The Fayyum

The Fayyum depression lies in a great pan of the Libyan desert between latitude 29° and 29° 45' N., and between longitude 30° and 31° E (25 km West of the Nile and 90 km South-west of Cairo). Its area is 669 square miles, or about 1800 square kilometers.

Egypt, Nile River, Fayyum and Nile Delta From Terra/MODIS satellite 2000-08-10; Map courtesy of NASA


The region has an arid climate characterized by a long dry summer and a short winter with little rainfall (annual average in the range of 10 to 20 mm). Water is fed to it by a western side-arm of the Nile, the 'Baḥr Yūsuf', which branches off the main Nile route near Dairūt.  At Lahūn, 284 km upstream, the Baḥr Yūsuf connects with a canal that enters the Fayyum depression. The water then drains northwestwards with the slope of the Fayyum towards an evaporation lake (Birkat Qarūn).

In Pharaonic times, the Fayyum was a giant flood escape and a reservoir of Nile water: when the annual Nile inundation was at its peak, excess water escaped to the Fayyum, thereby protecting the lower parts of Egypt from devastation caused by the flood. After the inundation level declined, water flowed back from the Fayyum into the Nile, thereby prolonging the water supply for cultivation in Lower Egypt (Mehringer et al. 1979).  Herodotus left us a vivid account of this system, based on his visit to the Fayyum in 450 BC (Herodotus 1910:77)

During the reigns of Ptolemy I and II (323-246 B.C.), the Fayyum had undergone a wide-scale reclamation project. The Ptolemaic kings constructed a monumental embankment at Lahūn, which was designed to regulate and to reduce the flow of water into the depression.

Due to the reduction of the inflow of water, and as a result of evaporation, the lake surface gradually decreased and the area of arable land increased from 400 to 1300 square km (Butzer 1976: 73). The Ptolemaic kings then engaged their engineers in a major project of land reclamation and colonization, which involved the drainage of the marshland, the clearing out of bushes, reeds, and other swamp vegetation, and the construction of main and subsidiary irrigation canals to supply the needs of cultivation (Boak 1926: 360). 

The Lahun embankment (Shafei 1960)


The irrigation system took advantage of the unique topography of the Fayyum: the mild slope towards the northwest enabled the creation of a dense network of open-flowing channels that distributed irrigation water very efficiently across the depression. A layout of sluicegates, weirs and distributors ensured the optimal functioning of this system.

The canal system provided relatively stable year-round irrigation for large portions of the Fayyumi lands, facilitating the cultivation of both annual and perennial crops. This, in turn, enabled sustaining a relatively large population, which was centered in the city (Crocodilopolis/ Arsinoe/ Madīnat al-Fayyūm). The Ptolemaic kings populated the newly reclaimed lands in the Fayyum with Greek soldiers and their families (Boak 1926). Later on, during the Roman period, the population was mainly Coptic Christian.

The Islamic Period

During the Arab invasion of Egypt, the Fayyum, which was a Christian center, was one of the last provinces to surrender to the Arab conquerors in AD 641. The province nevertheless remained mostly Christian until the 10th or even the 11th centuries, and many Christians held high ranking positions in its administration under the rule of the Muslim dynasties (Ragib 1982). 

The Fayyum also maintained its importance as a primary agricultural district. Although most scholars claim that its agricultural produce gradually declined during this period (see e.g. Boak 1926), recent scholarship suggests that there was no systematic decline (Keenan 2003; 2005, Rathbone 1991).

Fishermen on lake Qarūn; Courtesy of Prof. Dominic Rathbone


During the reign of the Fatimid dynasty (AD 969 – 1171), the iqṭā‘ system gradually came to replace the estate (ḍay‘a) as the primary unit of political and economic administration in rural Egypt. Under this new system, the caliph granted senior state officials rights to collect rural taxes from specified villages or provinces. These rights were limited to the collection of certain fiscal revenues, and did not extend to actual ownership (Cahen 1953: 32-3).

Saladin (Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Ayyūbī, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty), who took over Egypt in 1171, further developed this system by emphasizing its military aspect. Under Saladin, the iqṭā‘ right to collect rural taxes was to be conferred in return for military service; it was not hereditary and did not entail any seigniorial power over the villages. Furthermore, if an iqṭā‘ –holder neglected his military duties, his iqṭa‘ could be revoked (Rabie 1973: 29-30).

In 1182, Saladin set aside the province of the Fayyum for himself as a royal domain. The province remained the private property of various Ayyubid princes until 1222-3, when the entire province was conferred as iqṭā‘ on the amir Fakhr al-Dīn ‘Uthmān ibn Qizil, the major-domo of the reigning sultan (ibid: 43). This amir, as we are told by Nābulusī in Chapter Six of the ‘History of the Fayyum’, took upon himself to increase the flow of water into the Fayyum and to improve its irrigation system.

Distribution weir in the Fayyum. Courtesy of Prof. Dominic Rathbone
Distribution weir in the Fayyum. Courtesy of Prof. Dominic Rathbone


During the 1230s, the Fayyum was parceled out, and lands and villages were conferred as iqṭā‘ upon several other amirs and military officers. In 1244-5, when Nabulusī conducted his cadastral survey, the rights to collect taxes from the villages of the province were allocated to at least 20 named military officers.  A small minority of villages still belonged to the private domain of the sultan (khāṣṣ), and the revenues of three villages were endowed as waqf in the benefit of religious institutions in Madinat al-Fayyum and in Cairo.

Together with changes in the land-holding system, it is also evident that during the Fatimid and the Ayyubid periods the population of the Fayyum has undergone a dramatic change.  The cadastral survey of al-Nābulusī shows that by the mid-13th century, the Fayyum had become predominantly Muslim, and that its population consisted mainly of Arab Bedouin tribes.  The Coptic Christians were now mostly found in Madinat al-Fayyum and in a few larger villages, with many of the churches and monasteries in ruins. The ‘history of the Fayyum’ provides a unique insight into the process of the Islamization of the province.

Remnants of ancient dam in the Fayyum. Courtesy of Prof. Dominic Rathbone
Waterwheels in the Fayyum. Courtesy of Prof. Dominic Rathbone.
Waterwheels in the Fayyum. Courtesy of Prof. Dominic Rathbone.
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