The Faiyum

The Faiyum basin was of great interest to the ancient Egyptians as a locality distinctly different from the Delta or Valley. It was also, by virtue of being connected to the valley by the Bahr Yussef waterway, also rather different from the oases of the Western Desert. Its most obvious geographical feature was the lake that dominated it to the north. Known today as the Birket Qarun, in the Classical Period it was called Lake Moeris and during the dynastic period She-Resy (‘Southern Lake’) and Mer-Wer (‘Great Lake’). The local god, Sobek, appears in the Pyramid Texts as ‘Sobek of Shedet’, the patron deity of the principal town of the Faiyum.

Shedet

Occupying a strategic position in the southern part of the Faiyum, Shedet has been the capital of the region since the Old Kingdom, although its name changed to Krokodilopolis in the Graeco-Roman Period and today it is known as Medinet el-Faiyum (‘Faiyum City’). Unfortunately this longevity has not resulted in a significant body of surviving buildings, indeed the rapid growth of the city in the past century has put increasing pressure on the scant ancient remains. The most important concentration of the early settlement evidence is centred in an area of the modern city known as Kiman Fares; excavated structures have included at least one Middle Kingdom temple, but there is little for the visitor to see today.

Other Faiyum Sites

An important aspect of the history of the Faiyum was its role as the subject of a major project of royal land reclamation during the Middle Kingdom, especially the irrigation works represented by the Gadallah dam built by Amenemhat II. Impressive traces of royal monumental activity that came on the back of this initiative, and presumably represent the expanded settlement of the Faiyum, can be seen in enigmatic structures such as the Abgig obelisk of Senwosret I (now re-erected on a roundabout in Medinet el-Faiyum) and the pair of colossal statues of Amenemhat III at Biahmu, which once perhaps overlooked a now-lost lake.

The Faiyum witnessed an increase in importance and royal interest during the Middle Kingdom, although much of the resultant work is now lost owing to later building and changes in the landscape. At the site of Biahmu, shown here, a pair of stone statue-bases once supported two colossal statues, which may have looked over the edge of the lake. Einsamer Schütze.

One of the few parts of the major town of Medinet Maadi to have been excavated is the small Middle Kingdom temple with its extensive Ptolemaic additions. Steven Snape.

The location of the Middle Kingdom royal pyramids of Senwosret II at Kahun and Amenemhat III at Hawara – both at the mouth of the Faiyum – are also relevant here. However, our understanding of the specific nature of Middle Kingdom (and later) activities in the Faiyum has been significantly hampered by the extent to which the region was also intensively exploited during the Ptolemaic Period, obscuring much earlier activity. The process is perhaps best exemplified at the site of Medinet Maadi in the southwestern Faiyum, where a small temple built for Sobek and Renenutet by Amenemhat III and IV in the Middle Kingdom has been absorbed within a much larger Ptolemaic structure; how much of the vast Graeco-Roman town-mound around the temple conceals earlier settlement remains is unknown.

The substantial remains of significant towns of the Graeco-Roman Period are known from a number of locations in the Faiyum. These are visible at Kom Aushim (Karanis), Kom el-Atl (Bacchias), Dime (Soknopaiou Nesos), Umm el-Baragat (Tebtunis), Qasr Qarun (Dionysias), Batn Ihrit (Theadelphia) and Kom el-Kharaba el-Kebir (Philadelphia).

Other marginal areas of the Faiyum that did not receive much attention in the Graeco-Roman Period, and thus have preserved their earlier settlement sites, are best represented by towns attached to royal projects, such as the Middle Kingdom pyramid town of Kahun and the quarrymen’s town at Qasr es-Sagha and the New Kingdom Harem Palace at Medinet el-Gurob, while the Middle Kingdom rock-cut tombs at Kom Ruqaiya on the very southern edge of the Faiyum suggest that a town of that date might be found beneath the nearby settlement debris.

A huge amount of Memphis is lost, but the area to the southwest of the Ptah temple enclosure, around Kom el-Rabi’a, still contains a number of important structures, including this ‘oratory’ shrine of Seti I. Steven Snape.

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