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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt What is This? Provides authoritative coverage of the art, religion, language, literature, trade, politics, social life, and culture of ancient Egypt.


region in Middle Egypt, the site of sustained human habitation for more than eight thousand years. The Faiyum region is to the west of the Nile River, roughly within the area bordered by the following sites: Kom el-Atl (29°32′N, 31°00′E) in the north; Kom Ruqaiya (29°06′N, 30°43′E) in the south; Qasr Qarun (29°25′N, 30°25′E) in the west; and Kom el-Kharaba el-Khebir (29°27′N, 31°05′E) in the east. The Faiyum is centered on Lake Moeris (Ar., Birket el-Karun), a natural body of water that is, in part, responsible for the unique character of its unusually fertile agricultural land. Although the Faiyum has a long history of human habitation and use, from prehistoric times onward, Egyptologists particularly associate it with the cultural activity of the Middle Kingdom and the Greco-Roman period.

Some of the earliest farming sites in northern Egypt are in the Faiyum, most notably the Faiyum B and Faiyum A sites that were discovered in the 1930s by Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Elinor W. Gardner. A new survey was conducted in the 1970s and 1980s by Robert Wenke and Douglas Brewer. Habitation in the area continued and seems to have grown through the Predynastic period into the Old Kingdom, but few remains are known. The rulers of the Middle Kingdom instigated major development of the Faiyum for agriculture through improvements in irrigation. Cults centering on the crocodile god Sobek became prominent features of the religious geography of the Faiyum, and parts of the region also became a resort area for the elite. The major monuments of the Middle Kingdom include the temples at Medinet el-Faiyum/Kiman Fares; Medinet Maadi and Biahmu (site of the colossi of Amenemhet III); and the pyramid and mortuary complex (later known as the Labyrinth) of Amenemhet III at Hawara. Less well-attested habitation and use of the Faiyum continued through the New Kingdom and the Third Intermediate Period. In the Late period, there was some increasing interest in the region, which foreshadowed the great changes that occurred during the Ptolemaic period.

In the reign of Ptolemy II (282–246 BCE), many new settlements were founded in the Faiyum as part of a reclamation project, and some of these settlements grew to great prosperity during the Roman period. Religious activity in the Faiyum continued to be dominated by the cults of local crocodile gods; temples to these divinities and to the more recently introduced Hellenistic divinities were prominent features of Faiyum towns. Activity in the Faiyum reached a high point in the first and second centuries CE, but it declined in the third, and many Faiyum towns were abandoned by the fourth century CE. Of those towns and villages that remained inhabited, some became important Christian centers and a few continued to thrive even after the Muslim conquest of the mid-seventh century CE.

Greco-Roman sites in the Faiyum were known to Europeans traveling in Egypt, and they were therefore included in the itinerary of the 1799 Napoleonic Expedition. When local workmen dug for sebakh (decayed mud-brick, used for fertilizer) in the ruins of Greco-Roman Faiyum sites, their major papyrus finds of the 1870s and 1880s increased European scholarly interest in the region. The earliest systematic archaeological investigations of the Greco-Roman period in the Faiyum were the 1895 to 1901 surveys of Bernard P. Grenfell, David Hogarth, and Arthur S. Hunt for the Egypt Exploration Fund. Later excavations tended to concentrate on the individual town sites that are associated with papyrus finds. Greco-Roman settlement remains in the Faiyum are among the best preserved in Egypt, and large numbers of Greek, Demotic, Latin, Hieratic, and Coptic papyri, ostraca, and inscriptions have been found there. Many of the well-known Roman period mummy portraits on panels come from the Faiyum, especially from the cemeteries at Hawara and er-Rubayat. Together, the textual and artifactual remains from Faiyum sites indicate a complex combination of cultural elements that existed in the society of the Greco-Roman Faiyum.

Karanis (Ar., Kom Aushim, 29°31′N, 30°54′E) and Soknopaiou Nesos (Ar., Dimai, 29°32′N, 30°40′E) are good examples of typical Greco-Roman sites in the Faiyum; both were founded in the mid-third century BCE and are known from well-preserved archaeological remains and from myriad Greek, Demotic, and Latin documentation. Each had temples to local crocodile gods, surrounded by complex configurations of mud-brick houses and public buildings. The two sites were explored by nineteenth-century travelers and were “mined” by antiquities hunters and sebakh-diggers; both were excavated by the University of Michigan at the initiative of Francis W. Kelsey: Karanis from 1924 to 1935, by J. L. Starkey and Enoch E. Peterson, and Soknopaiou Nesos in 1931, by Peterson as an adjunct to the larger Karanis project. Karanis was subsequently excavated by the University of Cairo between 1966 and 1975; it became the subject of electromagnetic investigation in 1983, by A. G. Hussain. Most material from the Michigan excavations is housed in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where new initiatives are studying the archaeological contexts of the papyri and making excavation data available electronically.

