The Fayum Oasis is a patch of green in the midst of Egypt's Western Desert sands. Located about 1.5 hours drive from Cairo, it is a lovely, tranquil destination to escape the bustle and noise of the megalopolis. With such close proximity to Cairo and so many things to do, the Fayum makes for a perfect day trip.
Ways to explore the Fayum:
Whale Valley at Wadi al-Hitan
Lake Qaroun (Birket Qarun)
The Waterfalls at Wadi el-Rayan
Valley of the Whales
A great family excursion is to Wadi al-Hitan, also known as the Valley of the Whales. Located in the Fayum region, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site host to the earliest pre-historic whale fossils ever discovered, the sub-order of whales called Archaeoceti. Hundreds of millions of years ago whales were thought to be land-based mammals. The fossils at al-Hitan, from about 40 million years ago, reveal dramatic evidence of the evolution of whales for the many complete whale skeletons found there have vestigial hind legs. Those whales, the Basilosauruses, were in the final stages of losing their hind limbs. Hence, the skeletons portray the whales during their evolutionary transition from land-based to ocean-going mammals.
You may wonder why there are whale fossils in the middle of a desert. The Basilosauruses did not use their small vestigial legs to transport their massive bodies on land. They were already swimming by then. In fact, what is now the arid Western Desert was at that time submerged by what was once the Tethys Sea. When the sea animals died, their bodies sank to the bottom. With time and climate change the sea dried up and sediment built up. So the bodies of many sea-dwelling animals got buried in the sediment. With even more time, the sediment dried out and became an arid desert.
Now, the desert sands are studded not only with whale skeletons but also those of crocodiles, manatees, bony fish, sharks, turtles, and rays, At Wadi al-Hitan, walking paths connect dozens of skeleton sites embedded in the sand. A small museum exists with explanations of the history, importance, and findings of the area.
Experience the Sand Dunes
Another fun activity to do in the Fayum is to explore the hilly, uneven contours of the sand dunes in a jeep. The shifting landscape of the desert is truly magical, as the colors of the sky, sand, and water reservoirs beautifully contrast with each other. A jeep ride through the desert is a lot of fun because the jeep can easily handle the rugged terrain! When in the desert, a try at sand surfing should also not be missed. As I am neither a snowboarder nor a wakeboarder, I was not going to attempt it standing. I simply don't have time for an extremity fracture. But sitting on the sandboard was certainly fun... while going down anyway. The climbing up component was a whole different experience. It was immensely more challenging than I anticipated, as my legs sunk knee-deep into the sand with each and every step. Based on this experience I have a newfound respect for camels that navigate the sandy terrain!!
Pharaohs, since the dawn of Egyptian history, have built their pleasure palaces, along with royal nurseries, in the fertile Fayum depression. At the Fayum's center was the ancient natural lake called Birket Qarun, also known as Lake Qaroun. The abundant bird life attracted to the salty waters of the lake made for excellent hunting for the Egyptian princes and their male contemporaries. Meanwhile, the royal women that lived in the adjoining harem busied themselves with weaving textiles, the raw materials supplied by the fertile Fayum's extensive flax fields.
While the palaces and flax fields have long gone, the lake is still present. Today, thousands of migratory birds continue to inhabit the lake, where they rest as they make their way to the warmer climate in the south. Many bird varieties can be spotted, particularly large colonies of flamingos, grey herons, spoonbills, and several duck species. It is also a popular weekend destination for Cairenes looking to cool down and escape the heat and noise of the city. You can hike, swim, rent row boats, watch fishermen, or enjoy refreshments at one of the many cafes dotting the lake. On the northern side of the lake, you can explore the Mars-like rock formations that look like cannonballs.
Unlike Lake Qaroun which is a natural lake, Wadi el-Rayan, is a protected area consisting of two artificial lakes connected by waterfalls. The lakes were created in the 1960s to serve as water reservoirs to hold excess water from agricultural drainage. Like Lake Qaroun, however, the man-made lakes at Wadi el-Rayan also became increasingly brackish and conducive to large colonies of migrating birds. Much wildlife can be viewed in the area, including gazelles, sand foxes, as well as eagles, and falcons. The area surrounding Wadi el-Rayan has become a national park and is a significant attraction for weekend picnickers from Cairo. Today, Wadi el-Rayan is Egypt's only waterfall. During the ancient Pharaonic times, there were a few cascades along the Nile River in Upper Egypt. Those, however, disappeared with the creation of the Old Aswan Dam in 1902.
So... What Archaeological Gems is the Fayum known for?
Old Kingdom Pyramid
Dating back to about 2575 BC, Sneferu, the first king of the Fourth Dynasty, attempted the construction of the first smooth-sided pyramid in Meidum, located at the entrance of the Fayum. Meidum was the location of the first of the new court cemeteries. Prior to that, kings and nobles were buried only in flat mastabas, that is until Djoser's 6-stepped pyramid in 2650 BC. Nearly a century after Djoser, Sneferu's bold architectural monument was built in Meidum, a grander and higher 8-stepped pyramid, which he later filled in and then added an outer casing to form smooth sides. Sometime after its completion, perhaps as late as the last few centuries BC, the pyramid's weight caused the sides to collapse. Today, only the core stands. Nonetheless, it is an impressive site. Sneferu went on to build the Bent and Red true Pyramids in Dahshur, while his son Khufu went on to build the largest pyramid on the Giza Plateau... the Great Pyramid of Khufu.
The Famous Mummy Portraits of al-Fayum
Fast forward to the Greco-Roman era of Egypt to about the first century BC when there existed a blending of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultural influences. At that time in ancient Egypt, Greek Ptolemy rule was ending and Roman rule was beginning. The Greeks were drawn to the fertile land around al-Fayum during the Ptolemy period. There, they built irrigation channels, which turned the area into one of Egypt's most productive agricultural regions, producing abundant crops of fruits, vegetables, and vines. While Egyptian mummification was still practiced during that time, Greek and Roman artistic styles began to influence funerary traditions. Discovered in ancient necropolises throughout the al-Fayum region in the late 19th century were realistic portraits of the deceased painted onto wooden panels found overtop the mummies' faces. These stunning portraits were painted in a classical style popular in Greek and Roman art. The deceased's expressions were dignified. The subjects were depicted naturalistically, creating a vivid image of the deceased that celebrated their lives, virtues, wealth, and achievements. While these panels are not actually viewable in the Fayum today, nearly 1,000 of these portraits are held in museum collections worldwide, allowing us to gaze into the eyes of the past.