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Medinet El Fayoum (El Fayoum city), the capital of El Fayoum governorate, is about an hour drive from Cairo, going past the pyramids. Fayoum governorate is basically a big oasis, and Google Earth shows it lying like a green stranded butterfly with a blue border in the endless desert. 70,000 years ago, the lake was probably as big as the whole Fayoum Governorate, which as former lake-bottom, is now a large depression, and there was no oasis as such. Nowadays, between Cairo and El Fayoum there is sand, sand and sand, the pyramids, and a graveyard. And toppled cars, as the road is not of super quality, nor are the cars, the trucks are mostly uneven and far too heavy-loaded and Egyptians are always speeding and taking over on the left as well as the ride sides.
The oasis is separated from the desert by sharp borders; you can stand with one foot in the green and one foot in the desert, feeling king of the world. Water distribution is forever a problem, even though the environment looks green enough, and water wheels are still in use. The sewage problem is just as big, and everything ends up in the lake Quarun (Lake of the Horn), 45 meters below sea level, which looks quiet and beautiful, but must be a garbage bin full of degradable and non-degradable waste. The fact that the fishers in their small boat regularly catch a fish does not promise anything, as fresh fish is being put into the lake every year. Since the lake is very salty, only a few species can live here.

The old Egyptians named Fayoum "She Resi" (the Southern Lake) but the Coptic word Payom (the lake) has been the origin of the name. The Bahr Yusuf (water of Josef), a canalized branch of the Nile, brings the water in; it splits into 5 minor canals in Fayoum City, and splits further into smaller canals, to end into the Lake Qarun, which has an overflow now towards Wadi Rayan, since it is dead-end and getting too full. King Amenemhat III, who built the Hawara Pyramid, caused the level of the Lake Qarun to rise by his hydraulic actions, but a dam built in the Bahr Yusuf in 200 BC made the level decrease considerably, leaving a major part of the arable land behind, which is still in use today. The level continued to fall and it is 45 meters below sea level currently.
Egyptians have lived in Fayoum since the pre-dynastic period, and traces have been found from times before the Pharaohs even were born. The region had its best time during the Middle Kingdom, which translates itself in several old cities and the pyramids of Hawara and El-Lahun. The Pyramid of Seila is the only one which dates back to Snefru in the Old Kingdom.

Fayoum portrait

The pictures above to the left are all taken in Medinet Fayoum. You can see the Bahr Yusuf transporting the Nile water through the city to the fields; a small city square with a small mosque (but the sound equals the large ones); and a colored apartment building. Many of the apartments are left as they were created, dressed in dark grey concrete, but from time to time you see nicely painted ones, mostly in yellow, pink and red, brightening up the street.
The famous Fayoum portraits, of which one is depicted to the right above, can still be admired in the Karanis museum in Fayoum as well as in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and in some European museums; there are about 150. These portraits date back from the Greco-Roman period (approximately 30 BC-300 AD), when the fashion changed from using mummies to the likeness of people, to painting them on wood. The painted people may have been dead or alife at the moment of painting, according to different sources, but they are unsmiling, and their eyes seem to be looking towards their life after death. They were discovered in 1888 in the necropolis close to the Pyramid of Hawara, but have also been found in other places in Egypt. Interestingly, many sites in Egypt show remnants from Pharaonic times as well as Greco-Roman, probably because the latter used the existing well-prepared places.
In Fayoum, the crocodile god Sobek was very popular. The region was even called She Sobek, Lake of the Crocodile. The Kom Ombo temple is another tribute to this god, who used to be the creator of life in the Old Kingdom, but changed designations from time to time.

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Even though Lake Qarun as a dead-end lake is probably rather polluted by pesticides and sewage water, it is frequented by fishermen and weekend tourists. There are a number of hotels on its border and in the weekend, you may see Egyptian families entering the water, the women usually fully dressed. But the view and sunset do make up for its doubtful contents.

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