The History of the Fayoum Oasis in Egypt

The History of the Fayoum Oasis

Jimmy Dunn

A typical view in the modern Fayoum of Egypt

The Fayoum, sometimes referred to as the Fayoum Oasis, even though it is not a true Oasis, is situated not too far south of Cairo. It takes its name from the Coptic word, Phiom or Payomj, meaning lake or sea. During very ancient times, it was actually a sea, and today is well known for the finds of great, ancient whales.

During prehistory, more people lived in the Fayoum than in the Nile Valley. The land here was lush, and there was an abundance of water. Between 7200 and 6000 BC, a time known as the Qarunian period, Southwest Asians, whom we call Epi-Paleolithic Qarunians, migrated to the area and settled it, making hunting and fishing their main occupations. At the time, plants and animals were just beginning to be domesticated. All of this took place around a much larger lake than is there now.

Later, during Neolithic times (5500 to 4000 BC), two distinct groups of people existed around the lake shores. These were the early Neolithic Fayumian and Late Neolithic Moerian. It was during this period that the first agricultural communities sprang forth. These people dined on gazelle, hartebeests or catfish, cooked in rough faced bowls or cooking pots, and served their friends and family on red polished rectangular earthenware dishes.

However, around 4000 BC, the climate of the Fayoum began to dry up, and over a period of many years, the people left their drought stricken homes and migrated closer to the Nile. By about 3500 BC, some were living east of the Nile in what is now Maadi-Digla, a modern suburb south of Cairo. From their ancient sites, we know that they had grain silos, made pottery and used sickles. Once the Nile Valley became dominant, the Fayoum was all but abandoned, because life along the river was much easier. The Fayoum became a hunting and fishing paradise, as well as a place to be mined for its salts, limestone and chert.

An ancient Whale Jaw bone from Egypt's Fayoum

The Fayoum Oasis has come in and out of favor with tourists to Egypt over the years. Only a few years ago, it remained a hunter's paradise but hunting also has its more ancient legends in the Fayoum. It was here, Diodorus tells us, that King Menes, the uniter of Upper and Lower Egypt, went on a hunting trip and almost lost his life when his own dogs attacked him near the lake. However, this legend records that his life was saved by a crocodile which carried him across the water to safety. As a reward, he declared the lake a sanctuary for crocodiles and founded the city of Shedet, known to the Greeks as Crocodilopolis but today called Kiman Faris. His city became the cult center of the crocodile god Sobek, Though the Fayoum was identified with Nun, the primeval ocean, the origin of all life in ancient mythology, Sobek remained the chief deity of the region throughout dynastic and Greek times and into the Roman era. All the known temples were dedicated, or at least co-dedicated, to one or another of his aspects. A sacred crocodile kept at the main temple at Crocodilopolis was seen and described by both Herodotus and Strabo.

Sobek, as depicted at Kom Ombo

Nevertheless, during the early dynastic times, the Fayoum remained mostly undeveloped, much of it probably marsh and swamp, though it was a favored hunting ground for the Egyptian elite. During the Old Kingdom, it was known as Ta-she, or She-resy (the Southern Lake).

Then in the 12th Dynasty, numerous Egyptian kings brought new life to the area. They took up residence at Lisht, nearby in the Nile Valley. It was probably the founder of this dynasty, Amenemhat I, who, during the first half of the 20th century BC, flooded the Fayoum to create the famous Lake Moeris, which was described 1,500 years later by Herodotus. He also built his pyramid at Lisht. His successor, Senusret I, erected an obelisk of Abgig, and later, the Lahun pyramid was built for Senusret II. Amenemhat III, who had a long, peaceful reign towards the end of the 19th century BC, added a number of monuments to the region, including the colossi of Biahmu (al Sanam), the temples at Madinat Madi and Kiman Faris, and at Hawara he built the famous Labyrinth and his own pyramid, the only one to be built away from the Nile Valley. His successor, Amenemhat IV, also worked at the temple of Madinat Madi.

However, after these Middle Kingdom kings, interest dropped off once again until the Ptolemies and their Greek rule (after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC). Really, very little is known about the Fayoum during Egypt's New Kingdom.

