Man appeared along the banks of the Nile toward the middle of the Paleolithic era.
Of the seven oases that dot the Libyan desert along the Nile - Selimeh, Kharga, Dakhla, Farafra, Bahariya, Siwa and Fayyum the latter was the first to be settled by man: flint tools, fashioned in an oblong shape, were found there.
In approximately 4500 BC, at the dawn of the Neolithic era, man came closer to the mother Nile: the nomadic or semi-nomadic hordes finally settled, and Fayyum was immediately colonized.
A millennium later, Egypt became part of history: the nobles, princes and local
dynasties who once shared power were succeeded by the first kings, called
"Thinites" after their capital, This, located in Upper Egypt, not far from Abydos,
where their tombs were discovered. In Hieraconpolis, holy city of the primeval era,
votive offerings sacred deposits were exhumed, marking the very beginnings of
the Egyptian saga. The Bull king is depicted twice, wearing in turn the red and white
crowns, the pa-sekhemty, "the two Mighty Ones" which, overlapping, formed the
pschent worn by the pharaohs until the last dynasties of the Roman era. Following
a decisive war, the South was conquered and Fayyum was incorporated into the
kingdom, becoming one of its nomes, a province called che-chema, "the Southern
The Bull king, Menes of Manetho and Narmer, chronicled in native documents, were succeeded by the first dynasties; according to these annals, they erected fortresses, leveled entire cities, conducted campaigns against the desert population, ordered expeditions to the Sinai and as far away as the Red Sea, reasserting their power by inaugurating the solemn royal jubilee feast, the heb-sed and, above all, moved the court from This to Memphis, on the very border of the two Egypts. The absence of documents makes it difficult to define Fayyum's status during that period; at the most, we know that it was part of the Empire, and that the legendary fertility of its land attracted new colonists to its lake shores.
The Old Kingdom has left us more ample accounts; Memphis was then the seat of
government, home to those monarchs who lent grandeur to the 3rd through 6th
Dynasties Djoser,Snefru, Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure, Userkaf and Pepi-and who
chose Fayyum as their hunting and fishing grounds, close as it was to Memphis.
One might well imagine that it was, at that time, already high-yield land; the
pharaohs of the 4th, 5th and 6th Dynasties had pyramids built for their tombs; a
royal work site required a significant concentration of workers which had to be
maintained and fed. Undoubtedly, the peasants of the vast domains encircling the
lake had to provide court officials with significant amounts of grain and, in season,
vegetables, which were then routed to the work sites in Saggara, Giza, Abu Sir, Abu
Roach, Dahshur, Meidum and Zaouyet el-Aryan. It is curious to note that all these
sites were on the left bank of the Nile, or in direct relation to the granary which
Fayyum had already become.
During the Old Kingdom, Fayyum was not only a granary and hunting ground; as all the Egyptian nomes, it had its own life; its administrative center was already mentioned in the Pyramid Texts as Chedi. It was dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god, who was venerated as the province's god for nearly three thousand years. The Old Kingdom ended in disorder and political and social unrest. Pepi Il's overly long reign marked the collapse of the Memphite monarchy. Freed from the requirements of service to the court, the princes and nomarchs returned to the feudalism of earlier times .