In contrast to the complex layout of streets and structures found at Karanis and Soknopaiou Nesos, the Faiyum site identified as ancient Philadelphia (Ar., Kom Darb Gerza/Kom el-Kharaba el-Khebir, 29°27′N, 31°05′E) has a regular layout plan: three main streets running north to south, crossed by eight streets running east to west, which demarcate at least twenty-seven blocks of mostly mudbrick dwellings. Philadelphia was a major town in the Faiyum region but was ultimately abandoned around the fifth century CE. The only formal excavation of the site was the 1908–1909 work by F. Zucker and P. Viereck for the Berlin Museum, which uncovered artifacts, papyri, and texts on tablets, but the site has since been the object of illegal exploration that resulted in major papyrus finds. Other important Greco-Roman sites in the Faiyum include Tebtunis (Ar., Umm el-Breigat), Theadelphia (Ar., Harit), Narmouthis (Ar., Medinet Maadi), Bacchias (Ar., Kom el-Atl), and the regional capital Arsinoe/Crocodilopolis (Ar., Kiman Fares).


  • Caton-Thompson, Gertrude, and E. W. Gardner. The Desert Fayum. 2 vols. London, 1934. Report on the major archaeological survey, important for the prehistory of the region.
  • Gallazzi, Claudio. “Tebtunis: Piecing Together 3,000 Years of History.” Egyptian Archaeology 5 (1994), 27–29. Accessible account of ongoing work at Tebtunis.
  • Gazda, Elaine K. Karanis: An Egyptian Town in Roman Times: Discoveries of the University of Michigan Expedition to Egypt (1924–1935). Ann Arbor, 1983. Catalog of the major exhibition of Karanis objects at the Kelsey Museum; extensive bibliography and many archival photographs of the excavations.
  • Grenfell, Bernard P., A. S. Hunt, D. G. Hogarth, and J. G. Milne. Fayûm Towns and their Papyri. London, 1900; rep., 1975. Publication of papyri and artifacts from the Egypt Exploration Fund's 1895–1901 Faiyum surveys.
  • Lane, Mary-Ellen. A Guide to the Antiquities of the Fayyum. Cairo, 1985. Intended as a guide for travelers, contains much information about the region and specific sites; accessible but some inaccuracies.
  • Minnen, Peter van. “Deserted Villages: Two Late Antique Town Sites in Egypt.” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 32 (1995), 41–56. Discussion of the abandonment of Karanis and Soknopaiou Nesos, with reference to recent work.
  • Montserrat, Dominic. “‘No Papyrus and No Portraits’: Hogarth, Grenfell and the First Season in the Fayum, 1895–6.” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 33 (1996), 133–176. Publication of archival materials relating to the Egypt Exploration Fund's first survey of the Fayum, with extensive commentary.
  • Rathbone, Dominic. “Towards a Historical Topography of the Fayum.” In Archaeological Research in Roman Egypt, edited by Donald M. Bailey, pp. 50–56. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplementary Series, 19. Ann Arbor, 1996.
  • Walker, Susan, and Morris Bierbrier. Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt. London, 1997. Extensively illustrated exhibition catalog, including many Faiyum pieces and an extensive bibliography.
  • Wilfong, Terry G. “Kom Aushim (Karanis),” “Dimai (Soknopaiou Nesos),” “Kom el Breigat (Tebtunis),” “Medinet Madi (Narmouthis),” “Medinet el Fayum, Kom Fares, Kiman Fares (Crocodilopolis, Arsinoe),” “Kom Darb Gerza (Philadelphia),” and “Fayum: Graeco-Roman Sites.” In The Archaeology of Ancient Egypt: An Encyclopedia, edited by Kathryn A. Bard. New York, forthcoming. Descriptions of monuments and excavations at individual sites; includes bibliographies.

Terry G. Wilfong

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