have been found buried at Karanis. In the sanctuary itself a large altar reveals a low hidden chamber beneath which was probably used by the priests to deliver oracles.
The northern temple, constructed on an earlier site, also dates to the end of the 1st century AD, but has no inscriptions at all. This grey limestone structure faces north, is smaller than the southern temple and was once surrounded by a mudbrick temenos wall which is now mostly destroyed. There are two small entrance pylons and the outer corners of the temple are decorated with four slender columns. A large stone altar, also with an oracle niche, dominates the sanctuary.
In addition to the cult of the crocodile-god, Karanis is known to have had devotees of the divine triad of Isis, Serapis, and Harpocrates, as well as numerous other ‘domestic gods’, both Egyptian and Greek.
Although now mostly ruined, Karanis occupies a unique place in the Graeco-Roman monuments of Egypt. Investigation of the site over the past century has enormously enhanced understanding of the everyday lives of its inhabitants under Greek and Roman rule.
For excavation news on Karanis see the UCLA ‘s website.
How to get there
Karanis can be found near the entrance to the Faiyum from the Cairo desert road, or about 56km to the north-east of Medinet el-Faiyum, on a huge mound at the edge of the desert. The museum is open daily from 9.00am to 4.00pm. Tickets for Karanis cost EGP 25 and an extra EGP 10 to the museum.