Fayoum history Named after the Coptic word phiom or pa-yom, meaning lake or sea, the triangular depression of the Fayoum looks like a delta.
Near Cairo and easily accessible by several well-paved highways, the Fayoum history can be explored in a series of pleasant day trips and offers a wide variety of activities ranging from boating, swimming, and Hashing to visiting antiquities, bird watching, and exploring fossil fields.
hemmed in on the far shore by a rugged escarpment, creates a unique desert landscape. Ancient water wheels churn and groan, lifting the water that rushes throughout the Fayoum over an intricate and ancient canal system.
The farmers still toil in lush green fields at tasks that seem to imitate the drawings and reliefs of ancient tomb paintings.
Ancient ruins stand at the desert fringes as haunting reminders of the long and interesting history of the Fayoum. Shards, beads, ancient tools, household utensils, and other artifacts litter the ground at many of the historic sites.
From scientist to sightseer, there is something for
everyone in the Fayoum history.
ln prehistory more people lived in the Fayoum than in the Nile Valley.
The land was flourishing.
During the Qarunian period (c. 720(P6000 BC) Southwest Asians, whom we call Epipaleolithic Qarunians, migrated to the area and established residence.
Hunting and fishing were the main occupations and plants and animals were just beginning to be domesticated.
This all took place around a much larger lake.
In Neolithic times (c. 5500-4000 BC) two distinct groups existed around the lake
Early Neolithic Fayoumian and Late Neolithic Moerian.
During these periods the first-known agricultural communities fiourished and they dined on gazelle, hartebeests, or catfish, cooked in rough-faced bowls or cooking pots, and served their friends and family with red polished rectangular earthenware dishes.
They sent expeditions to trade with other Qarunians north to the Mediterranean, east along the Red Sea, south into Sudan, and west into the desert oases.
Around 4000 BC the climate changed and the Fayoum began to dry up. Over a period of many years, the people left their drought-stricken homes and migrated to the Nile Valley.
By 3500 BC,
some were living east of the Nile in what is now Maadi-Digla, a modem south of Cairo.
From the debris left behind in the Fayoum history, we know they had gram silos, made pottery, and used sickles, but we have yet to find any shelters.
Once the Nile Valley became dominant, the Fayoum was all but abandoned, for life was easier along the river, especially because of the summer fioods. Then the Fayoum became a hunting and fishing paradise as well as a place to be mined for its salts, limestone, basalt, and chert.
Phéraonic Era (2686-332 Bc)
Durmg the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2181 BC) the F ayoum was known as Ta-she, or She 55V ffhe Southem Lake), and was dedicated to the crocodile god, Sobek (to the ancient Rgypflans), Souchos, Pnepheros, Petesouchos, and Soknopaios (to the Greeks and Cgnfallsl In fact, the crocodile god played a pivotal role in life in the Fayoum until the cristian era.
It was believed that the lake was the primeval ocean where life in all its °m1S began. The crocodile was the power of that creation.
Archaeologists are still looking for the Old Kingdom presence in the Fayoum history. So far it has been found only to the north of the lake at Widan al-Faras and Urrun al-Sawan and in the east at the Fourth Dynasty pyramid of Sila (Seila).
Evidence discovered in eastem Fayoum by Egyptologist Fekri Hassan indicates that the fall of the Old Kingdom was caused by yet another climate change that caused poor Nile cruise Hoods for a number of decades.
In other words, the Old Kingdom
may have been decimated by global warming. The lake, as in predynastic times, would have diminished, perhaps leaving water in several low-lying areasarotmd the Fayoum like the north (Lake Qarun) and the east
During the Twelfth Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom great prosperity came to the Fayoum. It was during this era that the pyramids at Lahun and Hawara were built at the edge of Lake Moeris, named Mi-wer, the Great Lake.
This lake, according to Hassan, was not Lake Qarun (see below for this long-standing controversy).
It was artificially expanded by the Nile cruise.
Some sources argue that the lake was not expanded during the Middle King-
dom but that the Nile water, still permitted to enter the depression, was used to carry out drainage and land reclamation.
Greek Period (332-30 Bc)
Although less is known about the Fayoum during the New Kingdom (c. 157(Pl070 BC), great changes took place in the area during the Greek and Roman eras. Many of the ancient ruins, especially on the desert fringes, come to us from this period. Before it was named the Arsinoite nome by Ptolemy Philadelphus in honor of his second wife (and sister), the Fayoum was known as ‘the Marsh.’ It was divided into a number of merides (districts),
including Heracleides in the north, Themistos in the west, and Polemon in the south.