Peace then returned. The Theban princes were able to impose their hegemony over
all the dynasties along the Nile valley and establish a strong central government in
Thebes. The Antefs, Mentohouteps and Amenemhat the Usurper were the first to
ascend the throne which, for the next two thousand years, would ensure Egypt's
renewed grandeur. From that time on, Fayyum's history would be closely linked to
the royal cause. Amenemhat I soon realized how difficult it was to rule the entire
valley of the Nile from Thebes, especially the Delta, which was constantly slipping
out of his control. He thus established his residence at the very junction of the two
lands, not far from the town of Lisht. Its site has never been discovered. Other
pharaohs of the Dynasties settled in the same region Amenemhat II in Dahshur,
Amenemhat III in Hawara and Senwosret III in Kahun. The town of Kahun, which
had only been occupied for several decades, which survived in a rare state of
preservation for one of ancient Egypt's urban complexes; the princes' villas, modest
two, three, four or six room structures are all contained in a 350 to 400 meter walled
area, separated into two neighborhoods, bisected by a central avenue. During the
excavation, household and votive articles, as well as scarabs were found there,
allowing the province's ranking officials and notables to be identified. It is they, and
so many others, who made Fayyum such a privileged domain. Until then, Fayyum
had been nothing more than a vast oasis surrounding a lake, the toche, the present
day lake of Birket Qarun, fed by a canal, the Bahr Yusif, which branches off from
the Nile some 200 kilometers upstream. The site where the canal appeared from the
desert and entered the oasis was known in Antiquity as the ro-henef, "the
Crocodile's Mouth". Later, Senwosret II erected a dam at the ro-henet, allowing the
water flow to be controlled The great Amenemhat III added a regulating lock to this
work at the edge of Fayyum, a series of dikes to protect the land from flooding. Only
infinitesimal vestiges of these remain today.
Southwest of Fayyum, in Medinat Madi, the sole Middle Kingdom temple to have survived to the present day is situated alongside the koms which cover the ancient Greco-Roman city of Narmouthis.
Of all of Fayyum's monuments, the Labyrinth is the one which has been the most enthusiastically received by its visitors, be they travelers or chroniclers: an elevated plain, with a town and a vast palace, made up of as many residences as there used to be nomes. Innumerable covered galleries, extended by intercommunicating corridors, ensured that a stranger could never find his way to the halls or his way out without a guide. The roofs of these residences are made up of a single sheet of rock and the galleries are covered in a similar manner, with huge sheets of rock, without the use of wood or any other material. The 12th Dynasty pharaohs thus transformed the oasis into one of the centers of the Kingdom. When Queen Sobekneferure, the last severeign of the 12th Dynasty, died around 1785 BC, the legitimate order of succession was undoubtedly overturned, and, according to the Turin Papyrus, one hundred and sixty kings reigned between the end of the Middle and the beginning of the New Kingdoms.
During the New Kingdom, under the Amenophises and the Tuthmosises Fayyum
became once again, as it had during the Old Kingdom, the location of choice for a
brilliant court, avid hunters and fishers.
Later, Ramesses II, whose activities in Fayyum are difficult to gauge, had the chedi's temple to Sobek enlarged as he took it over. It would seem,however, that none of the New Kingdom pharaohs paid the oasis the same passionate attention as the Amenemhats and the Senwosrets had. This was further proven by the fact that during their period, the province's name itself was changed, from pehouchema , "the Southern Reservoir", a name used by engineers and administrators, to ouadj-our, the "Great Green" or, more commonly, pa-yom, "the Sea". Fayyum's present name, moreover, derives from pa-yom, subsequently bastardized from Egyptian to Greek, from Greek to Coptic and from Coptic to Arabic. As for the main feeder canal, it still bears the name of mer-our, "the Grand Canal".
The Intermediate Period survived on the inheritance of the Middle Kingdom Dynasties; there is little mention of the pharaohs of the 21st to 30th dynasties in Fayyum. In fact, only Osorkon I, second king of the 22nd Dynasty is mentioned, along with Piankhi,in the stele relating his reconquest of Lower Egypt and the Delta in 725 BC.
The Theban Dynasties were followed by the Tanites, of Libyan origin, the Bubastites, the Saites and the Napateans of Upper Nubia. The newcomers then began to become involved in the complex play of rivalries, power struggles, treaties and countertreaties. Pacifists at first, such as Hadad, Prince of Edom who, fleeing Joab's persecution, found asylum in the Egyptian court, where he married Queen Tachpenes'sister, they later became bellicose. Assarhaddon led the Assyrian armies as far as Memphis and conquered the Delta with his son, Asurbanipal, who reigned after him. The Assyrians were followed by the Babylonians who did not, however, cross the border. They, in turn, were followed by the Persians; Cambyses, Cyrus' son, defeated Psammetichus III at Peluse and became the master of the Delta, then conquered Upper Egypt and Nubia.
