This history of the Faiyum is very brief and does not attempt to be in any way comprehensive. While a few sites are mentioned in passing, a great many more are not. It is included to provide a snapshot of the Faiyum at different periods.
In an undefined period referred to by a number of authors (Said et al 1970, Wendorf and Schild 1976, Wenke 1989) as Predynastic, a number of sites feature including FS3 and E29G4.
The capital of the Faiyum from the Old Kingdom until the Roman era was Kiman Faris (now in ruins). An Old Kingdom presence is represented by, amongst other things, the Widan al-Faras quarry where the workmen mined basalt used to make stone vessels and statues, and by a small step pyramid at Seila. The pyramid remains are now 7m high and only the lower levels are visible. In the 1980s the pyramid was investigated and it was it possible to identify the pyramid’s owner as Snefru of the Fourth Dynasty. No internal chambers have been found. There are six other pyramids in the locality, all equally small. In the area where Wendorf and Schild (1976) expanded our knowledge of the Faiyum Qarunian and Neolithic, Site E29G5 is another scattered concentration but is a bit of an anomaly, due to the presence of a bronze harpoon, and probably belongs to the Old Kingdom, as does E29G6 at Qasr el-Sagha.
The Faiyum reached a peak of importance to Egypt in the Middle Kingdom, when the royal seat was moved to the north at el-Lisht. The area became the focal point of activity of Twelfth Dynasty pharaohs in particular but activities took place throughout the Dynastic period:
- Amenemhat I, the founder of the Twelfth Dynasty. He transferred the royal seat from Thebes, the base of the former kings, to a new site in the north, in the area of modern Lisht, on the Nile between the Faiyum and Cairo, opposite Helwan, where it stayed for 400 years. Senwosret I succeeded him on his assassination (and raised the Obelisk in Medinet Faiyum) but it was not until he was himself succeeded by Senwosret II, who was almost certainly responsible for the first stages of the development of the Faiyum, which is where he built his pyramid (made of mud-brick rather than stone).
- His grandson Amenemhat III had a long reign and during the course of it developed the Faiyum, building upon the work of Senwosret II to construct a barrage regulating the flow of water into the area (and possibly into the lake) in order to reclaim fertile land. To commemorate his works he built the Colossi of Biyahmu which were set up to overlook the lake. He added to a number of monuments and built the temple of Medinet Maadi, most importantly completing the mud-brick pyramid, overlooking his barrage, and the famous Labyrinth at Hawara.
- The Qasr el-Sagha is a Middle Kingdom building made of limestone slabs that was never completed.
New Kingdom interest in the area was infinitely less than in the Middle Kingdom, but the Medinet Maadi site was restored in the Nineteenth Dynasty.
The Ptolemies were the first since the Middle Kingdom to see and exploit the potential of the Faiyum, and several towns were created including Karanis (near Kom Ushim), Bacchias (Kom el Atl), Dionysuas (Qasr Qarun), Tebtunis and Philadelphia (Darb Gerze).
- Ptolemy I was the first to set about restoring the Faiyum and reclaimed around 1200km sq of land by draining off some of Lake Qarun. Ptolemy II Philadelphus continued this and allocated areas of land to Greek and Macedonian settlers. Settlers also included Jews, Persians, Arabs, Syrians, Thracians and Samaritans. Intermarriage between local Egyptians and foreign settlers became commonplace. The Faiyum became very rich at this time. Ptolemy II married Arsinoe II, his sister, and named the town of Philadelphia in the Faiyum for her (brotherly love) and the province of Faiyum after her (Arsinoite replacing the former name of Crocodopolis). Arsinoe was deified after her death and an annual festival in her honour was held in the Faiyum.
A remarkable find of 166 Greco-Roman portraits were found in a Ptolemaic cemetery in a cemetery at Hawara.
The Faiyum fell into a state of decay in late Greek and early Roman times, with several settlements being abandoned, and key waterways silting up. However, in 395BC the Roman Empire was partitioned and Egypt became subject to the eastern Empire. The Faiyum was restored in order for it to produce grain for the Roman Empire. When restored to its former state, the Faiyum produced 10% of Egypt’s grain contribution to the Empire.
- Qasr Qarun, near the village of Qarun on the western edge of the Faiyum depression was known as Dionysias and was at the start of the caravan route to Bahriya. Dionysias was founded in the 3rd century BC. The town site is ruined, and little remains to be seen although the last remains of the Roman municipal baths can still be seen and the remains of two temples still remain. The Emperor Diocletian constructed a mudbrick fortress lies to the west of the temple to protect the town against Bedouin tribes invading from the west – again mostly ruined. Square towers at each corner would have provided lookout posts for the guards of the garrison. Remains of a Christian basilica can be seen inside the fortress
- At Seila, not far from the Old Kingdom pyramid there are some un-inscribed rock-cut tombs in which thousands of papyri have been found. The tombs date from the Roman and Coptic Periods
Throughout its history, the Faiyum was the centre for the worship of Sobek, the crocodile god, and related crocodile gods from the Old Kingdom onwards. It became something of a tourist attraction when visitors came to feed the crocodiles kept at temples with cakes and other food which they purchased from the priests who looked after them.
The Faiyum has also had a fascinating and eventful history in post Dynastic times up until the present day.