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A Visit to the Fayum, the Land of a Thousand
HE Fayum is well worth a visit. It is so unlike other
parts of Egypt—it is so pleasant to the eye, so instructive, and so easy to get to.
A railway takes you direct in about three hours to Medinet Fayum, the capital, an interesting place itself, and the natural centre from which the whole district can be visited by railway or carriage.
The Fayum is a real oasis, a land flowing with sparkling waters, which is surrounded by the desert on all sides. Except that its waters are not still, but blest with a swift, natural current, which turns the water-wheels automatically, and sweeps away the dread of malaria, the beginning of the twentythird psalm, " He maketh me to lie down in green pastures ; He leadeth me beside the still waters," might have been written of the Fayum—the land of many waters, whose pastures are so green in the midst of the desert. In the Fayum are the rich palm groves which the teachings of one's childhood have associated with the idea of an oasis.
Considering how close it is to Cairo, tourists know surprisingly little of the Fayum, which is a pity, for there are features in the Fayum which adapt it for a tourist-centre, and make it a future Mena or Luxor or Assuan.
The dearth of postcards of the Fayum--the almost entire absence of photographs of the Fayum-is partly responsible for this. At only one Cairo photographer could I discover any photos of it--at Lekejian's; and his pictures, though exquisitely beautiful, were not very up-to-date or com
prehensive. The books about the Fayum also are not upto-date in their pictures. I went there with an entirely wrong view of the place. I imagined Medinet Fayum to be a place picturesque in its decay, like Rosetta or Damietta, full of old mosques and tumble-down palaces.
Instead of this I found a thriving modern town, with an old bit here and there, it is true, but depending for its picturesqueness on the Bahr Yûsuf, and the Oriental aspect of its great modern houses.
There is the air of wealth about the place. Its houses are like the villas of Shubra, without their immense gardens. They would make an imposing suburb in Cairo. They are the kind of houses one would expect to find in that desolate Garden City, whose foundations grin at you, like toothless gums, on the banks of the Nile all the way from old Cairo to new Cairo.
The Fayum is a very wealthy place, and its rich Arab and Syrian landowners live in these palaces, and superintend the cultivation of their lands. Some of them live there altogether, others, as their wealth increases, have houses in Cairo also, and use their Medinet Fayum houses, when they want to visit their property, and as country-houses for passing the summer months.
Medinet is saved from ugliness and vulgarity because there are no Europeans living in it. Its palaces are purely Arab, and as they are spreading and lofty, and have overhanging, meshrebiya-latticed harem windows, and gay Arab decorations, the effect is Oriental and pleasing.
But the old mosque, which once spanned the Bahr Yusuf, in the main street, overhangs it no longer with its picturesque and tumble-down adjuncts: and the bazar is of the unredeemed sort you find in a prosperous native town which does not disturb itself about foreigners.
Medinet Fayum, the capital for four thousand years, is a beautiful city. It is the famous Bahr Yûsuf which gives it its beauty.
The Babr Yûsuf is the river-like canal which flows through the centre of the city as the Torrente S. Maria flows through
the earthquake-stricken city of Modica in the south of Sicily. It is spanned by many bridges ; its palaces overhang it as if they belonged to Venice.
Nobody can truly say whether it is river or canal. But the latest scientific theory is that it is a naturally formed branch of the Nile; that at some date before the dawn of history the Nile in flood burst through the banks separating it from a chain of depressions and hurled its waters through the heart of the Fayum at High Nile, cutting a fresh channel for itself. At Low Nile whatever is left of the water flows back into the Nile. The swift current of the Bahr Yûsuf, which turns so many water-wheels, is certainly suggestive of this. Others are equally positive that it is an artifically cut canal, and tradition, which generally has some kind of foundation, is in favour of this.
