If you want to escape the noise and the crowds of Cairo for the weekend, Fayoum is the perfect place to get away and there is plenty to do when you get there. Did you know that you can follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great on camelback in Fayoum? Or that the city offers 600 kilometres of desert hiking trails, and that you can get closer there to birds than anywhere else? This is in addition to various historical sites.
About 90 kilometres from Cairo (a one-hour drive from Giza), this 12,000 square kilometre area owes its existence to the Bahr Youssef canal linking the Nile with the Fayoum depression. The depression has played a vital role in every culture that has swept through Egypt, from the Pharaohs to the Greeks and Romans, to the Coptic Christians and finally to the Muslim Arabs. Beyond its human history, the area has long been famous for its natural beauty; its lakes, palm trees, unspoiled desert areas, fossil remains, bird sanctuaries, and rural tranquillity, offering a unique natural richness to visitors.
The area has a number of important archaeological sites, as the Pharaohs built pleasure palaces here and the Greeks, who believed the crocodiles in Lake Qaroun were sacred, built temples where pilgrims could feed the beasts. This region was a lush paradise during prehistoric times and its water level was 85 metres higher than today (currently 45 metres below sea level) and the Nile regularly flooded through the low mountains separating it from Fayoum. At 215 square kilmometres Lake Qaroun remains Egypt’s largest salt water lake.
The prehistoric people who lived here were 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 were built. Fayoum has remained an agricultural centre and is well known for its fruit, vegetables and chickens. Cotton, clover, medicinal plants are all grown here and the local souq (market) sells copperware, spices, and gold jewellery and there is a special pottery market once a week. But agriculture is not Fayoum’s only claim to fame. The Greek mummy portraits are said to be the world’s first true-life portraits and examples can be found in museums around the world.
Fayoum mummy portraits
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, 40 kilometres towards Bahariyya, are also suitable for swimming and picnics. Due to the canals in the area, Medinet Al-Fayoum has been called the ‘Venice of Egypt’. The city was first known as Crocodilopolis and has a substantial Coptic presence. It is the capital of the province and lies at the centre of the depression, and also the transportation network of the area. All of the canals, roads, and trains in the Fayoum converge at Medinet Al-Fayoum, including the famous Joseph’s Canal, thought to have been built by the biblical Joseph. Here are some places it’s really worth making a visit:
The Obelisk of Senusert I – situated at the entrance of Fayoum city and built by the twelfth dynasty Pharaoh Senusert I. The Obelisk is 30 metres high and is made of granite.
The Obelisk of Senusert (photo: Flickr)
Water wheels – there are over 200 water wheels in Fayoum. Since the city is located in a depression, self-powered water wheels were essential to help irrigate the surrounding lands. The one particular type – exclusive to Fayoum – began in Pharaonic times, turning into the city’s symbol.
Water wheels in Fayoum (photo: Flickr)
The Temple of Qasr Qaroun – lies at the far western end of Lake Qaroun and dates back to the Roman period. The temple was once part of an entire Roman city, dedicated to the supreme god of Fayoum, Sobik.
The Temple of Qasr Qaroun (photo: Flickr)
The temple is remarkable for the absence of inscriptions. There is a winged sun disc decorating the entrance portal, a symbol of Horus, the protecting god of the entrances of ancient Egyptian temples. The unique design of the temple is completed with four pillars that once supported a roof and steps to the right and left, leading to the roof, on whose wall is the temple’s only engraving, of the god Sobik.
The Temple of Qasr Qaroun (photo: Flickr)
If you are taking a winter break in Fayoum there is a rare phenomenon that you cannot afford to miss. On 21 December, the date that typically marks the winter solstice, shafts of sunlight enter the temple and illuminate the holy of holies of the temple where statues of the god Sobik were placed and worshipped. As the temple remains in absolute darkness throughout the year and receives sunlight on this special day, it is an unforgettable experience.
The Hawara Pyramid – built by Amnemhat III, lies nine kilometres south-east of the capital. To the south of the pyramid is Amnemhat III’s mortuary temple, also known as the labyrinth, consisting of over 3,000 rooms. Today, the original construction is no more than a huge pile of debris.
The Hawara Pyramid (photo: Flickr)
Camel trekking and desert hiking – exploring the desert on the back of a camel is an excellent way to explore off-beaten tracks in the desert and Wadi Al-Rayan. Local guides and guides from the eco-tourism project accompany visitors on one-day trips (or longer). The most famous traveller in the Egyptian Western Desert was Alexander the Great. On his way back from Siwa to Memphis, he is said to have cut across the Nile Valley through Wadi Al-Rayan.
Wadi Rayan Falls (photo: Flickr)
In an attempt to diversify the city’s tourist attractions and preserve its natural surroundings, a programme has been launched which aims to introduce Fayoum as an eco-tourist city and raise awareness of its ecological and cultural richness.
The Fayoum Eco-tourism Project organises trips to Fayoum for both Egyptians and foreigners interested in exploring the city from a different perspective.
For more information: www.ecotourism.edu.eg