Egypt: Wadi El Rayan in the Fayoum of Egypt

Wadi El Rayan in the Fayoum of Egypt
by Seif Kamel

The entrance to Wadi El Rayan in the Fayoum of Egypt

A great new hydrological project, in the best tradition of Amenenmhet I and Ptolemy I, was completed in the last quarter of the twentieth century in Wadi El Rayan, a large depression in the desert west of the Fayoum. Water now flows into this originally dry basin, 43 meters below sea level, to form two large lakes. Originally, there were suppose to be three lakes, but one of them dried up. The reason behind this project was that the Fayoum had a drainage problem. All drainage was taken by one of the two main drainage channels, Masraf Al Wadi or Masraf El Bats, or one of the other minor ones, down to Lake Qarun in the north. The lake however, can take only a certain volume of drainage water to balance its rate of evaporation, which is calculated at 370 million cubic meters per year. Any drainage water over that amount causes the lake level to rise and flood the surrounding land, often doing irreparable damage because of the waters high salt content.

One of the lakes, surrounded by desert, at Wadi el Rayan

This means that the amount of water that can be used in the Fayoum is strictly limited, not by a shortage of supply, but by a maximum drainage capacity, with the consequence that until recently water-intensive crops such as rice and reeds could be grown only in very small quantities. Furthermore, no new land could be reclaimed without causing swamping of existing farmland near Lake Qarun. Hence, an ambitious project designed to overcome this problem was begun in 1974.

The canal between the two lakes at Wadi el Rayan in the Fayoum

A watercourse, consisting of a 9-kilometers open channel and an 8-kilometers tunnel, was cut through the desert from the western side of the Fayoum depression to the large, dry depression of Wadi El Rayan. Drainage water now flows to Wadi El Rayan, where the two large lakes are formed. These two lakes will eventually have a combined surface area of 30, 000 Fidans. Wadi El Rayan is now well known for its waterfalls, some of the very few in Egypt, that occur due to the northern lake being higher than the southern one. Hence, the reed-clad channel linking the two lakes ends in a row of falls that are a couple of meters high. Unfortunately, if one wishes to see the falls, one must hurry, because they are shrinking as the level of the lower lake continues to rise. It will continue to rise until the expanding surface area allows a rate of evaporation equal to the amount of water flowing into it. The northern lake, because it has an outlet into the southern lake, is only slightly brackish, but the water of the southern lake, with no outlet but evaporation, has already reached a level of salinity approaching that of Lake Qarun.

Though certainly not large, but world standards, the waterfalls at Wadi el Rayan or some of the only ones in Egypt, and certainly the largest

Unfortunately there is no public transportation to Wadi El Rayan. By car, one can take the road along the southern shore of Lake Qarun to its western end. The road is very interesting with some amazing scenery. The turnoff to the left for Wadi El Rayan is 28 kilometers west of the Panorama Hotel. It is well marked by a large overhead sign. The road, despite an occasional twist and dogleg, heads south, and in 8.5 kilometers one reaches the entrance gate to the Wadi El Rayan Protected area. The gate is not always staffed, but if it is, one must buy a ticket here for one's vehicle and each occupant. After passing through the gate, one will suddenly find one's self in a clean wide open desert, which becomes more beautiful, with sculpted yellow dunes, the further south one travel.

And it may be a good thing that the waterfalls at Wadi el Rayan are not too large

Fourteen kilometers from the entrance gate a desert track to the left leads down to the waterfalls. There, one should park and continue continue by foot to the waterfalls and a couple of cafeterias. Along the way to the waterfalls, there are a number of vendors selling the same souvenirs as in Ain El Selini, such as pottery, wood crafts, and baskets of all kinds and sizes. The waterfalls are 2 to 4 meters high and there are many plants all around them. These waterfalls have attracted considerable attention among the local Egyptians, as many have never seen waterfalls before. Indeed, many Arabic video clips and romantic cinematic scenes, most notably in Yousef Chahin, Al Mohager and the more recent movie of Mozkarat Morahqa by Inas El Deghedy, have scenes taped at the waterfalls.

One of several primitive restaurants at Wadi El Rayan

. Continuing south from the waterfalls turnoff, there are better views of the southern lake and yellow dunes, though one must be careful as water sometimes encroaches on the road. Seven kilometers later one will come to the dramatic double crowned butte of Al Mudawwara which means rounded in Arabic.

A dramatic butte at Wadi El Rayan

A small car park has been provided on the right, and a path leads down from here and then up to the saddle between the crowns. The views from the hills is spectacular, and all the more pleasant because one is usually along. Continuing south along the road, 12.5 kilometers beyond Al Mudawwara there is a turnoff to the right but it beware because this road is for four-wheel drives only. It leads through the desert to some sulfur springs. Another 11 kilometers down the road is a signpost to a Bird Watching Site among the reeds on the lake shore. Wadi Rayan has become a major nesting ground for birds.

The stark contrast between water and desert

Four kilometers farther on are a set of textbook dunes up to 30 meters high. They are called the Seif Dunes, which can be translated as the "Sword Dunes." The road continues east from here through another 44 kilometers rather uninteresting, flat desert. There are occasional views to the north of the southern Fayoum basin. Finally one arrives at the Cairo-Asyut Desert highway, south of the Lahun gap and 92 kilometers from the Wadi El Rayan entrance gate.

Tourists Take a Boat Ride at Wadi el Rayan

Tourists Take a Boat Ride at Wadi el Rayan

While it is difficult to get to Wadi Rayan, it is worth the effort as the road in from Lake Qarun is spectacular, consisting of a thin black belt of tarmac snaking along the side of sand hills. However, it has become a weekend picnic spot for locals from Cairo and therefore it is perhaps best visited during weekdays.

A Rather Unique Selection of Pottery offered by locals at Wadi el Rayan

A Rather Unique Selection of Pottery offered by locals at Wadi el Rayan

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