Umm el-Baragat (Tebtunis)
Umm el-Baragat (other spellings include Borigat, Burigat, Briegat) is the name for the modern village close to the ancient town site of Tebtunis, situated at the southern edge of the Faiyum, about one hour’s drive from Medinet el-Faiyum.
The city is thought to have been originally founded in the New Kingdom, although the visible remains are Ptolemaic to Roman. Tebtunis became one of the largest Graeco-Roman towns in the region, remaining inhabited through to Islamic times. The town-site of Tebtunis (Tebtynis) has been recently undergoing a great deal of reconstruction and consolidation. Its low walls, some retaining the original plaster and remnants of paint, have been capped for preservation and there are remains of a small temple of Soknebtynis (‘Sobek, Lord of Tebtunis’), dating to the Ptolemaic and Greek Period. Much of the site is now covered by sand but there is a long stone-paved sacred way leading up through the ruins to the temple entrance, which is guarded by two Greek carved yellow limestone lion statues. In the southern end of temple area, several large fine white limestone columns, of Greek style, have been reconstructed in a court on the western axis of the building. Umm el-Baragat was also home to a vast crocodile cemetery where over 1000 mummified crocodiles and sarcophagi were found.
The site was first excavated by the Egypt Exploration Fund and the University of California around 1900. At this time archaeologists were discovering that Egypt was a repository for much of the literature and history of the classical world. The greatest ancient library in the world was traditionally housed in Alexandria, sadly much damaged in Roman and Christian times and tragically burned down during the Arab invasion in the 7th century, leaving no remains. However, archaeologists working at the end of the 19th century began to find new sources of ancient documents, especially from Oxyrhynchus and el-Hiba (in Middle Egypt) and many caches from the Faiyum. In Tebtunis, a small temple library from the Roman Period was found during excavations in one of the town’s houses. This collection of fragmentary papyri (known as the Tebtunis Papyri) contained numerous literary, medical and administrative documents as well as religious texts from the temple.
The crocodile cemetery was found by Grenfell and Hunt, the site’s earliest excavators, while searching for human mummies. In 1900 a workman found one of the crocodile mummies (which had been considered worthless) to be wrapped in sheets of papyrus. Many of the fragments of Tebtunis Papyri are now undergoing restoration by the Bancroft Library, who are cataloguing and digitising the collection as participants in APIS (Advanced Papyrological Information System).
In recent excavations by a French-Italian team, work undertaken around the Soknebtynis Temple has revealed hundreds of ostraka and Greek and demotic papyri. They have also restored domestic quarters and the Roman baths in the town, east of the temple. Many of the town’s houses were built from mudbrick and their remains can be seen scattered throughout the site. The larger villas and more important structures were constructed with burnt brick or stone and several of these have now been reconstructed.
About 10km from Umm el-Baragat, near the village of El-Gharaq el-Sultani, is the site of an ancient swamp or papyrus thicket from pharaonic times. It is thought that this area may have also been the site of a Ptolemaic village called Kerkeosiris (settlement of Osiris), mentioned in the Tebtunis Papyri. It has been suggested that a number of other ancient villages may lie under the cultivated fields in the areas surrounding Umm el-Baragat.
How to get there
Take the Itsa road south out of Medinet el-Faiyum. Beyond the village of Shidmoh the road forks – the right fork leads to the village of el-Gharaq (pronounced el-Ghara’) and the left fork leads first to the village of Tutun. Turn right towards the end of Tutun and follow the Bahr el-Gharaq canal for around 6km until you come to the edge of the desert. Cross the bridge over the canal and head into the desert towards the village of Umm el-Baragat, where the ruins of Tebtunis can be found.