Mary Ann and I recently visited the Fayoum area, just 76 kilometers outside of Cairo.
Some guide books call the Fayoum a semi-oasis. It has natural springs, but it also has many canals running from the Nile to irrigate the area. Therefore, much of the extensive vegetation in some areas of the Fayoum is due to the man-made canals rather than to the lakes. The Fayoum Depression is 70 kilometers wide and 60 kilometers long. The area includes the relatively uninteresting Fayoum city, a large natural salt lake, a few pyramids, other ruins, some farmland and recreational facilities. Fayoum is where many Egyptians go to get away from Cairo and just kick back to enjoy the lakes.
The term “Fayoum Portraits” refers to pictures attached to mummies dating from about the first century BC that were found most abundantly in this area. These mummy portraits, reflecting Roman and Greek influences, have realistic faces painted on boards, in contrast to the funerary masks associated with the pharaonic period, of which King Tut’s mask is the most well known.
During our visit we stayed at Zad Al Mosafer, an ecolodge in the village of Tunis in the far northwest corner of the depression. The area is popular on weekends and holidays for swimming, boating, horseback riding, and just relaxing. Tunis is an artist colony, with several potters actively working in the area. The lodge is quite rustic but comfortable and our room was outfitted with both mosquito netting and air conditioning. There is a canopied outside sitting area with dappled sunlight sifting through, highlighting a large number of plastic bags filled with water hanging from the rafters. Evidently, insects see a magnified reflection of themselves in the bagged water and are scared off. I don’t know whether it works, as we did still have a lot of mosquitoes to contend with.
We spent the first afternoon walking around exploring the area and visiting pottery shops. We were asked if we were interested in a boat ride on the lake, Birket Qarun. We were, and after some difficulty in trying to determine the cost, we decided to just live with the always vague, “No problem,” and, “What you like.” We realized then that we didn’t know whether we had signed on to a motor boat or a sail boat or something else. It turned out to be something else entirely – a row boat. There was just enough room for the two of us and Ali, our captain and oarsman. Ali provided us with a very pleasant trip around one of the bays of the rather large lake. We made a short stop on a sand bar and ventured into the marshes, where Ali had us looking for fish and birds. At one point, he reached into some plants and pulled up a trap with several small white fish flopping around. Evidently, he is also a fisherman.
We arranged for a desert safari on Friday to Wadi El-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales. About 30 miles into the Western Desert from the western edge of the oasis, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are fossilized remains of some of the earliest forms of whales. The fossils of these whale-like creatures display vestigial limbs – evidence of life as and animals.
A four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended for the trip into the desert, but unfortunately the hotel manager could not locate one for Friday. He assured us that he had a car that could handle the terrain and a driver who knew the area.
The real trip starts on a paved road beyond the oasis into the desert, where two lakes, linked by Egypt’s highest waterfall (4 meters), form the basis of a recreation site for the locals. The road is sand-swept and from time to time a front-end loader is required to remove the drifts, much like snow removal in Wisconsin. After about 30 kilometers, our driver took a right turn and the pavement ended. The next 30 kilometers straight into the Western Desert were unpaved and fairly barren. At one point where sand had built up on the hard desert surface, our drive rlooked back at us and said, “So sorry.” He stepped on the gas and floored it straight into the sand drift. I’m sure the front end saw air, but we came down on the other side without getting stuck in the sand. So, this was why four-wheel drive was recommended. Eventually we came upon several sand-colored stone buildings that formed the base of the World Heritage site.
Our driver parked and invited us into the café for beverages before we started our hike. The entire site was, simply-put, sun-baked. The café had a sand floor, large holes in the wall for windows, and a stick covered ceiling that allowed for dappled sunlight to stream in. We sat on cushions on the floor, Bedouin style, around a low table and enjoyed a little Turkish coffee.
The main feature of this site is a three-kilometer-long hiking trail with displays of the fossilized remains of sea creatures that are more than 35 million years old. People come to Egypt to see the pyramids, because they are so unique and old. 5,000 years old – hah! That’s nothing! The trail is well-marked with 13 clearly identified and nicely explained exhibits. Mercifully, several of the exhibits have pleasant shady shelters with rustic seating. It is advised to start the tour early in the morning so that the trail can be completed before the intense heat of the afternoon sun makes it unbearable.
For me, this was the highlight of our Fayoum visit. I enjoyed the opportunity to spend a few hours hiking through the fascinating desert landscape. The 35- to 40-million-year-old fossils were just topping on the cake.