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The Fayoum is a wonderful area of Egypt with a rich and interesting history. It is an area where Egyptians often vacation and which is constantly growing more popular among Europeans. This 692 sq. mile depression was a lush paradise during prehistoric times. It's water level was eighty-five meters higher than today (currently 45 meters below sea level) and the Nile regularly flooded through the low mountains separating it from the Fayoum. At 215 square km, the current lake Qaroun remains Egypt's largest salt water lake. The prehistoric people who lived here were, at first, nomadic hunters and gatherers, but later began harvesting plants near the lake. This developed into what is said to be the earliest agricultural area in the world, where fences were erected and guarded warehouses built. It has remained an agriculture center, well known for it's fruits, vegetables and chickens.

During the Middle Kingdom, the region achieved considerable importance and large monuments were built around its shore. Lahun and Hawara, on the ridge dividing the Fayum from the Valley, were chosen for the construction of two pyramids, both of which are now in ruins. The funerary complex at Hawara, built by the XII Dynasty king Amenhotep III, consisted of a pyramid and a large funerary temple. Thirteen centuries after its construction, it was visited by the Greek traveler and historian Herodotus, who described it as a labyrinth.

Excavated by the British archaeologist Petrie in the years 1888-1910, the site unfortunately revealed almost nothing of the wonderful building that once must have been there. These were life-size portraits of people of the community living there, which were kept in the houses and then placed as funerary masks on the mummy of the deceased. The Roman cemetery north of Hawara, instead, yielded one of the most important archaeological findings of the area, the so-called Fayum Portraits. These Greek mummy portraits found in the Fayoum are said to be the worlds first true life portraits, and examples can be found in area museums.

In addition, a paved road, which has been noted as a landmark of engineering by engineering societies along side the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty, is said to be possibly the first paved road in the world and dates to over 4,500 years. And finally, the worlds first dam was probably built here in order to control the Nile floods into the area.

The peacefulness of the area is a relief from the hustle and bustle of Cairo, from which it is a brief trip. Bird life still abounds around Lake Qaroun, bordered by semi-nomadic Bedouin settlements and fishing villages. Here, on the edge of the desert, you can sail, windsurf, swim and fish. Other places of outstanding natural beauty near Fayoum are the hot springs at Ain al-Siliyin, where you can bath and the waterfalls at Wadi al-Rayan, 40km towards Bahariya, also suitable for swimming and picnics.

Fayoum is not a true oasis since it depends on Nile water instead of underground springs or wells. The ancient Bahr Yussef canal runs through the center of the city and irrigates the land. Only two hours from Cairo by road, Fayoum is renowned for its year-round warm climate, numerous water wheels (introduced by the Ptolemies in the 3rd century) and lush agricultural land. Cotton, clover, tomatoes, medicinal plants and fruit are all grown here. The local Souk (market) in Fayoum City sells copperware, spices and gold jewelry and there is a special pottery market once a week.

Other interesting archaeological sites are the unusual Middle Kingdom temple at Qasr el-Sagha, the town of Medinet Madi, with a Middle Kingdom temple later expanded by the Ptolemies, the Late Period town of Dionysyas (today called Qasr Qarun) at the western end of Birket Qarun and the large Roman Bath at Kom Aushim. Other sites, such as Medinet Fayum (the ancient Crocodilopolis) or Darb Gerze (the ancient Philadelphia) have revealed important archaeological evidence.

 

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