Alexander then made his appearance. He defeated the Persian Empire at Granicus and crushed Darius at Issus. The Egyptians thought that they were finally rid of these barbarians who plundered their resources, oppressed their people, violated their sanctuaries and stole sacred statues from the priests, taking the nation's gods hostage. The Macedonian, perhaps attracted by a clandestine party seeking independence, was triumphantly welcomed in Memphis; no Egyptian actually realized that after the Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians, Egypt was simply acquiring a new master.
When the Conqueror died in 323 BC, the Council of Generals chose his half-brother,
Philip Arrhidaeus, as regent for Alexander's posthumous son, Alexander II
- known as Aegos - to whom Roxanne had just given birth. The regent, or rather
Perdiccus, who reigned in his name, sent satraps, or governors, to all the
conquered provinces and empires, charging them with ensuring the regime's
continuity. Egypt was given to Ptolemy, Lagos' son. Alexander's boyhood friend, a
good warrior and leader, he was one of the young king's most faithful companions.
In 306 BC, this staunch Macedonian would become the first king of the last
Pharanoiac Dynasty. Fourteen kings, all called Ptolemy, and one queen, Cleopatra,
ruled during the last decades of a history which stretched over more than three
millennia, the destiny of which was partly decided somewhere at sea, off Actium, in
Under the Ptolemies Fayyum entered into its last great epoch; firstly, the entire oasis, the nome, was renamed: instead of the indigenous names of to-che, che-chema, pehou-chema, ouadj-our or even pa-yom, Greek terms were preferred: Limne - "the Lake", then "Arsinoe's Domain" or, more commonly "the Arsinoaic nome"; in fact, Fayyum was dedicated to Arsinoe, Ptolemy II Philadelphus' sister and wife. This type of traditional and ritualistic Egyptian union shocked the Greeks. To stifle the scandal, the divine nature of the new queen was exalted; Fayyum, transformed into an Arsinoaic nome, was dedicated to her, and local divinities, as thea sunnaos, were affiliated with the cult. The names of the towns and even the villages were changed to serve the royal cause and guarantee the survival of the dynastic institutions: Ptolmeus, Philadelphus, Theodelphus and Arsinoe.
From the time of his ascent to the throne, Ptolemy II had dreamed of creating a New Macedonia in Egypt, a virgin territory in which Macedonian soldiers and their families could be settled and which reminded them of their homeland; with its vast expanse of fertile land, Fayyum, more than any other province, was well-suited for this. To gain new land to give to his people without, however, wronging the native owners in the process, Ptolemy II had to drain a major portion of the lake. In 253 BC, in the 32nd year of his reign, Ptolemy Philadelphus himself inspected Fayyum. Soon, side by side with the native owners who had shared the land until now, cleruchs began to appear. These cleruchs had been machimoi, warriors exclusively of Greco-Macedonian origin under the first Lagides and later also of Asian , Arab - or Semitic - origin, that is, indigenous, who were given a kleros, a parcel of land, a domain. This ingenious system allowed the king to quickly raise an army if circumstances required it. The kleros was granted by the king and returned to him to be redistributed upon the death of the recipient, unless, as usage soon established, it passed to his direct descendants. It was thus that the mingling of races, customs and religions began, the result of which was Fayyum's astonishing civilization. The oasis thus entered into another Golden Age; its rich black soil produced an abundance of the grain which was exported all over the Mediterranean world.