New settlements grew throughout the Fayoum, including Karanis, Bacchias, Philadel- phia, and Dionysias, all major desert sites today. Under Greek rule there were 114 villages in the Fayoum (only sixty existed in 1809). Sixty-six of them had Greek names, lt is interesting to note that a few of the villages had Jewish names (for example, Magdola~modem Medinet Nehas-and Samareia). There was rivalry between villages and sometimes open hostility.
Villagers stole crops,
good soil, and water rights from each other, just like inhabitants of Greek city states, medieval European towns, and modem nations.
We know a great deal about life in the Fayoum during Greek and Roman times because of thousands of papyri that have been discovered during the twentieth century in the for mer Greek settlements. Mummies were wrapped in papyrus scrolls so old cemeteries were and are excellent places to discover new histories. everything from census records to household accounts to notional stories and details about the army.
We know not only the names of towns but also district and street names.
the Fayoum had running water pumped from the Nile by Archimedean screws, with men working in shifts day and night. We know men married at around eighteen to twenty years old and women at around fifteen.
We also know the Greeks
practiced infanticide, especially if the child was female.
One letter written on June l7, l BC, instructed, “lf you are delivered of child, if it is a boy keep it, if a girl discard it.” As now, there was a thriving tourist industry in the Fayoum. One of the lures was to feed the sacred crocodiles fried fish and honey cakes.
The food was sold by priests.
The prosperity came to an end during the reign of Ptolemy Euergetes ll (246-221 BC) and the Fayoum declined. The land was reclaimed by the desert as canals clogged and the population diminished.
Roman Period (30 Bc-AD 323)
The Romans, after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, ruled Egypt as a province, not an independent nation, as was the case during Greek rule. What they found in the Fayoum was a Hellenized landowner gentry in the towns and an Egyptian working class inhabiting the fields and villages. They also found clogged canals and broken dikes.
ordered the Roman army into the Fayoum to clean and repair the water system. Once this was done, the Fayoum began to thrive once more. In fact, tourism became an industry.
In Napthali Lewis’ Lyfe in Egypt Under Roman Rule, we have an interesting quote from a Roman document from 112 BC:
Lucius Mernmius, a Roman senator, who enjoys a position of great dignity and honour is making the voyage from Alexandria to the Arsinoite nome [Fayoum] to see the sights.
Let him be received with special magnificence, and see to it that the guest houses are made ready at the proper places and that the landing stages leading to them are in working order, also that the welcoming gifts listed below are presented to him at each landing place, that the furnishings of each guest house are ready for him, as well as the titbits for Petesouchos [the crocodile god] and the [live] crocodiles, and the necessaties for viewing the labyrinth, and the offerings for the sacrifices. And in general take the greatest pains for the visitor’s complete satisfaction, and show the utmost zeal ….
Egypt had to produce
one-third of the grain needed by Rome each year.
The Fayoum, with nearly 10 percent of the cultivable total, earned the epithet ‘breadbasket of the Roman Empire.’ Crop variety and rotation was ignored in favor of growing grain, which led to decline.
Farmers had to share their harvest with the state in the form of a tax. In addition, trade was taxed and there was a type of sales tax.
The people of the Fayoum
had a high per capita income, but they had to pay the highest taxes, including twice the average poll tax of any other place in Egypt.
Eventually Rome exacted too much from the farmers of the Fayoum.
Always rebellious, the area’s population declined and the people, unpaid and overtaxed, were forced into serfdom. In 165, a plague descended on Egypt and the major villages in the Fayoum suffered considerably.
By the third and fourth centuries, communities like Philadelphia and Bacchias stood abandoned.
Christian (323-642) and Islamic (642-1798) Periods
By the middle of the third century, there was a large Christian community in the Fayoum.
Although records are scant, the first-known document recorded the visit of Dionysious, Bishop of Alexandria in 262.
During the third and fourth centuries, the wealthy of the Fayoum history began to turn toward Christianity.
More Christian names began to appear in census records.
In the fifth century, village churches emerged.
Tebtunis alone had four churches.
By the ninth century,
Tebtunis had a school for scribes and psalmodists. Thirty-five monasteries existed during the Middle Ages, many secluded in the surrounding deserts.
Unlike other areas of the Western Desert, which fell quickly to the Arab invaders, the Fayoum remained a hotbed of rebellion and did not come under Arab control until much later.
