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Having an area of 490 mile² (1,270 km²), Al Fayyum is an oasis and a distinctive region in character between the main Nile Valley and other desert oases: its fields are watered by a channel of the Nile, the Bahr Yussef , as it drains into a desert depression to the west of the Nile Valley. The Bahr Yussef veers west through a narrow neck of land north of Ihnasya , between the archaeological sites of Lahun and Gurob; it then branches out, providing rich agricultural land in the Fayyum basin, draining into the Fayyum lake, freshwater in prehistory, but now a large saltwater lake. The capital of Fayyum, Medinet-Al-Fayyum , is 81 mi (130 km) southwest of Cairo. The Fayyum proper is an oasis in the Libyan Desert, its eastern border being about 15 mi west of the Nile.
Southwest of the Fayyum, and forming part of the province, is the Gharak depression. Another depression, entirely barren, the Wadi Rayan, covering 280 mile² (725 km²), lies west of the Gharak. The whole region is below sea-level, and, except for the gap mentioned, is encircled by the Libyan hills. The lowest part of the province, the north-west end, is occupied by the Birket ci Kerun , or Lake of the Horns, whose surface level is 140 ft (43 m) below sea-level. The lake covers about 78 mile² (200 km²)
Differing from the typical oasis, whose fertility depends on water obtained from springs, the cultivated land in the Fayyum is formed of Nile mud brought down by the Bahr Yusuf. From this channel, 15 mile (24 km) in length from Lahun, at the entrance of the gap in the hills, to Medina, several canals branch off and by these the province is irrigated, the drainage water flowing into the Birket ci Kerun. Over 400 mile² (1,000 km²) of the Fayyum is cultivated, the chief crops being cereals and cotton. The completion of the Aswan Low Dam by ensuring a fuller supply of water enabled 20,000 acres (80 km²) of land, previously unirrigated and untaxed, to be brought under cultivation in the three years 1903-1905. Three crops are obtained in twenty months. The province is noted for its figs and grapes, the figs being of exceptional quality. Olives are also cultivated. Rose trees are very numerous and most of the attar of roses of Egypt is manufactured in the province. The Fayum also possesses an excellent breed of sheep. Lake Kerun abounds in fish, notably the bulti (Nile carp), of which considerable quantities are sent to Cairo.
Medinet Al-Fayyum (or Medina), the capital of the province, is a great agricultural center, with a population that increased from 26,000 in 1882 to 37,320 in 1907, and has several large bazaars, mosques, baths and a much-frequented weekly market. The Bahr Yusuf runs through the town, its banks lined with houses. There are two bridges over the stream: one of three arches, which carries the main street and bazaar, and one of two arches over which is built the Kait Bey mosque. Mounds north of the town mark the site of Arsinoe , known to the ancient Greeks as Crocodilopolis, where in ancient times the sacred crocodile kept in the Lake of Moeris was worshipped. Besides Medina there are several other towns in the province, among them Senuris and Tomia to the north of Medina and Senaru and Auuksa on the road to the lake. There are also, especially in the neighborhood of the lake, many ruins of ancient villages and cities. The Fayum is the site of Lake Moeris of the ancient Egyptians, a lake of which Birket ci Kerun is the shrunken remnant.
This region has the earliest evidence for farming in Egypt and was a center of royal activity in the Middle Kingdom and Ptolemaic Period. The Fayyum was one of the main agricultural breadbaskets of the ancient world.
For the first three centuries AD, the people of the Fayyum and elsewhere in Roman Egypt not only embalmed their dead but also placed a portrait of the deceased over the face of the mummy wrappings, shroud or case. Preserved by the dry desert environment, these Fayyum portraits make up the richest body of portraiture to have survived antiquity. They provide us with a window into a remarkable society of peoples of mixed origins —Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Syrians, Libyans and others — that flourished 2,000 years ago in the Fayyum.
In the late first millennium AD, the arable area shrank, and settlements around the edge of the basin were abandoned. These sites include some of the best-preserved from the late Roman Empire, notably Karanis, and from the Byzantine and early Islamic Periods, though recent redevelopment has greatly reduced the archaeological features.
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