Egypt: Karanis in the Fayoum of Egypt

Karanis in the Fayoum of Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

The Ruins of Karanis

The names Karanis and Kom Aushim (Kom Ushim) are often used to denote the same set of ruins in the Fayoum, some fifty miles southeast of Cairo. However, Kom Aushim is actually a small hamlet a few kilometers north of Karanis, where the actual ruins are located.

Today, we probably know more about Karanis than any other town in the ancient Fayoum. The architectural, material and papyrological records preserved by the excavators provide us with a thorough view of how life must have been during Greco-Roman times. Indeed, much of the domestic architecture of Karanis still exits and its two temples are well preserved, making Karanis one of the most frequently visited sites in the Fayoum.

The path to the Southern Temple at Karanis

Karanis, or "the Lord's Town", was one of the largest Greco-Roman cities in the Fayoum. It was founded in the third century BC, probably by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and was originally inhabited by the mercenaries of his army. With a population of some 3,000 people, it continued to prosper for about seven centuries. It began to decline during the troubled times of the fourth and fifth centuries AD. This was a period marked by momentous socioeconomic, political and religious change throughout the Mediterranean region - an era that saw not only the aftermath of the conquests of Alexander the Great but also the rise, dominion and eventual decline of Rome.

Karanis was discovered by farmers who harvested the rich sibakh, decomposed organic debris, left by the ancient inhabitants. In doing so, they found papyri, which were then sold to collectors and museums. Many of the papyrus were well preserved, due to the dry climate. This caused serious archaeologists to more closely examine the area. However, the harvesting of sibakh as fertilizer in the Fayoum had evolved by then into a substantial business.

The more complete house located at the site of Karanis was actually built by Miles Lampson, the British High Commissioner during the early part of the 20th century

There was even a train system built for its removal. When the archaeologists finally arrived, they had to reach an agreement with the Italian company that was processing the fertilizer, whereby they would supply enough sibakh to keep the company and the railway working, while the papyri were hastily removed between 1928 and 1935 in an early example of "rescue archaeology".

The small railway hauling sibakh

Actually, excavation at Karanis began in 1895 under the direction of Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt. This was the first Greco-Roman site ever excavated in Egypt.

A bath in one of the Wealthier homes of Karanis

However, their excavations were too far north, so the efforts were largely unrewarding, though during their three years of work they did identify the main areas of the town. However, they soon shifted their area of inquiry farther to the south, to Oxyrhynchus. Later, Petrie visited the site, but not until Francis W. Kelsey arrived in Egypt from the University of Michigan in 1920 did serious and intensive archaeological excavations take place. This very professional team began work at Karanis in November of 1924 and continued their excavations for eleven seasons. The result of their work, including documentation, is now in the Kelsey Museum in Michigan.

Today, there is also a Kom Aushim Museum to house some of the finds from Karanis

They discovered five datable levels of debris at Karanis and three specific areas, consisting of the north temple, the south temple and the residential district. Later excavations were also carried out by Cairo University and more recently, by the French Institute. Over the years, more than 100,000 archaeological objects and more than 2,500 folders-worth of complete and partial documents were recovered from the site. We believe that the people who lived at Karanis were, in general, a poor lot made up of a number of different nationalities through the centuries.

A mummification bed for Crocodiles at Karanis

In 165 AD, Karanis suffered, as did the rest of Egypt, from the plague which reduced its population considerably. By 171, we know that fourteen percent of the population were Roman army veterans, who lived in simple mud-brick houses with three rooms and a courtyard. Nevertheless, as in most societies, there were apparently times more prosperous than others. We find at Karanis some imported items, including glass from Alexandria and perfume flasks from Syria, showing some level of luxury. Unearthed household objects include beautiful locally made glass lamps, decanters and flasks as well as terracotta lamps and statuettes. Yet, in the final analysis, we must be careful not to ascribe any real wealth to the district. Today, we know that over the centuries many different occupations were practiced in this community. Though a few of the residents were well educated and affluent, most were not. Many of the people worked on state owned property. However, others made or imported pots for the local wine and the olive oil industries, which were then filled by others and exported.

A Roman Period decoration at Karnis

There were also wool shearers, weavers, fullers and wool sellers who provided a complete textile industry. This was all evidenced by some 3,500 pieces of textiles unearthed during the excavations. Of course there were also carpenters who made everything from tools to toys, and even a hairdresser, and we also have records of hairdressers, flutists and doctors, though some of these trades may have only been temporary occupations. However, the vast majority of the population were farmers who worked both their own land and the land owned by the state. Actual remains of foodstuffs found at the site include wheat, barley, lentils, radishes, dates, figs, peaches, pistachios, walnuts and olives, which were pressed for oil in at least two presses. Of these crops durum wheat was by far the most important, both for the town's own subsistence and for the payment of taxes to the Roman state. Interestingly, these farmers not only kept domestic animals such as dogs, cows, pigs, mules, camels, pigeons and horses, but also antelope and crocodiles.

