The Fayum: a first introduction
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On the map of Egypt the Fayum appears "as a bud of the great lotus plant of Egypt, growing out of one side of the Nile stem, just below the Delta blossom" (N. Hewison, The Fayoum. A Practical Guide (Cairo 1984), p.2).
The Fayum is situated in a depression, but is not a proper oasis, because it receives its water directly from the Nile. The Birket Qarun in the north is a large salt lake, which now lies about 45 m. below sea level. The lake covers 250 square kilometers and is up to 8 metres deep. It is almost as saline as the sea (34‰). Cultivation extends to its southern shore, but to the north is only the desert. Nile water is provided through the Bahr Yussuf, which leaves the Nile valley at Beni Suef, and enters the Fayum through the Lahun gap.
At el-Lahun the water supply is regulated by a system of locks and sluices: only the amount of water needed for the province is let in, the rest is diverted north along the Giza canal. The amount of water entering varies according to the season, with a maximum from spring to summer and a minimum in winter. Each year, in January, the sluices are shut and the canal system is allowed to dry up.
The drainage system is entirely closed: numerous canals take their water from the Bahr Yussuf and distribute it over the land. The main distribution point is at the western end of Fayum city, where the Bahr Yussuf splits down into eight channels. The whole area is cultivated under perennial irrigation, which means that farmers can grow two or even three crops a year.
The excess water is drained to the Birket Qarun and from there to the Wadi el-Rayan, east of the oasis, where two new lakes came into being in the last twenty years. They are now almost as large as the original lake. The area is a tourist resort and a refuge for birds. The upper lake to the north is linked to the lower southern lake by a canal and a small waterfall.
The Fayum Governate covers 4,550 square kilometers (including the lake and the surrounding desert area), of which 1,450 are cultivated. The number of inhabitants in 2004 is given as 2,275,000 (about 3% of the population of Egypt). The inhabited area is subdivided into six administrative centres (markaz), based on the five cities of the province: Sinnuris, Ibshaway, Tamiya, Itsa, Yusuf al-Siddiq and Fayum city (ca. 250,000 inhabitants). The next level is that of the villages (qaria), each of which has a locally elected omda, who is responsible for law and order and represents the government. Elections take place every five years and are hotly contested. There are 157 villages, which include 1,565 hamlets (ezba), population units too small to have their own omda.
The Fayum is a rich agricultural area, producing a wide variety of crops. The main cash crop is still cotton, harvested in September. In winter large tracts of land are sown with bersim, a kind of clover, used for domestic animals.
Sugar cane is not common and palm trees are interspersed with other crops rather than being concentrated in palm groves; in this respect the Fayum is different from the rest of Egypt. The fruits of over 700 square kilometers of orchards, mostly in the centre of the basin, are exported to Cairo and make the Fayum "Garden of Egypt". Some villages have become centres of chicken breeding and Fayumi chickens are reputed to be the best of the country. In the wadi el-Rayan new crops such as olives, maize and hibiscus are grown.
Many Fayumis, from labourers to students and doctors, commute to nearby Cairo, returning home for the weekends. But there is a florishing university in Medinet Fayum as well. The tourist industry is limited to a few spots, such as Karanis, the pyramid of Hawara, Dionysias and now also Tebtynis. But it cannot be compared to the great centres such as Gizeh or Luxor.
In the Graeco-Roman period the Fayyum expanded a great deal. When many villages on the outskirts were abandoned about AD 300-400, houses and cemeteries remained intact for centuries. Here were found thousands of papyri and hundreds of mummy portraits, which have made the area famous among classicists and ancient historians alike.
© Willy Clarysse