Journal: Monday 6 January 2003
We’d arranged with the police to leave the hotel this morning on our first site visit at 9.00am but when Jane and I turned up for breakfast to meet Sam, she had already been joined by Abdul and Mr Ashraf, the Chief of the Tourist police. We had thought that he had come to organise our day – but he and Abdul sat talking for ages and it wasn’t until 10.30am that we were eventually allowed to leave. Breakfast, however, was excellent.
Our first visit was to Kom Ushim and we drove back north-east along the edge of the lake the way we had arrived yesterday as far as the entrance to Faiyum on the desert road. This was where the cultivated land ended and the desert began, with a huge mound which was once the largest of the Graeco-Roman town sites in this area. The town’s ancient name was Karanis and its now-scattered ruins were inhabited for seven centuries. A truckload of tourist police followed our taxi onto the site, pulling up outside a block built structure that turned out to be a small museum. There were several carved blocks and huge stone vessels lying haphazardly on the ground in front of the building, but the museum itself was very good and even had two of the Faiyum mummy masks on dislplay.
The town was built on a large ‘Kom’, a mound that was the home to two temples and it was the larger southern temple we first went to see. Probably overlaying an earlier temple, this ruined limestone structure was built during the Ptolemaic period towards the end of the first century AD and seemed to follow the standard plan of a traditional Egyptian temple with a paved courtyard, hall, vestibule and sanctuary, though none were decorated. In the walls of the vestibule there are deep niches which, we were told, would have contained mummified crocodiles, for this was a temple dedicated to the crocodile god, Sobek or Suchos who was worshipped here as Pnepheros and Petesuchos. Many mummified crocodiles were also found in the land surrounding the temple. In this part of the temple the walls are only a couple of metres high, but the sanctuary still contains a huge stone altar which has a hidden chamber underneath that was probably used by the priests to deliver oracles. A large stone gate marks the entrance to the southern temple which bears a worn inscription of the Emperor Nero, usurped by Claudius. Another large gate to the east beyond a small sacred lake was built by Vespasian. We went up onto the roof of the temple from where we had a great view over the whole site and the land to the south. My goodness – there seemed to be gun-toting policemen on every hill and I wondered whether they were guarding us or their antiquities.
The town itself, which originally would have been on the shores of Lake Qarun, is said to have been founded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the 3rd century BC, primarily as a garrison for his troops, but it prospered and grew, probably because of its accessibility from more populated cities to the north. The houses are arranged in clusters around the two main thoroughfares which run from north to south and range in style from simple mudbrick dwellings to the more elaborate villas of the high-status officials. Remains of millstones and olive presses still lie on the ground and ten large granaries and seven smaller ones have been found here as well as six dovecotes, similar to those seen in the Faiyum today suggesting that the Karanis was mainly a farming community.
The northern temple, constructed on an earlier site, also dates to the end of the 1st century AD, but has no inscriptions at all. This grey limestone structure faces north, is smaller than the southern temple and was once surrounded by a mudbrick temenos wall which is now mostly destroyed. There are two small entrance pylons and the outer corners of the temple are decorated with four slender columns. A large stone altar, also with an oracle niche, dominates the sanctuary. In addition to the cult of the crocodile-god, Karanis is known to have had devotees of the divine triad of Isis, Serapis, and Harpocrates, as well as numerous other ‘domestic gods’, both Egyptian and Greek, in fact 27 different Egyptian, Greek or Roman deities are recorded here. The town has been excavated several times and has provided a very valuable source of information on everyday life, religious cults, administration and industries during the Graeco-Roman Period. There have also been numerous papyri and documents found – excellently preserved due to Egypt’s dry climate – which have the special significance of being able to be read in context with the architecture and artefacts of the town remains.
A couple of hours later we were back in the taxi and with our police escort and driving alongside a canal about 15km to the next site, Kom el-Atl, which we were told, is pronounced ‘Kom el-Asl’ by the locals. This is another town mound, called Bacchius in ancient times. We stopped at a gafir’s hut and he took us on a tour of the massive site, again in ruins with many remains of low mudbrick walls stretching across the sandy hills. It was difficult to see what was going on here. Our guide the gafir, silently led us between the heaps of bricks and waited a few minutes before taking off to the next hill. We were also accompanied around the site by a wolf, who kept just a few metres ahead of us all the time and if he got too close the gafir threw stones in his direction and he would run a little further away again to stand and wait for us. The police seemed not to be in evidence here.
Once a border town on the desert road from Memphis, the small community of Bacchius which was built on top of an earlier prehistoric settlement, was also founded in the Ptolemaic Period around the 3rd century BC and abandoned in the 4th century AD. As well as much evidence of housing, there is also a very large mudbrick structure, once thought to be a temple but since another stone temple has recently been discovered here the excavators now believe the mudbrick structure to have been temple store-rooms. The oddly-shaped stone temple, found in 1993, is thought to have been dedicated to Soknobkonneus, a form of Sobek. Many Greek and Roman papyri have been found at Kom el-Atl, as well as coins, mummy portrait masks and fragments of statues. The excavators have also uncovered foundations of a large well-built structure of some importance with remains of inlaid wooden furniture and pottery lamps. The whole site, which stretches over many smaller mounds, is strewn with pottery sherds and it was a long and tiring walk around it.
Our next stop, not far away, was the town-site of Kom el-Hamman, also known as el-Roda or Kom el-Kharaba el-Kebir, which means the ‘Great Hill of Ruins’. When we pulled up I couldn’t see why we had stopped here because there was just a large stretch of empty desert, but on looking more closely the whole area was covered by broken pot-sherds. Here lay the ancient town of Philadelphia, named after Ptolemy II who founded it. Although there is little to see this is an important site known to archaeologists as a ‘model town’ set up by Apollonius, a minister of the Pharaoh. It was here that most of the famous Faiyum mummy portraits were found, discovered by locals in the 19th century while taking fertiliser for their fields and bought by a European dealer, who subsequently sold them to various museums. Many papyri have also been found at this site, including the archive of Zeno, a steward of Apollonius, who kept records of his correspondence filled with details of agricultural production. These records have provided a great deal of information about the management of a Ptolemaic town and daily life in this farming community. While it was an evocative place to discuss, we didn’t stay long as there really was nothing to see other than the faint marks of walls beneath the lonely desert.
The police chief wanted to stop for coffee on the way back to our hotel, so Abdul, Sam, Jane and I piled into a cafe with Mr Ashraf and left the half a dozen other policemen sitting in their truck. It was only when we got back to the Panorama at 5.00pm that we realised that today is the Coptic Christmas Day. We had intended to have dinner in the hotel but it was packed with Egyptians out to celebrate the festive occasion, so it was back to Medinet el-Faiyum again – another hour’s drive. This time we had two policemen with us in the car. There were a few problems in the city as the police tried to tell us where we could go to eat and I began to feel like we were prisoners let out on parole. It certainly isn’t a place that feels welcoming to tourists.
For more pictures from Faiyum see: