By Salwa Samir – The Egyptian Gazette
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
FAYOUM - Some 100 kilometres southwest of Africa's most populous city of Cairo, lies the oasis town of Fayoum, with about two million inhabitants, which can be reached in about 90 minutes by road, according to the traffic in the capital, but feels agreeably remote.
The Fayoum Oasis is a natural depression in Egypt's Western Desert which enjoys unique natural characteristics and a variety of environments (rural, with its lush and varied cultivation, desert and lake).
Originally named Crocodilopolis, then Arsinoe, el-Fayoum was the main site of the cult of worship of the crocodile god, Sobek. Apparently, during ancient times, crocodiles were adorned with gold and fed with honey cakes and meat by the priests.
The Fayoum has experienced many eras of Egyptian history, making it rich in archaeological and tourist sites. Its water comes from the River Nile via Bahr Youssef, which leaves the Ibrahimiya canal at Assiut.
The oasis is known for its year round pleasant climate and beautiful scenery and contains many sites of interest. It is also famed for its handicrafts, including all kinds of basket-ware made from both natural and dyed palm fronds, and a diversity of traditional and innovative pottery and ceramics.
Let's start with the famous Fayoum Waterwheels, which are the symbol of Fayoum Governorate and date back to the Ptolemaic era. These waterwheels are not only unique in Egypt, but quite beautiful. Big, solid, shiny black, with crystal-clear water gushing from them, their great axles musically groaning with hypnotic effect, they are driven by the stream itself. The power of the water pushes round the large paddles, while the boxes in the rim fill with water, lift it up, and spill it out of the holes in their sides when they reach the top, into a channel that leads the water off to the fields. The wheels run continuously, but if water is not required the opening of a sluice sends it back into the main stream.
Birket (lake) Qaroun is the third largest lake in Egypt, which lies some 45 metres below sea level and occupies the lowest, northern section of the Fayoum depression. The lake has the most beautiful picturesque views, especially magical at sunset and taking a small boat on the lake is a memorable experience.
Wadi el-Rayan is a natural depression in the western desert of Egypt, 42 metres below sea level, which consists of two lakes connected by Egypt's only waterfalls. It was designated as a Protectorate in 1989 to conserve the area's biological, geological and cultural resources. The protected area covers 1759 square kilometres in the southern part of el-Fayoum.
The waterfalls are one of the most popular attractions in Wadi el-Rayan Protected Area (WRPA), which conserves large expanses of desert containing a variety of landscapes and formations. Rare and fascinating wild life is found in the desert of Wadi el-Rayan together with fossils of creatures of past epochs and cultural heritage sites from ancient civilisations.
Nestled between limestone ridges and dune fields lives a diversity of desert plant and animal life in WRPA. Several rare and globally threatened animals inhabit the springs area including Dorcas Gazelle, Ruppell's Sand, Fox and Fennec Fox.
Birds are the most visible wild life in the protected area and can be seen in the lakes, desert and farmland. Bird watching is possible throughout the year, but the greatest diversity is found in winter when the lakes are teeming with migrant water birds
In 2005, Wadi el-Hitan (Valley of the Whales), located within the protected area, was designed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in recognition of the 40-million-year-old whale skeletons found there. With the support of Italian Co-operation, WRPA staff worked to prepare eco-tourism infrastructure for visitors. Now, new displays have been established to help people understand the intriguing story of ancient whales and marine life in the desert.
The fossils and rocks of Wadi el-Hitan are remnants of the ancient environment in which the whales lived and died. Along the clearly marked walking route, one will discover fossils of many species that existed there 37-42 million years ago (including huge mangrove trees) and learn how the whales of Wadi el-Hitan have contributed to an understanding of the evolution of modern whales.
Of the Pharaonic sites, Lahun Pyramid was built over thirty-eight centuries ago, seven or eight centuries after the Great Pyramids of Giza, by the architect Anupy for King Senwosret II, fourth king of the 12th Dynasty, grandfather of Amenemhat III. Reflecting his family's special attachment to the Fayoum, Senwosret chose as the site of his eternal resting place a point overlooking the very entrance to the province, the 'mouth of the lake' Le-hone, Lahun.
The pyramid was built on a natural mass of rock, partly cut away for emphasis. On this was placed a skeleton of massive limestone walls up to about half the height of the pyramid. The spaces between the walls were filled in with unburnt mud bricks, and the same bricks were used to build up the full height of the monument. Finally, an outer casing of limestone was placed over the bricks.
What is known as the Obelisk of Abgig is actually a stela, not an obelisk; when you enter the town from Cairo, you pass this large monument of red granite in the middle of a traffic roundabout, which was erected by Senwosret I (second king of the Twelfth Dynasty and founder of the famous obelisk of Heliopolis), although its decoration and inscriptions are much worn down and difficult to make out.
Originally, the monument was erected in a village called Abgig a few kilometers outside the small city of Fayoum. In the 1970s, the great stone, weighing 100 tons, was painstakingly transported, reconstructed and erected on its present site by the local Department of Antiquities. It now stands about 13 metres high.
