The capital town of the Faiyum region, Medinet el-Faiyum, was known in ancient times as Shedyt. Later called Crocodilonpolis by the Greeks, it was associated with the name Arsinoe during the Roman era (being in the Arsinoite nome). The town makes a good base for exploring the Faiyum area, as all of the roads converge in its centre. The Bahr Yusef is the main waterway, and there are many canals which flow from this ancient irrigation channel, taking water throughout the oasis and their bridges give Medinet el-Faiyum, some say, the feel of a miniature Venice.
The town’s Graeco-Roman name, Crocodilonpolis, has its roots in the cult of Sobek, the crocodile-god whose cult was revered here since ancient times. At the northern entrance to the town, a monument known as ‘the obelisk’ has been set up at a junction in the main roads. This red granite obelisk, is actually a stela which was inscribed for Senwosret I of Dynasty XII. The stela was moved from its former site in the village of Abgig.
Excavated remains of the ancient capital, lie to the north-west of Medinet el-Faiyum at Kiman Faris. Now only a ruin, this was the cult centre of Shedyt or Sobek, the crocodile, once covering an area of more than four square kilometres, but much of it is now buried beneath modern buildings. Although there is now little to see, the ancient town once contained a Middle Kingdom temple of Sobek, built by Amenemhet III, which was later expanded by Rameses II as well as another Ptolemaic temple to the north of the site. The excavations found remains of a pool where the sacred crocodiles lived a life of luxury – they wore gold ornaments and were fed on meat and honey cakes. The ancient town was a place of pilgrimage and even tourism by Roman times.
The city’s main tourist attraction are seven waterwheels situated in the Bahr Sinnuris on the outskirts of town and four more in the city centre which are now the symbol of the Faiyum Governorate. These unique large black wooden wheels were first introduced by Ptolemaic engineers and are capable of lifting water between four and five metres to fill channels which serve to irrigate the region. There are around two hundred of these unique water-powered wheels throughout the province, though they are not found anywhere else in Egypt.
Today, Medinet el-Faiyum is more a city than a town. It is a growing urbanization which is rapidly polluting its way across the fertile land of the region and some say it reflects all the troubles of Cairo. The land which surrounds the town, however is still very lush and green and the mud-brick villages have changed little since pharaonic times.