We actually have considerable information about the Fayoum during Greek times because of the many hundreds of papyri that were discovered throughout the area during the past century. Mummies were wrapped in old papyrus scrolls, so old cemeteries were and continue to be excellent libraries of information about the Fayoum.

The Fayoum remains rich in bird life

These documents are diverse, revealing census records, household accounts, fictional stories and details about the army. So extensive are they that we not only know the names of towns, but also their districts and street names. We know that men married at around eighteen to twenty years of age, and women around fifteen. We also know that the Greeks practiced infanticide, especially if the child was female. Under Greek rule, there were 114 villages in the Fayoum, with sixty-six of them taking Greek names. There was considerable rivalry between these villages, sometimes resulting in open hostility. They stole crops, soil and water rights from each other.

We also know that there was a thriving tourist trade even then, when pilgrims would come to feed the sacred crocodiles with fried fish and honey cakes.

A view of the modern lake in Egypt's Fayoum

The first Greek ruler, Ptolemy I began a process of improving the region by draining a part of Lake Moeris, and thus reclaiming about 1,200 square kilometers of excellent land. His work was continued by his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who gave parcels of the new and very fertile land to his Greek and Macedonian veterans, which provided the region with a fresh profusion of humanity. With these efforts, the Fayoum blossomed into probably the richest and most productive area of the country. These new settlers made the Fayoum into the "Garden of Egypt" with new innovations such as the water propelled saqya, or water wheel, now a well known feature of the region.

During the Ptolemaic Period, settlers in the Fayoum were mostly Greeks and Macedonians, but there were also groups of Jews, Persians, Arabs, Syrians, Thracians and Samaritans. Here, an interesting process took place for, unlike the Greeks in Alexandria who remained mostly a homogeneous community for many years, the Greeks of the Fayoum intermarried with native Egyptians, as did the other nationalities. Hence, the Fayoum became a great melting pot in which racial purity did not long survive.

One of the ancient water wheels of the Fayoum Oasis, known as a saqya

Ptolemy II named one of the new settlements on the eastern fringe Philadelphia, meaning "brotherly love", in reference to the sister that he married, Arsinoe. In fact, he also renamed the whole province in her honor, calling it the Arsinoite nome. Prior to this, the Greeks had simply known it as "the Marsh". Now, it was divided into a number of districts (merides), which included Heracleides in the north, Themistos in the west and Polemon in the south. Upon her death, Arsinoe was deified by the Fayoum populous, and there was a great Arsinoeia festival held annually in the Fayoum during the month of Misra (August).

A coin depicting Arsinoe (II)

Though the Fayoum probably began to decline during the late Greek Period and even as early as the reign of Ptolemy II, after the fall of Cleopatra to Augustus in 30 BC, the prosperity continued for some time. What the Romans found in the Fayoum was a Hellenized landowner gentry in the towns, while the Egyptians worked and lived in the more rural areas. They also found clogged canals and broken dikes, and Augustus ordered the Roman army into the Fayoum to clean and repair the water system.

But as that great empire became unstable and began to disintegrate, so too did the Fayoum. Under a corrupt local government and mismanagement, along with an atmosphere of general economic depression, the successful Ptolemaic irrigation system once again gradually fell into disrepair, and much good land was lost, some forever, to the desert. Between the 3rd and 5th centuries AD, the towns of Karanis, Bacchias, Philadelphia, Tebtunis and Dionysias declined and were eventually abandoned.

In addition, while the income of the people in the Fayoum was relatively high, the average poll tax was twice that of any other place in Egypt. Finally, Rome exacted too much from the Fayoum, and the population, which was always rebellious, began to decline. The region was also hit hard by plague.

Another view of the Fayoum in Egypt

In 395 AD, the Roman Empire was partitioned, and Egypt came under the rule of the eastern emperor, ruling from Byzantium. Christianity had become the official religion of the empire, and in the Fayoum their was once as many as thirty-five monasteries. But the Egyptian church split with the Byzantine in 451 due to a doctrinal issue. For much of Egypt, the Byzantine rule was not popular, and when the Arabs came in 640, they were generally welcomed. By then, many Egyptians believed that the new regime could not be more repressive than the old.

