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June 18, 2012

Fayoum: The Nile creates a paradise by going underground

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Approximately 100 kms southwest of Cairo sits the Fayoum area. It is a vast depression within the Western desert, averaging some 50 meters below sea level, about 18,000 square kilometers in area. It was formed 190 - 136 million years ago and over the years turned into a green paradise by the Nile's underground water.

The ancient Egyptians called the area She resi – the Southern Lake, but it is believed that it is the Coptic name Payom, The Lake, that is the origin of the present day name Fayoum.

Fayoum has some unique Ancient Egyptian monuments, including three pyramids. One of those pyramids is the pyramid of Hawara, whose temple Herodotus called “The Labyrinth” covers an area of 60,000 square meters and it is believed to have had more than 3,000 rooms. The remains of many inhabited centers that flourished in the Fayoum area since the Greco-Roman era are currently the subject of excavations, studies and restoration.

Egyptians started to inhabit Fayoum 9000 BC; stone artifacts show that the people then had a Paleolithic culture. But it was in the Middle Kingdom that the region acquired great importance.

The part of the Nile which feeds Fayoum is a canal called Bahr Youssef (Joseph), Youssef’s Canal, referring to Joseph of the Quran and the Bible as Fayoum was in his time the food basket of Egypt producing crops, fruits and vegetables via its fertile land.

The province of Fayoum has some 3 million inhabitants, and its capital, the city of Fayoum is famous for its ancient waterwheels, said to be in operation since the Ptolemaic era. The city was founded in around 4000 B.C. which makes it the oldest city in Egypt and one of the oldest in the world.

The area, especially in the village of Tunis, is dotted with pottery shops where Egyptians and Europeans (mostly Italian and French) work on-site to produce beautiful handmade poetry to sell to visitors, most on a day trip from Cairo. There are a number of boutique hotels built to fit into the local architecture style for those who wish to spend a few nights.

5-Star hotels can also be found, including The Auberge, a historical hotel which was frequented by King Farouk for bird watching, hunting and gambling.

Fayoum is frequented by 70 species of migratory birds, one of which, the sooty falcon (Falco Concolor), comes only to nest and others come to rest before flying farther south. Other species include ducks (Anas and Aythya gen), and stork (Cironia ciconio).

Fayoum is famous for its pigeon lofts, built by locals to attract and house wild pigeons. They are scattered throughout the countryside and add a charming element to the landscape. The pigeons are used as a good source of meat.

Wadi el-Rayan, designated a protected area in 1989, is a depression 60 meters below sea level within Fayoum, which is very rich in wildlife and fossils. Wadi el-Rayan, meaning “the valley of drinking water” in Arabic has two man-made lakes connected by Egypt’s only waterfalls.

The three waterfalls are formed naturally between the two lakes, named the Upper Lake (to the north) and the Lower Lake. A small canal supplies Nile water to the two lakes.

In the 1960s when Lake Qarun was swollen with the drainage water and started to flood adjacent lands, the project of digging an area to be used as a container basin for Lake Qarun’s overflows became necessary. In 1973, Lake Qarun started filling an upper lake, and in the following decade a lower lake.

The two lakes now cover some 100 square kilometers. In 1989 most of the area was declared protected territory to guarantee the survival of the ecosystem.

On the western side of the lower lake a plot of desert, some 5000 hectares has been reclaimed for agriculture. Around the lakes some 2000 fishermen make their living from the two lakes and also using some 7000 hectares of fish farming.

Near Wadi el-Rayan is Wadi el-Hitan, the Valley of Whales, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage in 2005. It is an extraordinary open-air museum containing the world’s only 40-million year old skeletons of basilosaurus, the ancestor of the whale. The skeletons show the evolution of whales from terrestrial to marine life.

To do Fayoum justice it deserves more than a one-day visit, to start unlocking the secrets of the Nile journey when it went underground.

Dr. M. Elmasry  

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