Journal: Tuesday 7 January 2003
The day began with a lovely drive west along the lakeside as far as a little village called Tunis where there were many splendid and expensive looking villas, perhaps holiday properties owned by the rich and famous of Cairo. Right at the end of Birket Qarun our taxi with its accompanying tourist police truck turned down a sandy track leading to the temple of Qasr Qarun. The temple is undergoing restoration by the Egyptian Antiquities Service and looks like a building site.
Qasr Qarun is another temple dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek (here called Suchos) who was very popular in the Faiyum. It was built during the Late Period and surrounded by a town site, now mostly buried beneath the encroaching desert, that was in ancient times known as Dionysias and was the beginning of the caravan route to Bahriya Oasis. Dionysias was founded in the 3rd century BC. As we walked along the track, the temple appeared as a large rectangular uninscribed facade before us, constructed from yellow limestone blocks and didn’t look particularly interesting. Once inside the building however, it was a warren of chambers and corridors, that were being rebuilt. At present only the sanctuary area seems to make any sense. There were staircases going down into crypts and up onto the roof and we ran about exploring – Sam had challenged Jane and I to find the only existing relief left in the temple. We eventually found the relief up in the roof sanctuary; a worn carving of the god Suchos and the lower half of an un-named Ptolemy. From the roof there was a view over the whole town site and we could see the outline of a second smaller mudbrick temple nearby beneath the sand, which dates to the Roman Period. There was also a fortress that we could just see to the west, constructed by the Emperor Diocletian to protect the town against invading Bedouin tribes. It is now fairly ruined with really only the square towers on the corners showing but apparently it still has the remains of a Christian basilica inside.
Time to move on. We were on our way to the Wadi ar-Rayyan on the southern edge of Faiyum, but we stopped on the road-side to take a picture of another site, Medinet Wafta, which was inaccessible, though we could see the town-mound across the desert. This was the site of the ancient town of Philoteras. Another 20km along a straight new tarmac road bounded on either side by endless sand hills and we reached Wadi Rayyan, a recently developed national park where many Egyptian tourists come to walk, swim or take rowing boats out on the lakes. The two large lakes are artificial, made by allowing surplus water to drain from Birket Qarun down to the empty depression of Wadi Rayyan. A small river connects the northern and southern lake and here we found Egypt’s only waterfall. At a height of around three metres I thought it a little disappointing, but the setting was pretty, a little strange and very unusual for Egyptian countryside. The lakes are incongruously surrounded by large sand dunes as well as the wetlands and reed beds that are the habitation of many rare birds in the winter. There are a couple of mountain ranges surrounding the region and pictures I saw on a tourist map show strange rock formations, but we didn’t have time to explore the area. Not far away is the Wadi al-Hitan where 40 million-year-old whale skeletons have been found and which is also part of this protectorate known as the ‘Valley of the Whales’. Our policemen seemed happy to be here and sat on chairs on the little ‘beach’ in front of the lake while Sam, Jane, Abdul and I went for a coffee in the huge cafeteria. There were many Egyptian tourists there, probably still on their Christmas holiday.
We drove on to the southern end of the lakes and shortly turned off to another archaeological site called Qasr Banat, ancient Euphemeria, where there is a temple of Sobek and Isis, but we were not allowed to visit the temple and had to be content to take photographs at a distance across the fields. Batn Ihrit was our next stop, site of the ancient town of Theadelphia, a garrison town situated on the opposite border of the Faiyum to Philadelphia in the east. Also like Philadelphia it was named in honour of Arsinoe, sister of Ptolemy II Philadelphus. The site of Theadelphia contains the scant remains of a mudbrick gateway to the Ptolemaic temple dedicated to Pnepheros, an aspect of Sobek the crocodile-god. Although there are few remains of the temple, several artefacts found here are now at Cairo Museum. These include a wooden door donated to the temple by a citizen from Alexandria in 137 BC and a portable barque shrine for the god as well as frescoes from the temple walls. There was little for us to see here today except a vast pottery-strewn area with many large grave-pits on the edge of the desert and a separate building, a strange wall with arches that we were told was a Roman bath-house.
Back at the hotel Sam, Jane and I got together to discuss what to do next. We had originally planned only to spend a couple of nights here at Birket Qarun and then move on, but Jane and I declared that we want to stay here longer. I couldn’t bear to leave our gorgeous suite and the peaceful haven of the lake just yet, even though it is a long way to the rest of the sites we want to visit in Faiyum.
For more pictures from Faiyum see: