The North of Lake Qaroun, Lost Land Adventure

The North of Lake Qaroun

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The northern shore of Lake Qarun in the Faiyum Depression, from Kom Aushim in the east to Quta in the west is one of the most archaeologically sensitive areas in Egypt. It is one of the few places in the world where a nearly pristine archaeological landscape can be studied. Not only is it archaeologically important, but it is rich in fossils of extinct animals and contains a petrified forest. The discovery in the 1920s of Neolithic (Early Neolithic 5,550-4,650 and Late Neolithic 4,650- 4,200 BC) and Epipalaeolithic (7,200-6,200 BC) sites in this region by Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Elinor W. Gardiner rank amongst the most important in the history of Egyptology.

As well as these Epi-Palaeolithic and Neolithic remains there are Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, Ptolemaic and Roman sites, which include the world’s first paved road.

Also located on the northern shore of Lake Qarun are the Middle Kingdom temple at Qasr Sagha and the towering Ptolemaic to Roman period structures of Dimai, and although they are impressive, the archaeological knowledge they impart is secondary in importance when compared to that gained from the Neolithic and Epipalaeolithic sites in the region.

Petrified Forest

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The petrified wood is covering different areas of the western desert. Here in the Fayoum  it is diverse and so well preserved . This gigantic 33 – million – year old Fayoum Forest holds trees as high as 30 meters (98ft) the biggest so far known in Egypt.

Prehistoric Settlements

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Prehistoric settlements. Map from UCL website.

The North of Lake Qaroun is the area in Egypt where the earliest evidence of agriculture has been found. In two Neolithic settlements, known as Kom K and Kom W, domesticated wheat and barley have been discovered in hearths and in nearby grain storage pits, lined with basketry. These are 7000 years old and their preservation is spectacular. Around 5000 BCE the people of the Fayum wove linen textiles, made objects from wood and flint and probably lived in tent-like structures of which no trace has been found. We did find personal adornments, such as half a bracelet made from shell from the Red Sea and ostrich eggshell beads. The domestication of wild grasses into grain was developed in the Levant, and later adopted in Egypt. Whereas in Israel, Jordan and Syria people at that time lived a settled life in mud brick houses, the Fayum people seem to have been mobile part of the year, and used agriculture as just one of their means of subsistence. Fishing, hunting and limited farming went hand in hand with keeping sheep, goats and pigs.

Old Kingdom Basalt Quarry

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A large black basalt quarry exists at the northern edge of Gebel Qatrani, near the two prominent buttes called Widan el-Faras. It was once an Old Kingdom quarry now known to be the source of basalt used for the Old Kingdom pyramid temples. The site standing about 340 meters above sea level. The basalt was loaded onto sleds and transported down the escarpment to the waiting boats at the quay at Qasr al-Sagha. The roadway that led to the quarry was constructed of basalt stone and petrifiedwood during the Old Kingdom. This quarry, road begins at Qasr al-Sagha, turns north, and climbs the escarpment it moves across the plain, and directly to Widan al-Faras, 8 kilometers away. Then it skirts the second escarpment to Gebel Qatrani.
The western and eastern parts of the quarry are separated by 0.5 km and both contain an excavated bench on top and along the edge of the Gebel el-Qatrani escarpment. The basalt is naturally broken up by cross-cutting fractures with spacing comparable to the sizes of the basalt blocks in pyramid temples. Once a block was isolated, wooden levers and ropes were probably used to move it along the shortest overland route (66 km) to the Nile Valley which called the ancient paved road.

World’s Oldest Paved Road

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The route from the Qasr El Sagha temple to the ancient basalt quarries of Widan El Faras passes by an ancient road that is reputedly the oldest paved road in the world. The road is dated and quarry activity as Old Kingdom, with a possibility of a Neolithic age. At Widan El Faras. The road is fully visible on the surface.
The road’s main trunk runs along the foot of the Gebel el-Qatrani escarpment, below the quarry, and is joined in several places by short branches coming from different parts of the quarry. The pavement has a uniform width of 2.0-2.1 m. It is made from a single course of dry-laid, unshaped pieces of whatever stone was close at hand: basalt and sandstone near the quarry, and sandstone, limestone and silicified wood elsewhere. The total length of the road, including all its branches is nearly 12 km, the last ten of which follow a nearly straight and mostly downward course from Widan el-Faras to its finaldestinationontheshoreofanancient and now vanished lake. The ancient road stands elevated partially above the desert due to relative wind erosion estimated at 3 cm a century.
As such, a road facilitated transport of the basalt blocks over the uphill stretches.

Qasr El Sagha Temple

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An unusual Middle Kingdom (2280-1778 BC) building, discovered by Schweinfurth in 1884, at the foot of a steep desert escarpment. The temple is constructed of limestone slabs fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle complete with oblique corner joints. It has a series of rooms with one completely enclosed and having no entrance. The function of this unusual building is unclear, but it certainly had a strategic view of the surrounding area. Below the site there are extensive remains of the village that once stood nearby.

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There is evidence of an ancient roadway, an unusual platform that resembles a causeway, hand-hewn rock caves, and several prehistoric villages. The prehistoric sites are located on the flat plain to the south of the temple. The area seem to have been inhabited by hunters, while the southern sites, nearer the ancient lake, were inhabited by farmers and fishermen. Near by are the remains of an ancient quay.

Dimeh Archaeological City

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A Greco-Roman city (332 BC-323AD) founded by Ptolemy II in the third century B.C. on a site that shows evidence of habitation from the Neolithic period. In Ptolemaic times it was at the shore of lake Moeris and the beginning of the caravan routes to the Western Desert. Serving as a port, the site is currently 65 meters higher and 2.5 kilometers beyond the water’s edge. It was like a frontier. inhabited for six centuries and was finally abandoned by the middle of the third century. The ruins cover an area of about 125 acres/0.5 sq. km. The ruins contain two temples, houses located along the processional Avenue of the Lions, underground chambers, streets, 10 meter high walls, a Roman cemetery lies 900 yards southwest of the city, and agricultural fieldsseparatedby long irrigation canals..
Goods from the Fayoum were transported across the lake by boat to be unloaded at the docks of Demieh, stored, or carried up the Avenue of the Lions (370m long), passes the well preserved remains of houses to a platform on which are the ruins of a large temple of the Ptolemaic period dedicated to Soknopaios. assessed for a customs fee, and reloaded on animals for desert caravans. These caravans moved north over Gebel Qatrani, and probably via Wadi Natrun, to the Mediterranean and on to Rome. Today one can still see the remains of the road, connected the temple to the docks on the Lake which ends about a kilometer to the south of the ruins at a quay. The quay has two limestone piers and steps leading south, presumably to the water’s edge.

Abu Leifa Monastery

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The Monastery was probably founded by St. Panoukhius about 686 A.D and was in use from the 7th through the 9th centuries. It served as a haven for Christians seeking persecution. Immediately behind the Qasr El Sagha temple, and visible on the cliff face of the upper portions of the Deir Abu Lifa member giant cross-bedded sandstone, are a similar series of small man-made caves probably used for meditation. The monastery is typical primitive, its entrance is cut into the mountain and consisting of small caves carved into cliff sides that can be difficult to reach.

Entrance Fees: Free

Reference:

  • Fayum Survey Project
  • The Fayoum Ecotourism Development plan 2005-2015
  • Endangered Fayum, report by The Egyptian Cultural Heritage Organisation
  • The Western desert of Egypt.

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