The Sela Pyramid is one of only seven in Egypt with no burial chamber or mortuary complex. It commands a suitable position, sited on the highest point of the desert hills that separate the Fayoum from the Nile Valley, and in its pristine state would have been visible from large areas of both. The pyramid is small, built in steps from locally quarried yellow limestone, and somewhat ruinous, although the structure is quite clear.
A fragment of statue and two stelae found in the vicinity in the early 1990s have now allowed the pyramid to be dated to the reign of Sneferu, first king of the Fourth Dynasty, in the early Old Kingdom.
Taking a trip to Dimeh al-Siba on the northern side of Birket Qarun, you will find one of the most interesting historical sites in the Fayoum. It was a Ptolemaic city believed to be founded by Ptolemy II in the third century BC, on a site that shows evidence of habitation from the Neolithic period.
The ruins of Dimeh al-Siba contain two temples, houses, underground chambers, streets and ten metre high walls that are sometimes up to five metres thick. The walls themselves are a testament to the survivability of mud brick in the desert environment. The ground is strewn with debris. Many shards cover the entire temple mound to that one can even find ancient fish hooks, pottery and coins.
Among other Greek and Roman sites in el-Fayoum is Umm el- Burigat, which is the name for the modern village close to the ancient town site of Tebtunis, situated at the southern edge of the Fayoum.
The city is thought to have been originally founded in the New Kingdom. Tebtunis became one of the largest Greco-Roman towns in the region, remaining inhabited through to Islamic times. 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’). 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-Burigat was also home to a vast crocodile cemetery where over 1000 mummified crocodiles and sarcophagi were found.
Monasteries were established early in el-Fayoum particularly between the fourth and sixth centuries, that is shortly after the birth of monasticism in Egypt. The Fayoum experienced a brief and unusual revival of the early anchoritic spirit for a period of about ten years in 1960s, when a group of hermits, let by Abuna Matta al-Maskin, settled in caves in Wadi el-Rayan, west of el-Fayoum. They shunned all contact with the outside world and met altogether only once a week, living the rest of time alone in contemplation or copying scriptures.
One of the important sites for Fayoumi Christians is Deir al-Azab (Bachelor Monastery), which contains the more easily accessible of the two principle Christian cemeteries, and also because it is the burial place of the beloved modern saint, Anba Abram, Bishop of the Fayoum and Giza from 1882 to 1914.
Beautifully set on a desert hillside overlooking low, green land, the Monastery of Archangel Gabriel was probably founded in the second half of the fifth century. The church, dedicated to the Archangel Gabriel, dates from the tenth or eleventh century but incorporates elements - most noticeably columns - from earlier structures. In the hills behind the monastery are several caves that were once used as hermitages by monks.
There are few noteworthy Islamic monuments in el-Fayoum, but they include the Hanging Mosque, which, very significantly, has no minarets. The portal of the mosque is on the south side. It is set in a large recess in a heavy stone wall, decorated with carved blocks of Quranic texts.
Above the door is a classical seashell style conch surmounting triple arches and flanked by medallions, which also surrounds the upper part of the doorway below. The double door is made out of heavy wood, beautifully ornamented with green (tarnished) bronze in a rather unusual design.
The mosque from inside is quite austere, the ceiling being made of strong heavy wood and adorned with strips of wood. There are many ancient columns inside the mosque, including a number with remarkable Corinthian capitals, which were probably taken from the ruins of Kiman Faris, a short distance to the North. The arches of the mosque were painted in characteristic red and white (known as Ablaq) seen in historical mosques dating to the Mamluk period throughout Egypt. The windows of the mosque are plain, but with some colourful designs.
The interior of the Mausoleum of Ali el-Rubi appears small and cramped because of the size of the darih, the carved box-frame surrounding and screening the tomb. The simple dome above is large and light. The tomb of Sheikh Ali el-Rubi, the local holy man, is particularly revered by many Fayoumis, who came here with special prayers and supplications.
An invaluable companion in the Fayoum is R.Neil Hewison's book The Fayoum History and Guide, AUC Press Cairo, in which the author quotes an admirable description of this wonderful town by a former governor Uthman al-Nabulsi, when he described it 750 years ago:
"Cool are the dawns; tall are the trees; many are the fruits; little are the rains."
A guide and map of the world heritage site of Wadi el-Hitan (Valley of the Whales) are available from the Wadi Rayan Protected Area visitors' centre as well as further information on the protectorate.
We cannot leave the Fayoum without referring to some of its inhabitants of nearly two millennia ago in the Greco-Roman period, who have been recorded for posterity in what are known as the Fayoum Portraits, because most were found in the necropolis in the Fayoum as recently as the late 19th century.
Many are encaustic paintings on wooden panels and celebrate a syncretic culture in which Egyptians wear the latest fashions, hairstyles and jewellery from Rome and are depicted in the naturalistic Hellenistic tradition in the first two centuries AD, in portraits, which adorned their mummies in the last centuries of this Pharaonic tradition.
Now held in the collections of major world museums and galleries, including the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo these compelling portraits with their sometimes over-large but always expressive eyes, seemingly gazing directly at the observer, have an extraordinary and memorable presence.