This desert oasis is a time capsule of Egypt’s grand past
Fossilized whales, temples to crocodile gods, and a thriving pottery scene draw day-trippers from Cairo to the bucolic Fayoum region.
Thousands of years before dams on the Nile kept the crocodiles at bay, the Fayoum Oasis was the center of worship of the ancient Egyptian crocodile god, Sobek. On a map of Egypt, the 2,300-square-mile region resembles a broad leaf emerging from the lush borders of the upper Nile River. Today, it offers a peaceful, green escape from the gridlocked traffic and dusty high rises of Cairo, just an hour’s drive north.
Kept verdant by Lake Qarun, Fayoum feels like a throwback to another era. In thriving fields, water buffalo graze and egrets nest. Residents get around its small villages via donkey carts, tuk-tuks, or on horseback.
But for travelers, Fayoum surprises with its archaeological sites, lively contemporary pottery scene, and sweeping desert plains, including Wadi Al-Hitan, a valley littered with the fossils of ancient whales.
As Egypt gears up for a flood of new visitors with the soon-to-open Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo, this best-kept-secret weekend getaway from the city is ripe for discovery.
Little known ancient marvels
“People who love archaeology come here, but it’s off the beaten track,” says Egyptologist, tour guide, and blogger Mahmoud Kamel as we venture into the ruins of a temple at Karanis, a Greco-Roman-era settlement at the entry to the oasis. I’ve booked him for the day to show me some of the dozens of ancient sites around the region. Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Coptic Christians all made their marks in Fayoum, building temples, tombs, and monasteries.
In Pharaonic times, Fayoum was a center of papyrus farming and game hunting. Kings and queens vacationed on Lake Qarun, arriving by boat via canals linked to the Nile River. The conquering Romans established settlements here starting around 27 B.C. until the Muslims came to power in the seventh century A.D. Under the caliphate, the oasis reverted to agrarianism.
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Amid the shifting sands at Karanis, Kamel shows me a stone doorway topped by a 2,000-year-old dedication from Roman Emperor Nero to Sobek. Inside, there’s an altar flanked by niches that once held mummified crocodiles laid on sleds. In the first century A.D., people left the revered creatures offerings of wine or meat and paraded their mummies through town during festivals.
Aside from portions of the temple, little remains of the mudbrick Karanis village that thrived here from the third century B.C. until the fifth century A.D. In the 1920s, the town’s 5,000-year-old buildings were disassembled and ground into fertilizer by an Italian company.
Other sites around Fayoum are better preserved, like the second century B.C. Medinet Madi ruins in the southwest part of the oasis. “This site is called the Luxor of Fayoum,” Kamel says, evoking the city in Upper Egypt that holds many of ancient Egypt’s most dramatic sites.
In Medinet Madi, a colonnade lined with lion and sphinx statues cuts through the desert to the only remaining temple built by Pharaohs Amenemhat III and Amenemhat IV during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (2040 to 1782 B.C.). Though weathered by time and sun, finely carved hieroglyphics cover its doorways and walls, praising Sobek and Renenutet, the snake-headed harvest goddess.
Missing mummy paintings
Kamel is acutely aware of what the region has already lost to time, nature, and treasure hunters.
The loss of Fayoum’s famed mummy paintings particularly chafes. These realistic portraits were painted on boards and attached to the faces of upper-class mummies in Roman Egypt, between the first and third centuries A.D.
Some 700 of these strikingly lifelike paintings were uncovered in and around Fayoum beginning in the late 19th century. But nearly all of them were smuggled, sold, or traded outside the country. Today, only two of the portraits remain in Fayoum, both at the dusty two-room Kom Ushim museum in Karanis.
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“The Metropolitan Museum of Art has so many of these [portraits],” says Kamel, showing me a mummy laid in a glass case. It’s small and wrapped in dressings that have browned and hardened over the years, a dramatic contrast to the finely painted portrait affixed to its face. It depicts a young man with wide-set eyes and curly black hair. Compared to earlier mummy masks, with their lined eyes and blue and gold helmets, these likenesses seem more haunting and vivid.
There may be more of these faces hidden in the sands; a recent dig near Gerza village uncovered not only a jumbo, 2,300-year-old Greco-Roman funerary temple but also several exquisite mummy portraits.
An acclaimed pottery village
Ancient funeral portraits may have put Fayoum on the international map, but contemporary pottery draws travelers today. At the northwestern corner of the oasis, the sleepy farming village of Tunis was transformed into an artistic hub by Swiss potter Evelyne Porret in the 1980s. She built a home and studio here, eventually opening a pottery school that trained generations of Egyptian artists. Even the town’s architecture began to mimic the domed ceilings and rounded doorways of Porret’s school.
Forty years after Porret’s arrival, her students’ workshops line the main drag, renamed Evelyne Street after her death in 2021. The whimsical glazed pottery style she pioneered features hand-painted dancing goats, soaring birds, and waving palm trees inspired by the nature of the oasis. Visitors can buy pottery directly from workshops or from stores such as To a Skylark Gallery, which also stocks local photography and paintings.
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Tourists arrive in Fayoum by bus from Cairo or hire guides, like Kamel, to ferry them here and show them around. Besides ancient sites and shopping, they increasingly find restaurants and lodging in Tunis.
Well-heeled Cairenes and expats frequent the Lazib Inn, a terraced boutique hotel near the waterfront. At dinnertime, traditional dishes like stuffed pigeon are served by candlelight as a musician plays the mournful-sounding oud, a bulbous Middle Eastern guitar.
Kamel sees low-impact, sustainable travel as Fayoum’s future; a way to bring more visitors to discover the region’s riches without transforming it into a stop on the big-bus tour circuit that bombards archaeologically rich Upper Egypt.
“Fayoum,” he says, “is fragile.” And though his tour is peppered with stories of loss and destruction, fresh archaeological finds and the ceramic scene in Tunis suggest the area may be poised for another rebirth.