By Hoda Nassef
The Egyptian Fayoum oasis is famed for its all-year round pleasant climate and spectacular scenery. It’s a combination of rural, coastal and urban natural environment, and is also a paradise for desert and safari lovers.
There are many arranged “Safaris” in Egypt, and this activity is now often included in Hotels’ itineraries for tourists. I heard about many safaris and was more curious than envious for never having gone on one, as I dreadfully fear insects, especially flying insects or bugs or any sort, but thought that maybe a new experience is missing in my life. So, at my age, one day I just up and decided to explore the desert with a group of old cronies – (middle-aged daredevil lassies like myself) - before my hundredth birthday! Not to overdo it, we chose Fayoum, thinking it was close and safe enough and not totally off the map! In fact, I thought it was an hour’s jump near home!
But alas! It was too late to back off, because before trekking off to Fayoum and half-way there already, our guide told us that the trip would take about three days! Too late to back off….at that point…but I didn’t regret it in the end. Anyhow, we were warned to pack up a few extra clothes for the trip. So, I was prepared, more or less. With our young male guides (not deliberately chosen, mind you!) and around this magnificent oasis, we had plenty of food to last us over four days, and surplus water and car petrol, but a rescue back-up team was crucial and inevitable.
The historical significance of El-Fayoum Oasis isn’t really known to many of us. “This great oasis offers evidence of pre-historic settlements as well as Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic monuments,” explained Guide Number One. “Fayoum lies in a depression right in the Western Desert, some 103 kilometers west of Cairo. It is surrounded by high plateaus and separated from the river Nile by a high ridge to the east at El-Lahun. Its waters come from the Nile, via Bahr Youssef,” he said, concluding our Lesson Number One about Fayoum!
We took the Cairo-Bahria highway route, which was a bit dangerous because it included descending three plateaus, with each plateau having only one-way paths downwards! The terrain was a mixture of soft sand and hard rocks. Our first stop was at Qaret Guhanem - translated as "the continent of hell"! (What a name! By the way, the area got its name from its beautiful red-flaming sunsets, and nothing fiendish!) We had descended the first plateau, arriving there by night with only the GPS (global positioning system) to guide us, then our guides decided that it was too dangerous to continue in the dark, so we stopped for the night.
Qaret Guhanem includes Gabal Guhanem ("mountain of hell") and the unique Wadi El-Hettan, or, "valley of the whales". Believe it or not, there are remains of petrified whales, dating back to 30 million years ago when the Mediterranean Sea reached Assyiut in Upper Egypt. Traces of petrified shark fossils can now also be seen, along with the petrified whales. The prehistoric whales range from 3 meters to 12 meters in length. We gawked in fascination at their sizes, but were irrationally disappointed to see them so incomplete! Unfortunately, these treasures are left unprotected and anyone can pinch off a precious irreplaceable souvenir. I was told that indeed many of the remains were already stolen and more are stolen each year. Where are the Antiquities guards and protectors, I wondered?
The next morning we continued on our trip and drove over 100 kilometers more of desert until we reached Wadi El-Rayan, and to our delight, the beautiful waterfalls. What a great sensation it was to take a cool bath at the waterfalls, after the hot desert.
We met some young Egyptian guys who worked at the Rayan National Park and were greatly comforted when we found out that an "Italiana Cooperazione" is working jointly with the Egyptian Environmental Department in trying to protect the remains of the petrified whales, protect and prevent shooting of gazelles and ducks and other rare species in the area, as well as establishing zones for bird-watchers around the lake. In fact, they even collected in one spot as much petrified whales as they could and then made another clear road off and away from the site to the valley, via Wadi El-Ryan.
Other worthwhile spots to see in Fayoum include "Gabal El-Mushaqiqa" (the 'cracked' mountain) - you can guess how it got its name - and “Gabal El-Mudawara” (the 'round mountain') as well as the springs area. The latter is a national park and a restricted protected area to preserve the gazelles.
We made an early start the following morning to visit Qasr Qarun and had to wait an hour outside until its keeper/guide woke up! The Qasr is a huge construction in Pharaonic style and we were told by our guides that the revealed part of the Qasr ( or, 'castle') was presumably only the third floor, with two more floors underneath the ground, of similar size. Sighting various rooms, our guides confirmed that there are actually 366, as well as other chambers. It is forbidden to build and settle around this prehistoric castle.
The Qasr area, surrounding it, has become an official restricted/protected area because of the possibility of excavating more monuments and antiquities. Yet, it seems that the Egyptian government has no intention in the near future to excavate, due to the expenses it would incur. What a pity! Who knows what we could discover, before pilferers steal away more from our national property…
Going around Birket Qarun, we had to turn left at Karanil; one of the largest Greco-Roman cities, to an off-road route leading us to “Qasr El-Sigha” - (the 'golden fort' or ‘golden castle’) - which consisted of a bunch of empty chambers. Looking south from Qasr El-Sigha, the ruins of Medinet Demaie (or 'city' of Demaie) could be seen. Taking a break for tea, we discussed if we should go and have a look, or not. Our sense of adventure won, so we directed our GPS to Demaie. Once we reached there, we didn’t regret our decision.
The city of Demai is enclosed behind the magnificent walls of a great fort built on top of a high hill. Much of the city is in ruins and most of it is buried beneath the sand, but we could still see a lot of the remains of houses of the ancient city. The fort was built of bricks and mud and the ground area is full of broken pottery.
Although Egyptians focus on Sinai and the Red Sea areas for trips and fun, Fayoum still has a lot to offer, such as places like the “crocodilopolis" - (crocodiles?! Like the whales!) - the “Mosque of Qait Bay” and at least half a dozen pyramids! As for desert safari lovers, Fayoum is the nearest oasis to Cairo and certainly will satisfy anyone's sense of adventure, even for old fuddy- like us!