New settlements sprang up as Bedouin came to settle on the land.
Times were hard once more.
The invading Fatimid armies, sweeping into Egypt across the Western Desert in 969, ruined the Fayoum and it continued to decline into the Ottoman era. In 1189, Salah al-Din imposed a 2-dinar tax on each feddan in Egypt.
The Fayoum paid 152,634 dinars.
That means 76,317 feddans were reported as under cultivation at that trme.
In 1245, Nabulis,
the Ayyubid governor of the Fayoum, issued a report on the status of the area with a focus on hydrology.
At that time the Fayoum was almost entirely abandoned Another cadastral survey in 1315 estimated that just after a devastating plague between136,000 and 155,357 feddans were being cultivated.
Another plague struck around 1420 The Fayoum history lost two entire villages and had a 7.6 percent loss of revenue among its other urban centers.
There is a big gap in our understanding of life in the Fayoum at this point.
We do kn0W that W. G. Browne paid a visit in 1792.
He found the water of Lake Qarun brackish.
THE FAYOUM Fayoum 1798-1882
Napoleon’s army came to the Fayoum history in 1798, heralding the beginning of the modem era.
The French troops had been in pursuit of Murad Bey and his Mamluk army since the Battle of the Pyramids.
Murad, knowledgeable about the desert, and gathering arms and men from Minya and Beni Suef, had been playing cat and mouse with the French, who were under the command of General Desaix.
Time was on the side of Murad for the French soldiers were falling victim to eye infections, dysentery, hunger, and venereal disease.
They were rurming out of ammimition, their uniforms were in tatters, and their shoes disintegrated until they fell off their feet. Finally,
the two sides met.
At first there were minor skirmishes, but on October 7, 1798, at the Monastery of Sediman,
the French routed the Mamluks
and marched into the Fayoum history. Under the rule of Muhammad Ali (1811-48), the Fayoum began to recover from the devastation of centuries, mainly through the efforts of M. Linant de Bellefonds.
Roads were built, telegraph and telephone systems installed, and general prosperity retuned to the fertile oasis.
British Occupation (1882-1954)
The British swept into the Fayoum history like any other conqueror and it was not long before the oasis became a tourist destination.
Karl Baedeker’s Handbook reported a population of 150,000 in 1885.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a group of English engineers arrived in the Fayoum from India to “improve the wealth and agricultural prosperity of the country”~ one more invasion force bent on increasing productivity in the ‘bread-
They brought the railroad to the Fayoum in 1893.
During the second decade of the twentieth century, the British established farms within and camps around the perimeter of the Fayoum, including outposts manned by the infantry and yeomanry to protect it against the Sanusi, a threat that never materialized.
Despite the heavy British presence, as late as the 1920s there was no road from Cairo to the Fayoum. In fact, Bagnold claimed to have made the first car tracks “of what afterward became King Fouad’s road to the Faiyum.”
Tf°d3Y3 the Fayoum history is still a prosperous, growing province.
As in the past,
agriculture its mam lndustry.
Produce from the Fayoum has a special status on the Egyptian market.
The tomatoes always seem to be bigger, oranges sweeter, and ducks and turkeys plumper and more tender COPUC monasteries, abandoned for centtuies, have been revitalized and restored.
In many °f:th¢fH, Where once a single monk lived amid the ruins, full religious communities are cre“PHE fmP0rIant centers once again.
Leisure tourism is on the increase arroud the lake, as is hlstoncal tourism at the ancient sites.
enjoys not one but two distinct protected ;”‘°as`fh€ Lake Qarun Protected Area and the Wadi Rayyan Protected Area-and must now ear_I’fht° d¢al with all the benefits and problems that go with such designations.
haml e Fayoum has live major population centers with five cities, 165 villages, and 1,620 340 giver 2.25 million people live in the Fayoum history, 51 percent of whom are men.
Over In ahdif feddans are under cultivation, with an additional 12,613 now under reclamation.
seven 111911 to agriculture, its industries include cotton and tourism.
Today tourism boasts and hotels with 243 rooms.
There are ten schools of higher education, fifty hospitals, 1990s, the government instituted a program to help head-of-household women, °°mP1ise 16 percent of the population in the Fayoum (22 percent in Egypt as a They are guaranteed a regular income and given small loans at low interest to start
The Supreme Council of Antiquities has founded a field school with the assistance of the United States Agency for International Development.