Egypt: Bacchias in the Fayoum

Bacchias in the Fayoum

by Jimmy Dunn

A part of the ancient temple dating to the Ptolemaic Period at Bacchias in the Fayoum

The name of the ancient ruins of the Ptolemaic (Greek era) village of Bacchias (Bakchias) are located at Kom Umm al-Atl (Kom al-Atel, Umm al-Atel, Kom el-Asl) in the Fayoum. The name Bacchias is likely derived from Bakchos, one of the names of Dionysos, who was particularly venerated by the Ptolemies. The ancient village is located on the northeastern edge of the basin, not far from the larger town of Karanis (Kom Oshim). It is located along one of the Fayoum's most scenic routes just into the desert, where it was originally situated by a caravan road from Memphis to Medinet Fayoum (Arsinoe during the Ptolemaic Period).

A large house at Bacchias

The site was visited by Petrie in 1889-90 but it was B. P. Grenfell and D. G. Hogarth (later joined by A. S. Hunt), excavating here for seven weeks in 1896, that identified it with Bacchias on the basis of the papyri found on the site. Among other things, like papyri and domestic objects, they found three jars filled with 4,300 coins. According to Grenfell and Hogarth, the site had not been much disturbed at that time "owing to its distance from cultivated land". In 1993, an Italian Egyptian team from Bologna and Leccesite began excavating at the site, and there work appears to be ongoing as of 2005. Although the site was almost destroyed by looters, many prehistoric tools were found by the first investigation and new streets and building were unearthed by the second.

A jug found early on in the latest excavtions at Bacchias

Bacchias was probably founded in the third century BC, and abandoned around the the fourth century AD. It contained about 700 homes from which archaeologists estimate the population to have been around 3,000. The earliest attested settlers were Greek cavalrymen. The entire archaeological area covers about 340,000 square meters. The site is almost always deserted and one is usually free to roam at will through the ancient buildings. The village was dominated by the local temple, with houses on three sides and an open space on the east. The best part of the town lies to the north and west of the temple, both on the lower ground and on the southern face of the high ridge. Bacchias has never been fully excavated, although the Italian team working here uncovered the stone structure of the village temple which was, of course, dedicated to a form of Sobek In fact, according to some scholars, the Temple was actually dedicated to a pair of crocodile brothers. They were Soknokonnis and Soknobraisis. Their names, respectively, mean "Sobek lord of Bacchias" and "Sobek lord with the terrible mouth". Soknokonnis is attested from the Ptolemaic Period onward, while Soknobraisis is only found during the Roman Period.

The temple complex area at Bacchias in the Fayoum

The temple complex area at Bacchias in the Fayoum

This structure was once thought to be made entirely of mudbrick, but investigations have now revealed that the solid mudbrick walls represented storerooms attached to the temple. Actually, the temple seems to be a progression of buildings begun during the Ptolemaic Period, but expanded and built upon during the Roman Period. Much of the main temple was built of stone. It was in this temple that many papyri were found, along with a few Fayoum portraits. The collection of papyrus, often collectively referred to as the Archives of the Temple of Soknobraisis at Bacchias, is really mostly a varied lot of mostly private and legal documents.

Houses and buildings in the northern quarter of the village

The private houses of the community stood several stories tall, and the mudbrick walls of some of them still stand to nearly their original height, although they are mostly buried under sand and debris. Built of mudbrick, the houses lack even the stone doorways common in Karanis. While most of the houses are now rubble, several interesting ruins are still standing. Because the mud bricks of the walls had been reused for modern housing, often only the substructures of the ancient houses remain. However the houses seem to have consisted of three to six small rooms, of which one opened straight onto the street. While most of the houses had been plundered, some household furniture, including the remains of wooden beds and tables, along with other domestic items were unearthed in the original excavations. A badly looted cemetery exists to the north of the settlement.

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Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Fayoum, The Hewison, R. Neil 2001 American University in Cairo press, The ISBN 977 424 671 3
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4
Western Desert of Egypt, The Vivian, Cassandra 2000 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 527 X

Last Updated: June 22nd, 2011