Flora, fauna and pharaonic treasures make Cairo’s closest oasis the perfect escape
Tiny flatfish sold by the highway, iridescent green bee-eaters swooping over tangled telephone wires and mud-brick pyramids in the midst of farmland – in Fayoum Oasis, ancient culture and abundant nature combine for the perfect weekend adventure.
Under two hours drive from the capital, the area is home to some of the country’s most interesting wildlife. The reason is the oasis’ unique habitat. Connected to the Nile by a canal, the saltwater Lake Qaroon provides food for a huge number of birds, including various species of herons, waders and in the winter months, flamingoes. Lake Qaroon itself used to be filled by the floodwaters of the Nile, and was freshwater.
However, in 2,300 BC the channel that linked the valley with the Fayoum depression was made into the Bahr Yussef canal, constructed to provide a permanent supply of Nile water and silt to the farmland in the area. The lake provided a way to store water during high floods for around 2,000 years, but when the nearest branch of the Nile silted up, Lake Moeris (as it was then called) receded to its present size.
With a limited amount of freshwater coming in and evaporation from the desert sun, salinity increased, and the lake became saltwater. Nevertheless, certain species of fish have found the lake a perfect habitat, and every day fishermen on the calm waters of Qaroon pull out flatfish, Grey Mullet and Tilapia to sell on the roadsides and in the markets of Fayoum City and Cairo. Hundreds of canals now link the area to the Nile Valley.
As a visitor, if you are using public transport, your first stop will probably be Fayoum City. While it does have a certain unusual charm, owing to the canal running through the middle of town and the wooden waterwheels, the ‘city” is a fairly unremarkable provincial center.
There are hotels in town, and for an easy weekend trip to see the archeological sites, staying there would be a good option. Just don’t ask the tourist police for help. Despite the oasis’ peaceful reputation, they are overeager to protect foreigners; at the same time they have a remarkable lack of knowledge about:Fayoum itself. If che Courisc police do meet you, you’ll likely find yourself negotiating your itinerary with the truck full of cops assigned to follow you around.
Apart from a look at the creaking water-wheels all over the oasis, there are a number of dilapidated pyramids to climb around. Set among lush greenery, the Pyramid of Hawara, 12 kilometers southeast of Fayoum City, is attributed to Pharaoh Amenemhat III, the twelfth-dynasty king who along with his father Sesostris III was responsible for much of the ancient irrigation work in the area. The mud-brick structure, originally coated with limestone, is barely even a pyramid any more, but if half the fun of ancient ruins is climbing around the rubble, imagining what they used to be instead of being told, then visiting Hawara is a lot of fun.
The Pyramid of Meidum is found 32 kilometers north of Fayoum City, and although it is also very run-down, its unique structure is worth studying, as it was the first ‘true’ pyramid attempted in Ancient Egypt, as opposed to a step pyramid. When antiquities fatigue becomes unbearable, it’s time to get down to the lake. At the village of Shakshouk, a row of restaurants lines the dirt corniche. The menu is fairly similar in all of the establishments – fish and shrimp from the lake, fried or grilled, served with bread, tehina and salad. Highly recommended is the Grey Mullet, with a surprisingly tasty meaty flesh, grilled with spicy tomato salsa on top.
Order with fried shrimp, and watch the fishermen on the lake and the locals passing by on the corniche as you eat. With a car, you will be able to visit the more out-of-the-way spots in the oasis, whether you want to just park and walk through the verdant farms (make sure to ask permission from whoever’s working the land) or drive out to the protected area of Wadi El-Rayan, where two massive artificial lakes with a small waterfall between them have created an oasis south of Fayoum for migrating birds and stressed Cairenes.
Fayoum’s prehistoric history is very much on the surface. The Petrified Forest and Valley of the Whales (Wadi El-Hitan) are as excitingns they sound. Ac Wadi El-Hi-tan, 44 kilometers west of the lakes of Wadi El-Rayan, the fossilized remains of a group of whales lie on the sands, in a place that seems it could never have been completely covered by water. And while trees are not nearly as cool as whales, the Petrified Forest (the fossilized remains of trees, north of Lake Qaroon) is still a unique sight. Even if you don’t visit any of these sights, or stay overnight in Fayoum, the oasis is the perfect place for a day trip by car from Cairo. Driving on the tarmac road through the dunes in Wadi El-Rayan, picnics and horse riding by the lake and wandering along narrow paths through sugar cane fields is why visitors come back to Fayoum.
Source: Egypt Today.