Oasis of Peace, Fayoum
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. A number 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 Swef, 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) which is located on the desert escapement above the cultivated lowlands.
Deir Hammam, which was originally built in the 6th or 8th Century, is 6 km north of Lahun and Deir Mari Girigis (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 four wheel drive vehicle.
After the noise, crowds of Cairo the Fayoum oasis, which includes Lake Qaroun, is literally a breath of fresh air. 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 having to venture too far. It has as well ancient monuments.
A relaxing day or two in Fayoum is strongly recommended for those in Cairo who are beginning to feel claustrophobic. Access to Bahr Youssef, canal bisecting Fayoum, trains, buses and taxis from Cairo; all terminate close to the canal in downtown near one of the city's 8 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.
The main town in the oasis is located 85 km south of Cairo, 75 km from Giza Pyramids and 105 km from Cairo Airport. Its name is probably derived from 'Fayoum' meaning water. Although usually described as an oasis Fayoum is not fed by underground water, like the Western Desert oasis further south west, but by water from the Nile transported to this natural triangular depression by a series of canals. Having irrigated the oasis, the water runs into Lake Qaroun which despite having dramatically shrunk over the past few thousand years, is at about 215 sq km still Egypt's largest natural salt-water lake.
About 70,000 years ago the Nile flood first broke through the low mountains which surround the large Fayoum depression and formed lake Qaroun and the surrounding marshes. This is believed to be one, if not the first, site of agriculture in the world, as plants which grew around the lake were collected, land was fenced in, and dry and guarded storage areas were built. Even today, Fayoum is still famous for fruit and vegetables and its chicken. To describe food as Fayoumi, it means delicious.
The 12th Dynasty Pharaoh Amenemhet I (1991-1992 BC) first drained part of the marshes to develop the area for agriculture and also dug a large canal from the Nile controlled by a regulator at Lahun to the north west of Beni Swef. The result of this and further developments by Amenemhet III (1842-1797 BC), who showed great interest in the area and built a pyramid at Hawara, was lake Moeris (Great Lake), twice the present size and teeming with fish, and an agricultural area to the south renowned for its rich and varied crops.
The Romans, who called the area Crocodilopolis (because of the crocodiles) changed Fayoum's previous system of crop rotation and forced the area to supply grain exclusively to the Roman market. Muslims believe that Prophet Joseph developed the area during his captivity in Egypt through the canalization of Bahr Youssef river and by building the world's first dam. Although Fayoum's national strategic importance diminished with the canalization of the Nile Delta, it remains one of the most producer agricultural areas in the country.
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 greater 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. It now appears that water table is rising 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 from January to April it is considered too cold to swim. The highly motivated regional government is now studying new tourist desert sites to the north and west of Lake Qaroun, a wild life park and conservation area, and infrastructure is being developed. A conference hall is being built together with museums showing monuments, fossils and civilization. As part of its efforts to persuade tourists to visit areas outside the Nile Valley, the Egyptian Tourist Association is trying to encourage tours from Cairo via Fayoum to both the Red Sea coast and Upper Egypt which would undoubtedly be a wonderful and fascinating tour.
The city of Fayoum, in the center of the depression, is the province's capital and the largest of its 5 small cities. The oasis population is 1.45 million. In Fayoum City itself the covered market place and the adjacent street of gold smiths found across the 4th bridge to the west of the central tourist office, are worth a visit .
A little further west along the southern side of Bahr Youssef is the attractive Mosque of Khawen Asal Bay believed to have been built in 1499, or earlier, making it the oldest in Fayoum. It was built by the Mamluk Sultan Qaitbai (1468-1498) for Asal-Bay who was not only his favourite concubine but also the mother of his assassinated successor Mohamed IV (1496-1498), sister of Qansuh I (1498-1500) and wife of Janbalat (1500-1501) who were both deposed and murdered.
Other mosques worth visiting in town, particularly during the prophets' anniversary, are the Mosque & Mausoleum of Alier-Rubi and the so-called Hanging Mosque built above 5 arches next to Bahr Youssef on the way back to the tourist office.
The locals are particularly proud of their water-wheels, first introduced by the Ptolemies and used now as the official symbol of Fayoum province. There are over 200 to see in the region. Besides the 4 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.
Outside town at Ain Al-Siliyin, 9 km north towards Lake Qaroun, is a popular marvellous spot & park which has natural spring & streams, but it is overcrowded on Friday and holidays. Further north is Lake Qaroun that is a favorite beach resort. In winter, it is quite rough and teeming with ducks and geese, which brings the hunters to lakeside hotels. Qaroun means "Lake of the Horn" and it is possible to negotiate a price to get a row boat to the Golden Horn Island or to the north shore.
To the lake and 30 km from the city on the main road towards Cairo, Kome Aushim is site of the ancient city of Karanis. The results of excavations carried out in the 1920's by the University of Michigan are displayed, together with exhibits from other sites around Fayoum, in a small museum. The most interesting exhibits are the carefully resorted pottery and glassware. The remains of two temples dating from 1st Century BC have also been found, apparently built on the foundations of earlier temples. Mud brick houses have also been discovered although there are little remains of these. Trips to Oasr Es-Saghah and the ruins of the Ptolemaic settlement of Soknopaiou Nesos which used to be on the lakeside but is now 11 km away and 65 m above the current lake, are arranged at the museum. There are 4 separate pyramid sites in and near the Fayoum depression: Hawara, Lahun and the collapsed Maidoum pyramids are all near the main road from Fayoum to Beni Swef.
The pyramid of Amenemhet III (1842-1797 BC) is a 3 km walk across Bahr Youssef and into the desert from Hawara which is 6 km south east of Fayoum. Contrary to normal practice the entrance of the pyramid of which only the mud brick core remains while its external limestone cladding having long since disappeared,is situated to the south in an unsuccessfully-set attempt to confuse looters. When an archaeologist got into it, he found that Amenemhet's body had been removed and destroyed and the sarcophagus of his was missing. It was discovered next to that of his daughter Queen Sobk-Nefru, who was the last 12th dynasty ruler and had completed her father's pyramid after his death, when her own fully-intact tomb was discovered in 1965. The apex of this easily climbed pyramid offers excellent views.
To the south of the pyramid is the Mortuary Temple of Amenemhet III which was known as Labyrinth in the classical days when it greatly impressed Herodotus who considered that it far surpassed the pyramids as a building. It was composed of over 3,000 rooms. About 6 Km off the main road lies the ruined pyramid of Senusert I (1897- 1878 BC) built by Amenemhet III's grandfather. It was built on a rocky surface on which limestone pillars were constructed and then covered over with mud-brick and finally encased in stone. A "sponge" made of sand and flint was placed around the base, in order to prevent any flooding. Once again the unusual south-facing entrance did not deter the tomb robbers.