Stone vessels used for storage at Karanis

This population also paid heavy taxes, mostly consisting of grain. Egypt is often referred to as the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, and the growing of grain was mandatory. However, other professions paid their taxes in kind, so, for example, the potter also supplied the state with pots. There was also a meat tax which was used to feed the troops in the area. The papyrus discovered at Karanis provide some interesting local color.

Ruined houses at Karanis

For example, we know that in year 71 there was an assault on the assistant of an estate manager. In year 198, a dispute took place with a violent tax collector, while there was a robbery of a woman whose brother was in the army at an unknown date. In 214, a fire destroyed a field of crops, while in 216, there was the burglary and vandalism of a house. In other words, life was not altogether different than in our modern world.

Ruins of the Northern Temple

However, Karanis' importance lies in the fact that it provides a microcosm of life as it was lived by ordinary people in Egypt under Greek and Roman rule. The ruins of Karanis are situated on a huge mound which rises about twelve meters above the surround plain. At the time, the town would have been located on the shores of Lake Qarun. The oldest part of the site lies to the south, around the earliest Temple. This small early village began to extend northward in the early first century AD, when a second temple was constructed. However, this prosperity and growth slowed around the middle of the second century, perhaps due to the plague of 165 AD.

Within the ruins of the Northern Temple at Karanis

The beginning of the third century AD saw a renewed prosperity, and many houses previously abandoned were rebuilt and reoccupied. However, the town's most flourishing period was the second half of the third century, though this seems to have ended with a break in occupation marking the town's most serious decline. At that time, most of the houses were abandoned, and at least the northern temple fell into disuse. Streets became narrower, twisted about, and appear to have been littered with debris. Coins recovered from the site cannot be dated past 429 AD, and the town seems to have ceased to exist by the mid-fifth century AD. The community we see today consisted of two main north-south avenues, while hundreds of houses were grouped together in small clusters.

Crocodile niche in the Southern Temple

Within each block, houses shared party walls and occasionally a courtyard, but otherwise they were independent, self-sufficient structures. The more affluent houses had stone lintels and vaulted ceilings, while most of the houses were multi-storied with a basement used for storage. Typically, they were lit by small windows set high in the walls, which also provided ventilation. However, oil burning lamps were also evident, sometimes placed into wall niches that were also used for storage. Some houses also had stone steps and small gardens, and many were also equipped with animal pens, feeding troughs and mangers for livestock. Many people apparently took pride in their homes. Frequently, interior walls were plastered and covered with a dark wash over which white lines were painted along the horizontal seams between the courses of brick. Mats, and possibly cushions covered parts of the floors and there was a variety of furniture such as wooden stools, tables and beds, among other items. In order to protect their possessions, doorframes were usually fitted with well tooled joints and doors were provided with sliding wooden bolts or locks.

Inside the Southern Temple at Karanis

Excavations also uncovered public buildings where the business of the community and the state were conducted, as well as hot and cold public baths. The sacred areas of Karanis consisted of two known temples, both of which were dedicated to forms of the crocodile god, Sobek, consisting of Pnepheros, Petesouchos and Soknopaios. However, some twenty-seven different Egyptian, Greek or Roman deities have been recorded at Karanis. As with other such animals worshipped in Egypt, crocodiles were kept in the sacred lakes of these temples and were fed grain, meat and wine mixed with milk and honey. They were used in ceremonies, and were mummified upon their death. The completely uninscribed Northern Temple at Karanis was excavated beginning on March 17, 1925 by the team from the University of Michigan.

Plan of the southern temple

Since no dedication inscription has been found, the identity of the divinities that it served is uncertain, though the discovery of crocodile mummies in the vicinity makes a form of Sobek likely. However, the presence of a small statue of a goddess suggests that the temple may have been dedicated to Isis as well. Yet, no datable objects were actually found inside the temple, though excavators believe it was built no earlier than the first century AD, and was finally abandoned in the mid third century because of the combined impact of Christianity and economic decline. This temple was built upon older ruins using mainly gray limestone. The approach to the temple was from the south, through two pylons, each opening onto a paved court. The outer pylon was ruined during antiquity, but the second one still stands. Oriented north-south, it was once surrounded by a thick, mudbrick temenos wall, of which a small portion remains to the north of the temple. The four outer corners of the temple are decorated with slender columns. A large stone altar with perhaps an oracle niche dominates the sanctuary. The chapel at the north end was entered through a small room off the inner court.

