A lake is a large, natural, permanent body of water that has a source sufficient to maintain its water level above the discharge rate. In Egypt, during historical times, the climate was arid and there were only two such lakes of any significance: Lake Karun and Lake Mariotis. Earlier, in the Pleistocene epoch, when there were several humid episodes in northern Africa, there were lakes throughout the eastern Sahara, particularly where the western oases are today. The former lake areas had been important resources for hunter-gatherers during the Pleistocene.

Lake Karun.

(Lake Moeris of classical writers; Eg., Mr-wr; Ar., Birket Qarun). Today the lake fills the northern side of the Faiyum Oasis, toward the western end (centered on 29°28′N, 30°36′E). It currently stands at 44 meters (135 feet) below mean sea level. The water source is the Bahr Yussuf, a channel that leaves the Nile River just north of Dairut, flowing northward, parallel to the Nile, until passing westward through a gap in the limestone hills at Illahun. It is the central geographical feature of the Arsinoite or twentieth nome.

The Faiyum.

The Faiyum basin had been in existence and inhabited during the Pleistocene. The evidence from Paleolithic sites on the northern side of the lake indicates Stone Age life along the edge of a much larger body of water than exists today. These hunter-gatherers would have utilized the lake for fishing and as a water attraction for hunted animals; the lake and its marshy borders have been a center of fishing and fowling ever since. There were two periods of great activity in the Faiyum; the twelfth dynasty and the Ptolemaic period. When Amenemhet I moved his court from Thebes to el-Lisht, he and his successors instituted a land reclamation scheme in the Faiyum that resulted in the draining of large marshy areas. This was principally accomplished by the regulation of the inflow at Illahun, making available large tracts of rich, arable soil. Many of the royal funerary monuments of that dynasty are in the vicinity of the Faiyum. At the close of the dynasty, the area ceased to be of national importance, remaining so until the third century BCE. At that time, Ptolemy II realized the rich potential of the Faiyum region by reducing the lake level to about its present size. Considerable land was thus reclaimed, and extensive irrigation works were constructed under his reign. A number of large important towns were then established, primarily around the southern side of the depression, which functioned mainly as centers for the new agricultural produce. A major inhabitant of the region's waters was the crocodile and, as the god Sobek, was worshiped as chief deity of the Faiyum.

Lake Mariotis.

(Ar., Behiret Maryut) A part of the changing Delta formation of the Nile River is a series of lakes connected to the Mediterranean Sea: el-Manzala, el-Buruillus, Edku, and Maryut are the largest. They are shallow and swampy and, while fish are taken, there is little settlement nearby or other economic use of them. The westernmost, Lake Mariotis, has considerable historical importance. At its greatest extent, the lake was some 45 kilometers (28 miles) long, lying to the south and west of Alexandria, parallel to the Mediterranean coast and less than a kilometer (a half mile) south of it. Centered at 31°08′N, 29°55′E, the lake was connected to the Nile system under the Ptolemies by a number of small canals, to become a major access to Alexandria, bringing products of the surrounding area and the produce of the Nile Valley. These were then exported to the Mediterranean world from Portus Mareotis, on the southern side of Alexandria. The land around this lake was rich, and the resultant agricultural production was important to the Alexandrian economy. The area adjacent to the lake produced wines and olives of high quality; the white wines were particularly notable and are mentioned by the Roman poets Horace and Virgil, and others. Several amphora-production centers that were located around the lake also attest to the great wine production, since amphoras were the wine containers for shipping. Several Greco-Roman towns and sites were located along the lake's borders on the high ground. It was recorded that there were eight islands in the lake with luxurious villas. Present-day Alexandria is a major summer resort area for Egyptians, and it would seem that the area of Lake Mariotis served a similar function in ancient times; wealthy Alexandrians probably owned properties in the region and went there for holidays.

The Western Desert.

Egypt's Western Desert (the eastern end of the Sahara) has the remains of many lakes; the only ones that exist today are from uncontrolled well production, a result of human error. Many of the ancient lakes existed for considerable periods—during the long moist episodes of the Pleistocene and early Holocene. Evidence for human occupation near the lakes, or playas, indicates their use as resource areas. The present-day desert oases are the remnants of such lakes.

Wadi Natrun.

Situated to the west of the Nile Delta, 75 kilometers (about 47 miles) northwest of Cairo, Wadi Natrun was one of the most important of the remnant lakes. It fills a narrow depression, some 60 kilometers (about 40 miles) long, with a varying number of small lakes that are 23 meters (70 feet) below sea level. The lakes are fed from the water table of the Nile. The area has been of considerable importance throughout Egyptian history as a major source of natron (a naturally occurring combination of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate), used in mummification, and soda (sodium oxide), used for glass manufacture. The natron occurs in solution in the lakes, forms a crust around the edges of the lakes, and is deposited on the bottoms. Natron was important in ancient Egyptian medicine, ritual, and crafts.

See also FAIYUM.


  • Cosson, A. de. Mareotis. London, 1935. An account of the history and importance of Lake Mariotis.
  • Kleindienst, M. R., C. S. Churcher, M. M. A. McDonald, and H. P. Schwarcz. “Geomorphological Setting and Quaternary Geology of the Dakhleh Oasis Region: Interim Report.” In Reports from the Survey of Dakhleh Oasis, Western Desert of Egypt 1977–1987, edited by C. S. Churcher and A. J. Mills. Oxford, 1999.
  • Said, Rushdi. The Geology of Egypt. Rotterdam and Brookfield, 1990.
  • Wendorf, F., and R. Schildt. Prehistory of the Nile Valley. New York, 1976. Chapter 11 is by Bahay Issawi, concerning Faiyum geology; chapter 12 is on the prehistory of the Faiyum Depression.

Anthony J. Mills