The Fayoum is a region located 60 km southwest of Cairo and contains archaeological remains from the past 12,000 years. Its most prominent feature is the Birket el-Qarun (Lake Moeris), the only freshwater lake in Egypt, covering an area of 215 km, whose numerous crocodiles during Pharaonic times gave rise to the local crocodile cults for the crocodile god Sobek. The fortunes of the Fayoum settlements have always been closely linked with the lake water levels. Archaeological remains are focused on three primary periods of time: the Epipaleolithic and Neolithic time periods and the Greco-Roman period.
A number of archaeologists have worked in the Fayoum. Initially identified by the Napoleonic survey in the early 1800s, work was subsequently carried out by B. P. Grenfel, B. G. Hogarth, and A. S. Hunt in the late 1800s to locate papyri. G. Caton-Thompson identified the Fayoum “A” and “B” cultures in the 1920s, while F. Wendforf and his team explored the early occupants of the Fayoum and their connections to the Nile Valley in the 1980s and 1990s.
Early Periods of Occupation
Located in a large depression filled through glacial processes, the Fayoum was originally fed by a branch of the Nile, thus linking its rise and fall to the annual inundation levels. The earliest remains from occupations of the Fayoum date to 10,000 BC. Early inhabitants of the Fayoum (ca. 6500-5500 BC) combined fishing, hunting, and foraging, all made possible by the swamps and forests supported by the lake. This formed the basis for the Quarunian industry, known for flakes, blades, fishing, and large-mammal hunting, including gazelles, hartebeest, fish, and hippos. Grain grinding was practiced but not an integral part of the local diet. Nile fish caught in receding floodwaters facilitated fishing during the late spring each year.
Around 5500 BC, the people of the Fayoum were either replaced, displaced, or converted to the Neolithic culture, when they started farming wheat, grains, and barley, as well as domesticating sheep and cattle. The earliest evidence for an agricultural economy in Egypt can be found at the site of Mirimde Bene Salame, with cereals likely introduced to Egypt from southwest Asia, as well as domesticated sheep, goats, and some species of cattle.
Other possible origins include the northeast Jordan valley or Sudan or Saharan cultures such as those found in Bir Kiseiba or Nabta Playa. Even though the Fayoum people are culturally related to the Bir Kiseiba and Nabta people, resources locally available allowed them to hunt, fish, and gather for a much longer people of time. Numerous hearths (ca. 5500-4500 BC) appeared along the lake edges, yet excavations have not uncovered permanent occupations, due to potential seasonal inhabitation in reed huts.
The Fayoum B and Fayoum A cultures occurred during this time, also known as the “Fayoum Neolithic” (ca. 5200-4000 BC). Numerous grain silos were observed at Kom K, with Kom W as the largest settlement from this period. Material culture observed includes pottery and concave-base arrowheads. Around 4000 BC, the Fayoum became a marginal area, due to human dependence on resources affected by seasonal changes in lakeshore levels. The Nile Valley became more reliable, with increased land to farm, and sites located along the Nile becoming trade and exchange routes.
During Pharaonic times, Lake Moeris was known as she-resy and mer-wer, the southern lake and great lake, respectively. There is limited occupation in the Fayoum during the pre-Dynastic period (ca. 3700-3000 BC), with an intrusion of the Gerzean culture at the pre-Dynastic cemetery of Gerza and pottery similar to the pre-Dynastic settlement at Ma’adi. In the Old Kingdom, there is evidence for an Old Kingdom dolerite quarry road at Umm es-Sawan. The Middle Kingdom saw agricultural improvements in the area, with a major land reclamation project around 1970 BC. Temples appear at Medinet el-Fayoum and Kimim Fares as well as limited lakeshore settlements. The region became a resort area for the elite of Egypt in the New Kingdom, with colossi of Amenhotep III found at the site of Biahima. The lake levels are reflected in the times of high and low settlements: The lake levels are high in the Epipaleolithic, Neolithic, Middle Kingdom, and late New Kingdom, but are low in the Old Kingdom. There is an increase in settlements starting from the Late period, with Ptolemaic irrigation channels observed by Caton-Thompson in her work.
During the Greco-Roman era, hundreds of sites could be found in the Fayoum. These are known from both texts and archaeological remains. Most towns were founded during the reign of Ptolemy II, in a major land reclamation project surrounding the Birket el-Qurun (Lake Moeris). Retired Roman military men and their families were settled in the Fayoum, which increased during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Many cults existed that were dedicated to the local crocodile god, with numerous temples. Most sites were abandoned by the 4th century AD, with some lasting through to the 7th century. Large sites founded by Ptolemy II include Dimai, or Soknopaiou Nesos (Island of Soknopaiou), along the northern edge of the Fayoum, with a temple complex, public buildings, houses, and four occupation layers, and Kom Darb Gerza (Philadelphia), along the eastern edge of the Fayoum, some 24 hectares in size. It existed as a major travel route between the Nile and Fayoum and a major administrative center. The most well-preserved town in the Fayoum is Kom Aushim (Karanis), located in the northeast, with many thousands of buildings found and inhabited to the 6th and 7th centuries AD. The Fayoum is most well-known for its Roman period mummy portraits (noted for their lifelike resemblances of the deceased), most recovered from the necropolis near present-day Rubayyat, north of the Hawara pyramid.
Current research being carried out by W. Wendrich and her international team of specialists in the Fayoum will help to answer questions surrounding human interactions with the environment and the location of new sites. The Fayoum has only grown more fragile with increasing urban development and, with numerous archaeological sites at risk, needs this work before the sites are lost forever.
- Bernard P., Hunt, A. S., & Hogarth, D. G. (1900). Fayüm towns and their papyri. London: Egypt Exploration Fund.
- Caton-Thompson, G. (1934). The desert Fayum (2 vols.). London: Grenfell.
- Krzyzaniak, L., & Kobusiewicz, M. (Eds.). (1989). Late prehistory of the Nile Basin and the Sahara. Poznan, Poland: Poznan Archaeological Museum.
- Wendorf, F., & Schild, R. (1976). The prehistory of the Nile Valley. New York: Academic Press.