However, the Fayoum held out against the Arab armies, and this was one of the last provinces of the country to fall to the new rulers of Egypt. The Fayoum was defended by a Byzantine garrison and a native Egyptian force led by John of Maros, who was stationed at Lahun. When the Arabs threatened Bahnasa (Oxyrhynchus), south of Beni Suef, John met them and at first managed to repulse them. However, the Arabs soon returned with reinforcements and took the town. John and his men fled further south to Asyut, but there they were finally routed and killed. Nevertheless, a man named Theodorus continued to use the Fayoum as a base for unsuccessful sorties against Bahnasa.

Now, the main Byzantine forces retired to the fortress of Babylon (now in Old Cairo) leaving much of the remainder of Egypt in Arab hands. During April of 641, Babylon also fell, and this marked the end of the resistance from the Fayoum as well. Upon hearing the news of the fall of Babylon, Domentianus, who was the prefect of the Fayoum, fled with his troops during the night, leaving only a token garrison behind. At the time, Theodorus was away in Middle Egypt, and the Arabs easily took the Fayoum, killing the few troops left behind. Interestingly however, under the Arabs, their first governor of the Fayoum was a Coptic Christian named Philoxenos.

Fort Babylon in Old Cairo

Yet, despite the decline of the Fayoum during Roman times, it remained famed at the beginning of the Early Islamic Period as a very rich province. Even then, legend credits the Fayoum with some 360 villages, and it was said that each of these could provide the whole of Egypt with food for one day. Unfortunately though, the region continued its downward course.

When the Fatimid army invaded Egypt, they reached the Fayoum in 914, invading and devastating it, before finally being driven out of the country. The Fatimids made a second attempt to invade Egypt five years later when they pushed into Upper Egypt as far as al-Ashmunein (hermopolis), south of al-Minya. This time, they sacked Alexandria, as well as the Fayoum. However, in the Fayoum, the invaders succumbed to famine and plague, and were consequently unable to gain the upper hand in a crucial battle at Giza. Though some forty-nine years later they would return and finally take the country, the Fatimids were again sent packing back home in the spring of 920.

The Fayoum continued to decline, however. At the end of the 10th century, the annual fiscal return of the Fayoum was 620,000 dinars, but by the reign of Salah al-Din, during the latter half of the 12 century, this figure had dropped to a mere 145,162 dinars. Yet, Salah al-Din, known to Europeans as Saladin, granted land in the Fayoum to some of his Kurdish and Turkish officers, and even owned land in the province himself. In 1245, Abu 'Uthman al-Nabulsi, a Syrian Amir who was then governor of the Fayoum, wrote a book about the province which focused on its famous irrigation system. He found it to be so neglected that it was hardly functioning at all. The Bahr Munha canal, better known now as Bahr Yusuf, was so silted up that water only flowed through it during the Nile Flood, a period lasting about four months of the year, and the smaller canals were in no better state. He discovered that nothing had been spent on canal maintenance during the previous hundred years. He did set about making improvements during his governorship by cutting new channels and clearing old ones. Shortly after his brief governorship, there were also two great hydrological works commissioned, including the now ruined wall of Shidmoh, and a new regulator at Lahun, which was still in use until the middle of the 20th century.

One of the many modern canals in the Fayoum of Egypt

However, the Fayoum continued its decline, particularly during the Ottoman Period. They controlled Egypt for over 200 years, between 1517 and 1798. During this time, the Fayoum was governed by a qadi sent once a year from Istanbul. During the remainder of the year, the qadi's deputy held a divan twice a week, attended by sixty Arab Sheikhs. In 1634, the annual revenue of the Fayoum is reported to have dropped to a mere 56,000 dinars. The region had many problems during this period, partly due to its remote location, which was difficult to access particularly during the flood season. It was also especially vulnerable to Bedouin and Berber attacks, a problem that was not completely brought under control until the middle of the 19th century. But another reason for the regions continued decline was the discovery of the Cape route to India, which seriously affected the Egyptian economy as a whole.

