The Faiyum Oasis is a depression or basin in the desert immediately to the west of the Nile south of Cairo in Egypt. The extent of the basin area is estimated at between 1,270 km2 (490 mi2) and 1,700 km2 (656 mi2). The basin floor comprises fields watered by a channel of the Nile, the Bahr Yussef, as it drains into a desert hollow to the west of the Nile Valley. The Bahr Yussef veers west through a narrow neck of land north of Ihnasya, between the archaeological sites of El Lahun and Gurob near Hawara; it then branches out, providing rich agricultural land in the Faiyum basin, draining into the large saltwater Lake Moeris (Birket Qarun). The lake was freshwater in prehistory but is today a saltwater lake. It is a source of tilapia and other fish for the local area.
Unlike typical oases, whose fertility depends on water obtained from springs, the cultivated land in the Faiyum is formed of Nile mud brought down by the Bahr Yussef, 24 km (15 miles) in length. Between the beginning of Bahr Yussef at El Lahun to its end at Faiyum, several canals branch off to irrigate the Faiyum Governorate. The drainage water flows into Lake Moeris.
Location of Faiyum Oasis
History of Faiyum Oasis
When the Mediterranean Sea was a hot, dry hollow near the end of the Messinian Salinity Crisis in the late Miocene, Faiyum was a dry hollow, and the Nile flowed past it at the bottom of a canyon (which was 8,000 feet (2,400 m) deep or more where Cairo is today). After the Mediterranean reflooded at the end of the Miocene, the Nile canyon became an arm of the sea, reaching inland further than Aswan. Over geological time that sea arm gradually filled with silt and became the Nile valley.
Eventually, the Nile valley bed silted up high enough to let the Nile periodically overflow into the Faiyum Hollow and make a lake in it. The lake is first recorded from about 3000 BC, around the time of Menes (Narmer). However, it would only be filled with high floodwaters for the most part. Neolithic settlements bordered the lake, and the town of Crocodilopolis grew up in the south, where the higher ground created a ridge.
There is evidence of ancient Egyptian pharaohs of the twelfth dynasty using the natural lake of Faiyum as a reservoir to store surpluses of water for use during the dry periods. In 2300 BC, the waterway from the Nile to the natural lake was widened and deepened to make a canal known as the Bahr Yussef. This canal fed into the lake to serve three purposes: control the flooding of the Nile, regulate the water level of the Nile during dry seasons, and serve the surrounding area with irrigation. The immense waterworks undertaken by the ancient Egyptian pharaohs of the twelfth dynasty to transform the lake into a vast water reservoir gave the impression that the lake itself was an artificial excavation, as reported by classic geographers and travellers. The lake was eventually abandoned due to the nearest branch of the Nile dwindling in size from 230 BC.
Faiyum was known to the ancient Egyptians as the twenty-first nome of Upper Egypt, Atef-Pehu (“Northern Sycamore”). Its capital was Shdyt (usually written “Shedyt”) in ancient Egyptian times, called by the Greeks Crocodilopolis and refounded by Ptolemy II as Arsinoe.
This region has the earliest evidence for farming in Egypt and was a centre of royal pyramid and tomb-building in the Twelfth dynasty of the Middle Kingdom and again during the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Faiyum became one of the breadbaskets of the Roman world.
For the first three centuries AD, the people of Faiyum and elsewhere in Roman Egypt not only embalmed their dead but also placed a portrait of the deceased over the face of the mummy wrappings, shroud or case. The Egyptians continued burying their dead, despite the Roman preference for cremation. The Faiyum portraits were painted on wood in a pigmented wax technique called encaustic. Preserved by the desert environment, these Faiyum portraits make up the wealthiest body of portraiture to have survived from antiquity. They provide us with a window into a remarkable society of peoples of mixed origins—Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Libyans and others—that flourished 2,000 years ago in Faiyum.
The arable area shrank in the late 1st millennium AD, and settlements were abandoned around the basin’s edge. These sites include some of the best-preserved from the late Roman Empire, notably Karanis and Byzantine and early Arab Periods, though recent redevelopment has dramatically reduced the archaeological features. In addition to the mummy portraits, the villages of the Faiyum have also proven to be an essential source of papyrus fragments containing literature and documents in Latin, Greek, and different Egyptian scripts.
