"Hail, Hetch-abhu, who comest forth from Ta-she (the Fayoum), I have not slain the cattle belonging to the god." - from the Negative Confession of the Book of the Dead.
The Fayoum was the favorite hunting ground for the Egyptian elite, especially the early Pharaohs. While hunting is no longer allowed, Egyptian myth has it that the first pharaoh, Menes, was attacked by his dogs while on a hunting trip to the Fayoum. He was saved by a crocodile and therefore dedicated a temple to Sobek, the crocodile god, declaring the lake a sanctuary. Since earliest times, crocodiles were worshipped in the area. During the old kingdom, mines in the area provided stone for monuments and the paving stones at Khufu's mortuary temple at Giza. During the reign of Senwosret I, Al Fayoum became the capital of the Middle Kingdom. His successors Amenemhet II and Senwosret III built the last pyramids in Lahun, Lisht and Hawara.
Beginning during the rule of Senwosret II, but particularly during the 12th Dynasty's King Amenemhet I's rule, the area's importance was elevated because of his ingenious scheme to regulate the Nile floods using the Fayoum as a regulator reservoir. At that time there was a natural canal between the Nile and the Fayoum lake which at that time was called Me-Wer (or Greek Lake Moeris, meaning Great Lake). Today it is called Birket Qarun, which means Qarun Pond. Muslims believe that it was the biblical Joseph who widened the canal (Joseph's Canal or Bahr Yussuf or Yusif), and built the world's first dam at El Lahun to regulate the flow of water. During Nile floods, water would enter the Fayoum increasing the water level to as much as 18 meters above sea level, about twice it's current size. Later, water would be drained from the depression to irrigate Lower Egypt. However, at that time Fayoum became Egypt's most fertile agricultural area and Amenemhet III loved the region to such an extent that he abandoned his pyramid at Dashur to build his colossi at Biahmu, Narmuthis, a temple dedicated to Sobek, and at Hawara, his new pyramid and the famous and then very popular Labyrinth.
During later dynasties, the Fayoum was little noticed until the Greco-Roman Period, when it achieved it's greatest glory. As soon as the Greeks came into power in 332 B.C., they immediately focused their attention on the agricultural potential of this region, and thus the Fayoum developed a strong relationship to Alexandria. The Greeks, under Ptolemy II, populated the area with Greek veterans, Macedonians and other foreigners who began systematically improving the irrigation methods. They used Greek inventions such as the Archimedes' screw and the sakiya to irrigate over 618 sq. miles of land, much of which had been reclaimed by lowering the level of the lake. New crops, such as the apricot tree were also introduced. The Greeks settled such towns as Krocodilopolis (Per-Sebek), Karanis and Dionysias, and Ptolemy II named the nome, Arsinoe, after his sister-wife.
Apparently, the decline of the Fayoum region began during the late Greek period, but continued during Roman times. Feuds between the Ptolemies required Greek and Egyptian soldiers, leaving few to cultivate the land and keep the irrigation systems in good order. Heavy taxes also added to the problems. Egypt became known as the breadbasket of Rome, and no region suffered more than the Fayoum. Forced to provide corn and harnessed with a devastating tax which was foolish in the extreme, the region suffered a domino effect as the fellaheen were forced to flee their farms and homes. As the population and production shrank, those remaining were even further burdened, until finally in the forth century, the Fayoum was but a shadow of it's former glory.
The many pharaonic sites in the area include a red granite obelisk of
Senwosret I and the pyramid of Senwosret
II at Lahun, the pyramid of Amenemhat
III at Hawara, and the remains of
the ancient city of Karanis.
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