Likened in Ancient Egypt to a bud on the stem of the Nile, the Fayoum depends on river water – not springs or wells, like a true oasis. The water is distributed by a system of canals going back to ancient times, through palm groves and orchards, to flow into the Lake Qaroun, the Fayoum depression’s main topographical feature since ancient times (known as Lake Moeris in the Greco-Roman era). The word “Fayoum” probably derives from Phiom, the Coptic word for “sea”, although folklore attributes it to a pharaoh’s praise of the Bahr Yussef canal which irrigates the depression: “This is the work of a thousand days” (alf youm).
The Fayoum’s capital, Medinet Fayoum, is far less alluring than the depression’s periphery, rich in natural beauty spots, wildlife and antiquities. West of Lake Qaroun, the artists’ colony of Tunis makes a relaxed base for exploring Qasr Qaroun temple, the wildlife sanctuary of Wadi Rayan and the fossilized prehistoric Valley of the Whales. Of the Fayoum’s pyramid sites, the Collapsed Pyramid of Maidum marks a step between the first pyramid at Saqqara and subsequent efforts at Dahshur and Giza. Lahun and Hawara are later, ruined pyramids from the XII Dynasty, which ruled Egypt and ordered the waterworks that transformed the Fayoum from its capital Itj-tway (Seizer of the Two Lands), near El-Lisht, where the dynasty’s founder built his own pyramid.Read More
One kilometre beyond Tunis, a well-signposted spur-road turns off the lakeside highway towards Wadi Rayan, a separate depression 15km outside the oasis which has become a man-made wildlife haven. The idea of piping excess water from the Fayoum into the wadi was first mooted by the British but only put into practice in 1966, when three lakes and a waterfall were created, vegetation flourished and the area became a major nesting ground for birds.
Wadi Rayan is now a nature reserve harbouring the world’s sole known population of slender-horned gazelles, eight other species of mammals, thirteen species of resident birds and 26 migrant and vagrant species. The prehistoric fossils of the Valley of the Whales also come under its auspices, supported by several foreign NGOs.
Lakes and waterfalls
Initially cultivated, the valley gets sandier the closer you get to Wadi Rayan’s azure lakes, where hordes of visitors descend on Fridays and holidays to sunbathe and play ghettoblasters on the beach. The lake is too saline for swimming, but boating (and floating in rubber tyres) is popular, and its tatty lakeside cafés are always busy.
From the main lake a track leads to the waterfalls (shallalat). The only ones in Egypt, they’ve appeared in countless videos and films despite being only a few metres high, and are usually busy with families enjoying the novelty of an outdoors power-shower, surrounded by reeds and sand dunes.
Birdwatching, dunes and springs
About 10km beyond the visitors’ centre, the road passes a hill known as Al-Mudawara which you can hike up for a spectacular view of the reed-fringed lake and desert scarp beyond. Soon afterwards is the turn-off for the Valley of the Whales, followed by a signposted turning to a birdwatching site by the shore. Besides the ubiquitous cattle egrets, grey herons and little bitterns, there are hard-to-spot wagtails, skylarks, kestrels, kites and Senegal coucals.
Further on, magnificent seif dunes 30m high run parallel to an inlet fringed by tamarisks, with three sulphur springs nearby, before the road crosses a boring stretch of desert to return to the oasis. All of this route can be done in a 2WD car, unlike the route to the Valley of the Whales, separated from Wadi Rayan by the Garet Gohanimeen (Mountain of Hell), so-called because the light of the setting sun appears to transform it into an inferno.
It’s worth visiting Medinet Fayoum simply for its festivals, as many local farmers do. Hotels overflow during Ali er-Rubi’s moulid in the middle of Sha’ban (the eighth month in the Muslim calendar), when the alleys around his mosque are crammed with stalls selling sugar dolls and horsemen, and all kinds of amusements can be tried, while the devout perform zikrs in the courtyard. The other big occasion is the “viewing” (er-ruyeh) of the new moon that heralds Ramadan, celebrated by a parade of carnival floats representing different professions, whose riders bombard spectators with “lucky” prayer leaflets.
Sobek and Crocodilopolis
Sobek and Crocodilopolis
The Fayoum’s ancient capital, Crocodilopolis (later renamed Arsinoë after Ptolemy II’s sister-wife), was the centre of the crocodile cult supposedly began by Pharaoh Menes, the legendary unifier of Upper and Lower Egypt, whose life was saved by a croc while he was hunting in the Fayoum marshes. The crocodile deity, Sobek, was particularly favoured by Middle Kingdom rulers and assumed national prominence after being identified with Re (as Sobek-Re) and Horus. Sobek was variously depicted as a hawk-headed crocodile or in reptilian form with Amun’s crown of feathers and ram’s horns. At the Sacred Lake of Crocodilopolis, reptiles were fed and worshipped, and even adorned with jewellery, by the priests of Sobek. Today, nothing remains of the ancient city, north of the modern capital.
The riddle of the Collapsed Pyramid
The riddle of the Collapsed Pyramid
Evidently Maidum began as a step pyramid (like Zoser’s at Saqqara), with four levels, which was then enlarged to an eight-step pyramid, and finally given an outer shell to make it a “true” pyramid. It seems, however, that the design was faulty, distributing stresses outwards rather than inwards, so that its own mass blew the structure apart. When exactly this happened is unknown – and the crux of the riddle of the Collapsed Pyramid.
No inscriptions appeared on the coffin found inside, but New Kingdom graffiti in the nearby mortuary temple led archeologists to attribute the pyramid to the IV Dynasty ruler Snofru or to his father Huni (c.2637–13 BC). Partisans of Huni argue that Snofru commissioned the Red and Bent pyramids at Dahshur, and would therefore not have needed a third repository for his ka.
Most scholars accept Kurt Mendelssohn’s theory that the design of the Bent Pyramid at Dahshur was hastily altered because Maidum collapsed during its construction. But critics argue that there is no evidence for the collapse having happened while Dahshur was underway – indeed, Maidum’s mortuary temple would not have been built had this happened – and the collapse might have occurred as late as Roman, or even medieval, times.
The nineteenth-century Egyptologist Flinders Petrie calculated that its original height from base to summit was 93.5m (today’s ruin is 65m high), with a base-to-height ratio and slope identical to the Great Pyramid at Giza which would have been expressed by the Ancient Egyptian measurement of seked (dividing the royal cubit into seven palms and four further digits), specified millennia after the last pyramid was built in the XVII Dynasty Rhind Mathematical Papyrus.