|For a quiet time outside of the city, head to Fayoum for a true break By Passant Rabie
|In just an hour’s drive from the country’s capital, you are transported to the mesmerizing and serene world of Fayoum where ancient history meets modern culture and natural scenery stretches across the city.
Fayoum, originally named Shedyet, was a cult site for Sobek, the Ancient Egyptian crocodile god, and today still holds a few Pharaonic-era sites.
Hawara, an archaeological site 12 kilometers south of the city, features the pyramid of Amenemhet III, the last powerful ruler of the twelfth dynasty. It’s safe to say the pyramid has deteriorated over time, leaving behind an eroded mud-brick structure.Another ancient site is El-Lahun, the worker’s village that houses the pyramid of Senusret II. Also made out of mud-brick, the pyramid stands atop an artificial terrace cut out from a downward slope and is surrounded by eight rectangular blocks of stone to serve as burial tombs for those associated with the pharaoh. The ancient Roman settlement of Karanis is located at the entrance to Fayoum, offering a quick jaunt among the remnants of granite temples and mud-brick living quarters.
When it comes to Fayoum, however, ancient history takes a backseat to wonders created by Mother Nature herself. Wadi El-Rayan is home to the country’s only waterfalls. One of the nation’s natural protectorates, the valley consists of an upper and lower lake connected by two waterfalls.
Around the valley, you can walk around looking for natural springs, wander through sugar-cane fields or visit the water wheels built by the Ancient Greeks to keep what was then considered the most fertile land of Egypt well irrigated. Horseback riding and picnics are also among visitors’ favorite activities around the two lakes.
North of the city, Lake Qaroun is the third-largest body of water in the country, flowing across 42 kilometers. Although not suitable for swimming, the lake is perfect for a laid back boat ride that will take you past most of the lush green fields.
Trek through Wadi El-Hitan (Valley of the Whales) where the fossil remains of a large number of whales lie in the dry sand. Some believe the entire city was once flooded during prehistoric times.
Another equally fascinating sight is the Petrified Forest just north of Lake Qaroun, where fossils of ancient trees still branch out.
Past the pyramids and waterfalls, Fayoum is home to a few cultural hot spots. One of the nation’s first eco-lodges, Zad al-Mosafer (Lake Qaroun • Tel: +2 (084) 682-0180) started out as local novelist Abdu Goubeer’s country house when his friends suggested he build rooms around the garden so they had a place to write, paint or sculpt. The house has since expanded to become a guest house for visiting writers, painters and artists of any kind.
The rooms are fairly primitive, built from mud and bricks, but equipped with all the necessary services — including three meals a day cooked fresh at Zad al-Mosafer’s kitchen. Situated in the middle of Tunis Village, the eco-lodge is surrounded by green fields on either side, providing a quiet and relaxing atmosphere throughout the day.
To get in touch with the local art scene, you can visit the nearby Fayoum International Art Center (Lake Qaroun • Website: www.ablamuseum.com), an open academy for artists from across the world to create a common artistic ground that goes beyond cultural barriers.
Another local attraction is the Middle East’s first Caricature Museum, which has over 200 humorous cartoons on display.
Perhaps the most famous place to stay is at the Helnan Auberge Hotel (Lake Qaroun • Tel: +2 (084) 689-1200), which since it opened in 1937 has hosted notable figures such as former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Saudi King Ibn Saud.Situated on Lake Qaroun, the Auberge is noted for its classic style and exquisite garden and swimming pool area.
If you’re traveling on a budget, then Panorama Hotel (Along the road from Cairo • Tel +2 (084) 701-314) and Palace Hotel (Bahr Yussef Street • Tel: +2 (084) 351-222) are both favorable options as well.
For an authentic meal straight from the city’s main source of income, Lake Qaroun, head to the village of Shakshouk, where along a dirt-paved corniche, you will find a row of seafood restaurants offering the day’s catch.