Then, in 1798, the French army of Napoleon invaded Egypt and defeated the two Mamluk Period Beys, Murad and Ibrahim, who then controlled Egypt. This was the famous Battle of the Pyramids, and afterwards Ibrahim Bey fled to Syria. However, Murad Bey retreated only as far General Louis Charles Antoine Desaix de Veygoux as Middle Egypt, where a force of 5,000 men under General Louis Charles Antoine Desaix de Veygoux was sent to rout him. The French, however, never really succeeded in doing so.

The two armies battled all around Middle Egypt and the Fayoum. First, Desaix tried to surprise Murad's camp at Bahnasa, but Murad was forewarned by local farmers and managed to slip away. Desaix pursued Murad to Beni Suef, where after another battle Murad once again escaped. Afterwards, they fought the next battle at Sidmant, just a little southwest of Lahun, but this confrontation was once again indecisive. Desaix camped at Lahun and then at Fayoum Town, where he was held up for a month by an epidemic of conjunctivitis. Yet, when Murad attacked the debilitated Garrison in the Fayoum on November 8th, he was repulsed. Desaix regrouped at Beni Suef and followed Murad into Upper Egypt, and finally Murad retreated to Nubia, leaving Desaix in control of Upper Egypt.

Then, in 1799, Murad reappeared in the Fayoum, though by now, Bonaparte had retired from Egypt, leaving his deputy, Kleber, to negotiate a French evacuation. Part of the pressure on Kleber was Murad's activities in and around the Fayoum. In October, Desaix once again assembled two camel columns to march on Murad in the Fayoum. They met at Sidmant, but Murad took the offensive, was repelled and pursued, but once again managed to escape.

In fact, peace was eventually made between Murad and the French. He was appointed governor of Upper Egypt for the Republic of France on May 30, 1800. However, it was a short governorship, for he died of the plague in Upper Egypt on April 22, 1801.

Muhammad Ali, the founder of Modern Egypt

When the French abandoned Egypt in 1801, a power struggle was created between the Turks and the Mamluks. Between these two powers was a brilliant Albanian coffee dealer from Macedonian named Muhammad Ali. Once again, the Fayoum would suffer. In September 1806, Fayoum town was taken and sacked by the Mamluk Yasin Bey, and a large part of its population was massacred for its support of Muhammad Ali. Yasin managed to hold on to the Fayoum for almost four years, until Muhammad retook it in 1810. That following year, Muhammad consolidated his power with the famous massacre of the Mamluks at the Cairo Citadel.

Muhammad Ali, often known as the father of modern Egypt, revived the failing economy of the country with agricultural reforms, promoting cotton as a cash crop in areas such as the Fayoum. He also managed to largely subdue the nomadic tribes who raided the Fayoum, first by force, but when that did not work, by political appointments and large land grants. This approach was particularly successful in the Fayoum, where the problem had been most serious.

In the more modern era, transport and communications improved in the Fayoum with the railway system that connected it to the Nile Valley in 1874, and the network of light (small gauge) railways that ran throughout the province. Around the turn of the 20th century, the British built good roads and revised the irrigation system, reclaiming some land for agriculture. Finally, the Fayoum began to recover from the slump that had begun during Roman times.

Around the second decade of the 20th century, the British established camps within and around the perimeter of the Fayoum, including outposts manned by the infantry o protect it against the Sanusi, a threat that never materialized, at least in the Fayoum.

Since the 1950s and Egypt's final independence from colonialism, land reclamation, the establishment of cooperatives and the rural electrification program, among other projects, have led the way towards a revival of the prosperity of the Fayoum.Today, it is poised to also gain new tourism trade as more and more visitors seek out this ancient breadbasket of Egypt.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
2000 Years of Coptic Christianity Meinardus, Otto F. A. 1999 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 5113
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments Through Two Millennia Capuani, Massimo 1999 Liturgical Press, The ISBN 0-8146-2406-5
Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000 Thames and Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05100-3
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
The Fayoum History and Guide R. Neil Hewison 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
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Last Updated: June 12th, 2011