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.