Introduction to el-Faiyum
Sometimes known as ‘the garden of Egypt’, technically el-Faiyum is an oasis. Separated from the River Nile by a narrow stretch of desert, this fertile basin of land has a large lake, Birket Qarun on its northern side which is fed by the Bahr Yusef, a tributary of the Nile. El-Faiyum is included in the Nile Valley sites on this website because it is easily accessible from Beni Suef to the south, or Cairo to the north.
The region is mostly an agricultural area, its fertility provided by a series of irrigation canals which are intricately spread across the depression to supplement the natural wells and springs of the oasis. A wide variety of crops can be seen, depending on the season – the main one being cotton, but there is also wheat, rice, tomatoes and a large selection of fruit and vegetables. Much of the cultivated land is covered by groves of palm trees, for every part of the palm is of use. The surplus water drains into the Wadi Rayyan where two new lakes have been created in the desert valley over recent years. These two lakes are joined by the only waterfall in Egypt. Wadi Rayyan is also rapidly developing as a recreational area for Egyptians, with the shores of the southern lake boasting beaches, pleasure boats and waterfalls as well as good fishing and a large cafeteria area. The journey through the desert to reach the lakes is spectacular in the early morning.
Birket Qarun supports a small fishing industry and now also provides a developing tourist haven on its southern shore. Its beaches have become a popular picnic spot for Egyptians and the variety of birds and wildlife surrounding the lake attracts those visitors weary of the monuments. Lake Qarun was enlarged during Dynasty XII and used for the pleasure of wealthy Egyptians, but was reduced in size during Graeco-Roman times to provide reclaimed land for new communities. Until the 20th century the lake still contained fresh water, but now the salt content has risen to the extent that only a few varieties of fish survive there.
Local crafts in the Faiyum include weaving, tapestry, embroidery and beadwork, though the area is perhaps best known for its baskets, which are sold in Faiyum City. These are made by local women and children from rice straw and palm leaves, forming many shapes and sizes with attractive designs in green, red or pink. On Tuesdays Faiyum City has a pottery market, to which potters bring their large round mud and straw pots to sell.
The region of el-Faiyum has a long history. Inhabited since prehistoric times it was known as ‘Ta-she’ (the southern lake) during the Old Kingdom. The shape of Birket Qarun (thought to be the ancient Lake Moeris) suggested a crocodile, and the region became sacred to the crocodile god Sobek (later Suthos, or Soknopaios). The fertile area was developed as a paradise for hunting and fishing during the Middle Kingdom and the Dynasty XII pharaohs Senwosret I and II and Amenemhet III built their pyramids and other monuments there. The next development came during the Graeco-Roman Period when many new settlements and towns began to thrive. The area has provided a wealth of information about the later periods in the form of papyri and mummies as well as domestic and cult architecture.
One of Faiyum’s famous landmarks, the unique wooden waterwheels that were first introduced here by the Ptolemies. The wheels are said to number around two hundred throughout the region, where water from clear, fast-flowing streams, powers the wheels to irrigate the agricultural fields.
El-Faiyum went into a decline at the end of the Roman Period. There was a large Coptic community – many Christian monasteries survived and the region did not come under Islamic rule until long after the rest of Egypt. It was not until the rule of Mohammed Ali in the 19th century that the oasis began to flourish once more, to the extent that a railway was brought to the area during the British rule in 1893.
The capital town of the region is Medinet el-Faiyum (Faiyum City), known in ancient times as ‘Shedyt’ or later, ‘Crocodilonpolis’, and from here the roads spread out like spokes of a wheel towards the north, west, and east, with the northern shore of Lake Qarun forming the northern border of the oasis before the desert escarpment. Many of the monuments are off the beaten track and a 4×4 vehicle will be a necessity for some visits to ancient sites on the edges of the desert. A guide who knows the area well is also recommended.
How to get there
The monuments covered on these pages proceed from the southern entrance to the oasis, taking the desert road from Beni Suef towards Cairo. The pyramids at el-Lahun and Hawara are accessible from either Faiyum City or el-Wasta in the Nile Valley while other areas can be reached from Medinet el-Faiyum. However, as most visitors will arrive from the direction of Cairo to the north, I would recommend obtaining a good map of the area before setting out. Most tourists, unless in a private car, will be accompanied at all times by an armed escort of tourist police on all journeys within the region and itineraries will be subject to their approval.