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Fayum - Life around the Lake

The Fayum is separated from the Nile Valley by a relatively thin ridge and contains a large lake, called Birket Qarun, around which the life in the area has always rotated. Geological studies proved that the area of the Fayum saw significant and turbulent changes in its climate and geography, and in fact the region is famous for the fossils that can be found in the desert. Apart from shells of various sizes, skeletons of whales, sharks, crocodiles, giant turtles and large horned mammals can be found in the desert north of the lake.

During the pharaonic period, especially starting from the Middle Kingdom, the region achieved considerable importance. The vicinity of the depression to the Nile Valley seems to have made possible an artificial regulation of the level of the lake, 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 traveller 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.

During the Ptolemaic and Roman periods the level of the lake was lower than in the past but still higher than today, as the remains of Dimeh reveal. This city, once a busy harbour on the northern shore of the lake, lies a few of kilometres off in the desert.

The site is worth a visit, and can be easily reached using a 4x4. 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) 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, but offer little for the tourist to see.

Today the lake is much smaller than in the past, but it is nevertheless a place of great beauty. Artificial lakes were created in the southern region towards Wadi Raiyan, where (with a 4x4) it is possible to visit the waterfalls. The Fayum is only a few kilometres south of Cairo, and may be the ideal destination for a one-day excursion. A 4x4 will allow you to visit all the main archaeological and natural sites.
(Corinna Rossi)



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