“Colonial-type” village names (villages named after towns in Egypt and places outside Egypt) show that much land was cultivated in the Faiyum in the Greek and Roman periods.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, in 1910, over 1,000 km2 (400 mile2) of the Faiyum Oasis was cultivated, the chief crops being cereals and cotton. The completion of the Aswan Low Dam ensured a fuller supply of water, which enabled 20,000 acres (80 km2) of land, previously unirrigated and untaxed, to be brought under cultivation in the three years 1903-1905. Three crops were obtained in twenty months. The province was noted for its figs and grapes of exceptional quality. Olives were also cultivated. Rose trees were very numerous, and most of the attar of roses of Egypt were manufactured in the province. Faiyum also possessed an excellent breed of sheep.
There are, especially in the neighbourhood of the lake, many ruins of ancient villages and cities. Mounds north of the city of Faiyum mark the site of Crocodilopolis/Arsinoe. There are extensive archaeological remains across the region extending from the prehistoric period to modern times, e.g. the Monastery of the Archangel Gabriel at Naqlun.
The cult of Sobek
In antiquity, the Faiyum Oasis was the centre of the cult of the crocodile god Sobek. In many settlements, temples were dedicated to local manifestations of the god and associated divinities. The priests of Sobek were fundamental players in social and economic life, such as organising religious festivals or purchasing goods from local producers. Therefore, even in Roman times, priests of these temples enjoyed various privileges. Since many written sources, the development of temples dedicated to the Sobek cult can be studied particularly well in Bakchias, Narmouthis, Soknopaiou Nesos, Tebtunis, and Theadelphia, since many written sources (papyri, ostraka, inscriptions) on the daily life of the priests are available from these places.
Egyptian temples have been operating at the edges of the Fayyum until the early third century, in some cases still in the fourth century. The institutionalised Sobek cults thus existed alongside early Christian communities, which settled in the region from the third century onwards and built their first churches in the Fayyum settlements by the fourth century.
Monasteries in Faiyum Oasis
Saint Anthony (251-356 AD) acted as an inspiration for hermits, and there were soon numerous monasteries throughout the country, including those in the Fayoum Depression. Many of them are still standing today and, although perhaps only for pilgrims and those of specialist interests, are worth visiting.
The 12th Century Deir Al-Adhra (Monastery of the Virgin), just off the road to Beni Suef, about 6 km outside Fayoum City, is the most accessible.
Further south is the beautiful 7th Century Deir Malak Ghobrial (Monastery of the Angel Gabrial), located on the desert escapement above the cultivated lowlands.
Deir Hammam, initially built in the 6th or 8th Century, is 6 km north of Lahun, and Deir Mari Girgis (Monastery of St. George) can be reached by boat from Sidmant Al-Gabal which is 15 km south of Luhun.
Even more isolated is Deir Anba Samwail (Monastery of St Samuel), which is about 30 km south of the Fayoum depression and can only be reached by a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
The water level in Lake Qaroun had been falling for about 2,000 years, as it received less and less water until the construction of the Aswan High Dam led to more excellent stability in the level of the Nile.
By the Middle Ages, the lake had become far too salty to sustain fresh-water fish, and new species were introduced. The shrunken lake now lies 45 meters below sea level since 70,000 years ago. The water table rises again as houses and fields at the lakeside have been flooded in recent years.
The beach resorts around Lake Qaroun still attract the more affluent visitors to the region. The number of visitors is increasing, and while half are Egyptians, about a third are Europeans. The season runs all year round, but it is considered too cold to swim from January to April. The highly motivated regional government is now studying new tourist desert sites to the north and west of Lake Qaroun, a wildlife park and conservation area, and infrastructure is being developed. A conference hall is being built with museums showing monuments, fossils and civilisation.
Fayoum oasis includes Lake Qaroun, which is a breath of fresh air. It has as well ancient monuments. It offers both Egyptian and foreign visitors a relaxing break from city life, a day at the beach and a chance to see oasis life without venturing too far.
A relaxing day or two in Fayoum is strongly recommended for those in Cairo who are beginning to feel claustrophobic. Access to Bahr Youssef, the canal bisecting Fayoum, trains, buses and taxis from Cairo; all terminate close to the canal downtown near one of the city’s eight tourist offices.
Negotiate the price, then take one of the Hantours (horse-drawn carriages) to your destination. Local buses and taxis serving the oasis can be obtained from the Al- Hawatim terminal to the south of Bahr Youssef.
There are over 200 to see in the Faiyum oasis region. Besides the four large ones behind the tourist office on the main Gomhouria st., the most famous are the series of seven water wheels, about 3 km along Bahr Sinnuris. The locals are particularly proud of their water wheels, first introduced by the Ptolemies and used now as the official symbol of Fayoum province.