The Roman eagle then stooped: in 130 BC, Ptolemy VIII Euregetes, the legitimate
descendant of the Lagide Dynasty, was banished from Egypt by his own mother,
Cleopatra III, who replaced him with his younger brother, Ptolemy IX Soter. Exiled in
Cyprus, Euregetes had to wait for the queen's death and the assassination of
Soter, a very unpopular prince, to return to the capital and reestablish the legitimacy
of power, affiliating his own daughter Berenice Philadelphus, to the throne. Over the
previous several years, Rome had only been waiting for the right moment to involve
itself in Egyptian affairs of state and then govern Egypt's fortunes as it desired.
When Soter died, leaving Berenice III alone on the throne, Sulla played a major
trump by sending her his own cousin, a son of Alexander who had taken refuge in
Kos, to be her husband. No sooner had he been instalied in the palace, the young
prince, who had become Ptolemy X Alexander, was plunged headlong into intrigues
and plots. Having succeeded in eliminating the Dynasty's last legitimate
representative, Rome then attempted to validate an apocryphal will of the late king
which, "in gratitude" bequeathed the Egyptian Empire to the Roman Republic. That
was going too far; the Alexandrians managed to stave off this coup by putting one of
Soter's illegitimate sons on the throne. Irresponsible, he became so unpopular that
he was forced to seek refuge in Rome and ask for its protection. In Alexandria, his
daughter Berenice seized the vacant throne and decided to send a delegation to the
Senate to obtain confirmation of her legitimacy .
When the two Egyptian missions arrived, the Republic was locked in struggles with partisans and too preoccupied by its own troubles to play a part. Finally, when Caesar arrived in Alexandria in October of AD 48, he found Ptolemy XII, a child, and his sister-wife Cleopatra VII at the foot of the throne. In the last chapter of its history, Egypt was still powerful enough to be fought over in turn by four of the most powerful figures of the century, Pompey, Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian, using their influence to impose themselves. Egypt's destiny was decided on September 2, 31 off Actium. A Roman province, Egypt would remained linked to the Empire until Maximinus' reign, in approximately AD 310.
Under Rome's domination Fayyum lost all the benefits of the Lagide legacy; although it was isolated from nationalist uprisings, revolts, and repressions which bloodied the country for nearly three centuries. the province was none the less reduced to starvation and misery and, finally, deserted. In the beginning of the 4th century AD, "Egypt's granary" was nothing but a vast, desolate plain, its soil played out.
It is true that Rome had a heavy hand; Octavian, who had now become Augustus, caring only for profitability, taxed the country ruinously. To defeat any resistance, three legions had been put under the authority of a prefect residing in Alexandria in the emperor's name. The first three prefects to rule, Cornelius Gallus, Aelius Gallus and Petronious were so implacably zealous that the Fayyum farmers, already overwhelmed by the Ptolemies' demands, soon had their backs against the wall.
The emperors were plundering Egypt but still respected its gods; their effigies may be found all along the Nile valley, cloaked in priestly symbols representing the gestures required by ritual. Nero led the procession of the Nile gods in the Hathor Temple in Dendera; Domitian, Trajan and Hadrian affiliated themselves with the cult of Isis in Philae, Antoninus Pius, Commodus and Marcus Aurelius with that of Sobek in Kom Ombo. In Fayyum itself, Zobalos, the strategist, dedicated an altar to Augustus, which he put under the protection of Ermouthis, the late Rennoutet, in front of his Medinat Madi temple. It is difficult to discern whether these were political gestures or evidence of a certain fervor, or even curiosity. It is said that. Titus was present for the enthronement of an Apis bull; Hadrian was so impassioned by Egypt that he spent nearly a year there from 130 to 131. The last emperors silenced the gods of Egypt. The Christians, on the other hand annihilated them, destroyed their statues, brutalized their effigies and massacred their priests; in March of 415, the ferocious Saint Cyril of Alexandria, the "Father of all Seals", who was the architect of the triumph of orthodoxy at the Council of Ephesus, confronted the beautiful Hypatia, the daughter of Theon of Alexandria, a neo-platonic philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. Cyril unleashed a fanatical and angry mob on the Museion, where "the Pagan" was torn to pieces in the name of Christ. Egypt was then quiet.