Fayoum: A pre-historic protectorate, a whole artistic village and a hotel that starred as the main destination to most Classic Egyptian Films, need we say more?
The City of Fayoum is the perfect winter gataway. Approximatly 70 km out of Cairo, "Crocodilopolis ", as it is known during the Middle Kingdom after the crocodile who was also the master of Lake Qaroun at that time.
Some sixty years ago, Fayoum became a winter resort and a honeymoon destination. However, despite its proximity to Cairo (around 70 kms), it didn’t become and a regular weekend destination until the early eighties when the village of Tunis started to attract a group of artists and university professors who bought land and built houses, mostly in the en vogue vernacular style.
Despite its picturesque sightseeing overlooking Lake Qarun (locally Birket Qarun), its prehistoric protectorates Wadi al-Rayyan and Wadi al-Hittan where shells and artifacts are abundant, Fayoum was never seriously included on the typical tourist itinerary. Probably, it was overshadowed by the glamour and antiquity of Upper Egypt, the momentum of Cairo, the cosmopolitanism of Alexandria, and recently, the beaches of Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh.
School books introduce the town of Fayoum to students as a governorate with semi fertile land and water wheels. History and geography researchers confirm that Lake Qarun, although currently the largest in Egypt, was previously larger than it is now, and its saltwater were in prehistoric times freshwater. This was a time when the ancient Greeks and Romans called it Lake Moeris
. (1. Fayoum scenery along Bahr Youssef;
2. Fayyoum paysage;
3. Fayoum Canal).
Recently, the nature and wildlife potential of Fayoum has unfolded to safari explorers, bird watchers and chasers seeking hares and jack rabits, gazelles and duck on the desert side of Lake Qarun or bulti fish and rowing activities in its waters. Fortunately, the chase is regulated and subject to permission of local authorities and environmental bureaux.
Long overlooked in favour of governorates right on the fertile valley, in the first half of the twentieth century Fayoum was not directly connected by a train. Until 1951, it was reached by means of a branch line from al-Wasta junction on the State Railway System. The construction of seven lines to Lahoun, Sennoures and Rodah, Shawashna, was commenced in 1898 by a private enterprise under a concession granted by the Egyptian Government for seventy years, which should have expired in August 1972 had it continued. In 1906 the Anglo Belgian Company of Egypt has acquired the majority of its shares and assumed control. In 1939, Joseph kfoury, who operated a number of motor-bus services in Fayoum Province, acquired an important interest in the Fayoum Light Railways Company whose headquarters were at al-Immobilia Building, and was appointed its manager.
A turning point in the history of Fayoum happened in the mid thirties. A year after ascending the throne of Egypt, young King Farouk sought in 1937 an escapade spot from the responsibilities of the State. The then virgin shore on the Northern side of Lake Qarun was a perfect spot not only because of its closeness to Cairo but for its safari potential which enabled him to chase all kinds of wild life birds particularly ducks and quails. His Majesty is known to have participated in chasing contests where he more often than not came back with the highest number of catches. As he became a frequent goer, he had a small country club chalet designed for him reputedly by architect Albert Zananiri who has also built many landmarks in Cairo including Dar al-Hilal Publishing house, the Auberge des Pyramides, Dar al-Chifaa Hospital in Abbasia region as well as the twin Ismail Sidky and Wadie Saad buildings in Zamalek
With its rustique styled furniture, it became known as Auberge du Lac until the 1952 coup d’etat took place and all the King’s property was confiscated including the Auberge. It was soon handed over to the tourism administration, there still wasn’t a dedicated ministry, which converted it to a hotel since then known as the Auberge du Fayoum
(5. l'auberge de Fayoum Hotel). Its original design featured three distinct suits. The one designated for King Farouk had private access to a garden that led to the jetty on which the Royal yacht was docked.
In its hey days, the Auberge became a favoured retreat for political figures. In 1945, Farouk held in the Auberge a meeting between King Saud and Winston Churchill to discuss WWII matters. While most of the original furniture of the Auberge and the petrified bird heads that once hung on its walls are gone, the only memorabilia commemorating the Royal days is the metal plaque of the “Churchill Hall” at the lobby of the hotel. Due to its historic significance, many other attractions have settled around the Auberge. And in the golden days of the Egyptian cinema the Auberge was synonymous with entertainment, vacation and romance such as was for instance in the movie El Hob Hedda (This is Love) starring Sabbah and Salah Zulficar. Almost half a century later, the cinema movement grew out of this romance and featured, for the first time, the beauty of Fayoum’s scenery as did Youssef Chahine in his El Muhajir (The Immigrant) where many shots were filmed around the waterfalls of Fayoum.
Although little Fayoum was not on the list of hotellerie industry in Fayoum the study of old postcards unveil the names of a few small or medium sized hotels that once existed. Among others are the Hotel Qarun, Palmiers and others
(6. Fayum Qarun Hotel).
7. Small hotel in Fayoum,
Photos Courtesy of Ola Seif