Major Hanbury-Brown quotes an Arab tradition from an article by Mr. Cope Whitehouse in The Contemporary Review of September 1887:
“ Joseph, to whom may Allah show mercy and grant peace, when he was Prime Minister of Egypt and high in favour with Raiyan, his sovereign, after that he was more than a hundred years old, became an object of envy to the favourites of the king and the puissant seigneurs of the Court of Memphis, on account of the great power which he wielded and the affection entertained for him by his monarch. They accordingly thus addressed the king : 'Great king, Joseph is now very old; his knowledge has diminished, his beauty has faded, his judgment is unsound, his sagacity has failed.' The king said : 'Set him a task which shall serve as a test.' At that time the El-Fayum was called El-Hun, or the Marsh. It served as a waste-basin for the waters of Upper Egypt, which flowed in and out unrestrained. The courtiers having taken counsel together what to propose to the king, gave this reply to Pharaoh: 'Lay the royal commands upon Joseph that he shall divert the water of the Nile from El-Hun and drain it so as to give you a new province and an additional source of revenue.' The king assented, and, summoning Joseph to his presence, said : 'You know how dearly
I love my daughter, and you see that the time has arrived in which I ought to carve an estate for her out of the crown lands, and give her a separate establishment, of which she would be the mistress. I have, however, no territory avail. able for this purpose except the submerged land of El-Hun. It is in many respects favourably situated. It is a convenient distance from my capital. It is surrounded by desert. My daughter will thus be independent and protected.' 'Quite true, great king,' responded Joseph : when would you wish it done ? for accomplished it shall be by the aid of Allah, the all-powerful. “The sooner the better,' said the king. Then Allah inspired Joseph with a plan. He directed him to make three canals : one from Upper Egypt, a canal on the east, and a canal on the west. Joseph collected workmen and dug the canal of Menhi from Ashmunin to El-Lahun. Then he excavated the canal of El-Fayum, and the eastern canal, with another canal from El-Hun; then he set an army of labourers at work. They cut down the tamarisks and bushes which grew there and carried them away. At the season when the Nile begins to rise the marsh had been converted into good cultivable land. The Nile rose; the water entered the mouth of the Menhi canal, and flowed down the Nile Valley to El-Lahun; thence it turned towards El-Fayum, and entered that canal in such volume that it filled it, and converted the land into a region irrigated by the Nile. King Raiyan thereupon came to see his new province with the courtiers who had advised him to set Joseph this task. When they saw the result they greatly marvelled at the skill and inventive genius of Joseph, and exclaimed : 'We do not know which most to admire, the draining of the marsh and the destruction of the noxious plants, or the conversion of its surface into fertile land and well-watered fields. Then the king said to Joseph, ' How long did it take you to bring this district into the excellent state in which I find it?' Seventy days,' responded Joseph. Then Pharaoh turned to his courtiers and said: 'Apparently one could not have done it in a thousand days.' Thus the name was changed from El-Hun, or the Marsh, to El-Fayum,' the land of a thousand days.'”
The artist's bits in Medinet are vanishing as far as old houses are concerned, but the riverscape of palms both up and down stream is delicious. Even the far-famed Mahmûdiya Canal at Alexandria does not yield such dream-pictures.
The Fayum is a place to which you need to be personally conducted unless you can speak Arabic; even modern Greek does not always carry you, and French and Italian are almost as useless as English, except at the principal hotel, where they speak a little Italian, and the head waiter, when he is not out at lake Kurun, can speak a little English. In the absence of that functionary we might have starved but for my knowledge of Italian.
English people must not yield to their fears at the aspect of this hotel; though the restaurant, the bar, and the billiardroom are one, the bedrooms are not unclean and have no insects, and visitors will not be required to take their meals in the billiard-room restaurant. An unoccupied bedroom was set apart for our meals. The cooking is not bad, nor is the hotel dear if you take your meals à la carte. The servants are a little mysterious. You never know the exact nationality or status of any of them. I suspected one of them of being the proprietor. There were no women servants. The butter had been left there by the last guests in the preceding year.
The Fayum Hotel stands on the banks of the Bahr Yûsuf, a stone's throw from the railway station. The other hotel is a little beyond it. It is worth while looking at, for it is characteristic. But it is not possible.
Having established ourselves in the hotel, we went out to see the town and discover two Syrians, a doctor and a landowner, to whom thoughtful friends had given us introductions, knowing the language difficulty in the Fayum. The doctor gave us some useful information about the antiquities, but Mr. Nicholas Khouri Haddad was out in the country.
We wandered on, feeling so flat at the newness of the town, that
re quite rejoiced when we came to a Pasha's awful blue-and-yellow house of moulded plaster. The only redeeming feature about the bazar was the nice old Kait Bey