Mummification chamber in the Southern Temple at Karanis

The undecorated Southern Temple is larger than the Northern Temple. From an inscription on the lintel above the main door, we know that Nero dedicated the temple, though his name was later scratched out and replaced by one of the titles of his uncle, Claudius. This temple too was erected on the site of an earlier temple during the first century, and may have even been an imitation of the previous one. It is situated at the eastern edge of a large square, directly in front of it is the Gate of Vespasian. However, while this gate faces north, the temple faces east and the actual temple entrance is surmounted by the Gate of Claudius (with the dedication inscription). The temple is built entirely of stone in a style typical of the Ptolemaic Period, with its foundation resting on bedrock.

The processional way

The temple is more or less conventional, consisting of a quay at the head of a processional way, leading through a paved colonnaded courtyard to the temple proper, which has three rooms. The largest of the three chambers gave access to a vestibule from which the sanctuary was entered. Deep niches in the walls of the vestibule were used to contain the mummies of the sacred crocodiles, which were used in ceremonies. In the sanctuary, a large altar reveals a low hidden chamber which can be entered through a low opening along one side, from which priests possibly issued oracles. However, the use of these chambers is not certain. The forecourt and pylon were probably built after the temple itself.

The priest hole from which oracles may have been delivered

The roof of this temple provides a good view of Karanis and the fertile land to the south. The Southern Temple was probably abandoned about the same time as the Northern Temple, the reason probably being the introduction of Christianity within the area. Hundreds of common houses have been unearthed at Karanis, among some more splendid ones. For example, the ruins of a mudbrick house with a stone entrance once belonged to a local banker. It was here that twenty-six thousand coins in jars and cloth bags was unearthed. In general among all the houses, notable was the liberal use of wood for supports, protection of corners or window frames and doors. Interiors were normally covered with a lime as well as a black wash, and sometimes the walls of niches were decorated with paintings. These painted niches possibly served as shrines, while the plain niches were probably used as cupboards or as places for lighted lamps. Windows were simply high slits to let in light and air. They were covered with wooden beams and were shut by stuffing baskets between the bars.

Ruins of the Southern Temple

In larger houses, many had stairways that descended into vaulted basements and up to a flat roof terrace. Normally, though, the courtyard was the center of household activity, where milling, baking and cooking took place, as evidenced by the many millstones, mortars and ovens observed in these areas.

The ground plan of the baths

There are several other notable ruins within the area. One is the ruins, excavated by Cairo University in association with the Institut Francais d' Archeologie Orientale, is that of a large Roman Baths that contains ample evidence of the splendor in which the Romans bathed. It consist of a cold water bath (frigidarium), a hot water bath much like a steam bath (caldarium), and then another hot, but dry bath not unlike a sauna (laconium). A tepidarium served as an intermediate room between the hot and cold chambers. Bathers could pass through each chamber and finally into a large area where they could recline and rest (apodyterium). The baths were heated by ceramic pipes came up from the floor and that remain at the site. We believe that men may have bathed separately, rather than in groups as was the custom in Rome.

Part of the female section of the public baths at Karanis

Other ruins relate to the local agricultural activity. Six dovecotes, most with towers as tall as two stories used to house pigeons, were unearthed at Karanis. Some of these were attached to the upper stories of homes, while at least two were commercial operations. Not unlike modern dovecotes in the Fayoum today, they were made of mudbrick in which pots were placed for the pigeons to nest, one bird per pot. The pots were inserted into deep nooks in the walls and painted white, a color that was thought to be soothing to the birds. The two larger dovecotes could house 1,250 birds, which, together with the manure they produced, was sold to the public. The smaller dovecotes were used for family needs only.

Agricultural empliments from Karanis

Then, of course, there are the granaries, consisting of ten large and seven small ones in Karanis. The larger granaries were used to store the grain for taxes to Rome, and were guarded by Roman soldiers, who's barracks were erected adjacent to at least one of them. The grain was initially stored here, and then transported to Alexandria where it was stored in other granaries before export to Rome, where it was eagerly awaited. Egyptian grain fed Rome for four months out of each year. Excavations also uncovered public buildings where the business of the community and the state were conducted. Today there is a renewed interest in the ruins and artifacts of Karanis, and for good reason. Due to the large volume of documents which can be related to the context of the archaeological site and the preservation possible outside of the Nile Valley and the Delta, it provides us with an isolated picture of everyday Greco-Roman life that is simply not available elsewhere


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Egyptian Museum Cairo Riesterer, Peter P.; Lambelet, Roswitha 1980 Lehnert & Landrock ISBN 977-243-004-5
History of Ancient Egypt, A Grimal, Nicolas 1988 Blackwell None Stated
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2
Western Desert of Egypt, The Vivian, Cassandra 2000 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 527 X