To the ancient Egyptians, the lake at the center of the Faiyum Depression was a holy place, sacred to Sobek, the crocodile god, whose material manifestations swarmed the lake's beaches. The high religious significance of the lake was paralleled in several periods with considerable economic importance, based on the fecundity of the Faiyum's well-watered farmlands and fish, fowl, and other resources from the lake itself. In modern Arabic, the lake is known as Birket Qarun. In ancient Egyptian it was originally She-resy (“southern lake”) and later divided into She-resy and Mer-wer (“The Great Lake”).
In early antiquity the Faiyum lake was fed by a branch of the Nile; therefore the lake rose and fell annually with the river, and in the flood season it covered a large area. Beginning probably in the twelfth dynasty (c. 1991–1783 BCE) the water flow into the lake was artificially restricted, probably in order to reclaim land for farming. Land reclamation over the centuries eventually reduced the lake to less than 20 percent of its original extent. In the early 1990s water runoff from agricultural fields has increased the size of the lake slightly and made it so saline that most aquatic animal species disappeared.
Traces of human activity in the areas around the Faiyum Depression region go back hundreds of thousands of years, but the earliest substantial and well-preserved occupations date to about ten thousand years ago when hunters and gatherers began intensive exploitation of the rich terrestrial and lake resources along the shore. Remains of these early occupations are marked by many small chert blades and other tools (known as the Qarunian Industry) and include numerous remains of fish, gazelle, hartebeest, hippo, and other animals. These early Faiyum groups appear not to have been in the process of domesticating plants or animals, or using these domesticates in any form of agriculture.
About 7,500 years ago, the Faiyum hunter-fisher-foragers were replaced, displaced, or “converted” (the evidence is still uncertain) to “Neolithic” cultures, which were based in part on domesticated wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and cattle. Artifacts and sites of this period are found in heavy concentrations on most of the perimeter of the lake. There is no question that these people cultivated wheat and barley. In the 1920s archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson (Caton-Thompson and Gardner, 1934) found silos full of well-preserved wheat and barley that also contained sickles and other tools of these early cultivators. Except for a few possible traces of poles for huts, no dwellings of the Faiyum Neolithic have been found, and it seems likely that these people lived in reed huts.
The Faiyum seems to have been nearly abandoned soon after 4,000 bce, but only a few sites that date to 4000–3000 have been found, perhaps because the main Nile Valley offered better conditions for agriculture than the Faiyum.
Only a few sites dating to 3000–1550 have been found in the Faiyum. Stone quarries on the northern side of the lake were worked during this period, and a small temple (known as Qaṣr el-Sagha) was built there in the Middle Kingdom (2040–1640).
King Amenemhet I of the twelfth dynasty (c. 1991–1962) moved the administrative capital of Egypt and his royal residence from Thebes to Itjtawy—now known as Lisht—which was located on the west bank of the Nile between the Faiyum and Memphis. Little remains of the town except two small pyramids and some tombs and cemeteries, but the emergence of Lisht as an important settlement probably resulted in attempts to develop the Faiyum. Amenemhet III (c. 1844–1797) built a temple in the southern Faiyum at Medinet Madi, as well as a pyramid at Hawara, at the eastern entrance to the Faiyum. Underground burial chambers near the Hawara pyramid were probably the “Labyrinth” described by the Greek historian Strabo. Amenemhet III is also associated with two large stone constructions at Biahmu, which apparently were the bases of two colossal statues of him. Once on the shore or actually in the lake, they were described by Herodotus and perhaps were still partially preserved in the seventeenth century CE, according to travelers' reports, but no longer exist.
Between about 300 BCE and 300 CE, the Greco-Roman era, the Faiyum became one of the richest and most important provinces of Egypt. During this time the agricultural produce of the Faiyum was exported to many towns and cities, some of them outside of Egypt, and several Faiyum towns grew into major metropolises. Some of these cities, such as Dimai on the northern shore of the lake and Karanis at the eastern entrance to the Faiyum, are remarkably well preserved even today. We know much of this period because thousands of documents have been found, almost all of them written on papyrus in demotic Egyptian or Greek and documenting the social and economic life of these communities. The Faiyum prospered during the medieval and modern periods as well, and today it is one of the most densely settled and agriculturally productive regions in Egypt.
- Caton-Thompson, Gertrude, and Eleanor Gardner. The Desert Fayum. London, 1934.
- Ginter, Bronislaw, and J. K. Kozlowski. “Investigations on Neolithic Settlement.” In Qasr el-Sagha 1980, edited by J. K. Kozlowski, pp. 37–67. Warsaw, 1983.
- Wendorf, Fred, and Romauld Schild. Prehistory of the Nile Valley. New York, 1976.
- Wenke, Robert, Janet Long, and Paul Buck. “The Epipaleolithic and Neolithic Subsistence and Settlement in the Fayyum Oasis of Egypt.” Journal of Field Archaeology 15.1 (1988): 29–51.
Robert J. Wenke