Tucked away, far from “the madding crowd” of the bustling metropolis lies the magic lake.
It is not a figment of the imagination, an oeuvre of a painter’s brush or the creation of an author’s vision. It is real, it is here, and it is beautiful.
Steeped in lores of antiquity, CNN called it “Egypt’s best hidden secret”, but blessed is he who finds it.
Located less than two hours away from Cairo, Fayoum oasis is undoubtedly one of the country’s hidden treasures. About 100 kilometres southwest of Cairo, this large region is made up of many lakes and canals, a perfect spot for those keen to escape the flurry and flutter of the city.
You can be there for a weekend, a day or a lifetime. Many visitors from other lands decided to leave hearth and home and settle for life at such a peaceful location, by the magic lake.
Estimated to be at least 3,000 years old, it once carried great importance in ancient times, because of its strategic location on the trade route between Memphis and the Western Desert oases.
The name Fayoum is derived from its ancient Egyptian name Pa-youm or Pa-yuum, meaning lake or sea.
The lake, however, is the soul of the world of Fayoum. Its level usually considered 45 metres, but the average water depth is 4.2 metres.
Once referred to as Lake Moeris created by Pharaoh Amenemhat I, it was far larger encompassing the whole current area. Today, the remaining waters spread over 53,000 acres of bewitching seduction and magnificent charm. You can gaze at it all day with only a soft murmur of existence. It is now known as Lake Qaroun.
Where does the name come from?
Many attribute it to the protagonist in a story related in the Holy Quran, a contemporary of Moses. His name was Qaroun and he amassed a fortune of wealth, but was flooded by the waters of the lake because of his sins. Henceforth the saying, “the wealth of Qaroun”.
Fishermen in the area tell fascinating tales and myths about the treasures that still lurk beneath the surface of the present day lake, guarded by a fairy or mermaid. Divers in search of the treasures come up empty handed, claiming that they were mesmerised by the charm of the mermaid they claim to have seen.
Fictitious as they may be, such fables add to the allure and mystery of the magic lake. However, local inhabitants take those myths, inherited from their forefathers, very seriously. They refer to the remains of a mansion by the lake as Qasr Qaroun or Qarun Palace as described in the Holy Quran.
Underneath the building secret tunnels have been found that lead you to the adjacent village. Residents believe there are other tunnels that reach all the way to Alexandria and maybe even Memphis.
You can listen to these stories ad infinitum, but historians believe the building is an ancient temple of Dionysius, the Greek god of joy and pleasure. The Greeks were in Egypt for 300 years (332BC-30BC). The best place was chosen for the god of joy and pleasure, for this area is abundant with both.
You can listen to their folklore throughout their sunny days and in the cool of the evenings, but if you choose you can also be busy all day enjoying the unique sites the area has to offer.
One of Fayoum’s numerous highlights is Wadi Al-Rayan, a protected national park that stretches across 700 square miles, featuring a variety of scenic attractions that include moving dunes, natural sulfa springs, mountains and its wonder of wonders Wadi Al-Hitan, (Valley of the Whales), a UNESCO World Heritage since 2005. It is an open-air museum that offers a puzzling depiction of the evolution of life, fossils of inhabitants 40 million years old.
Lake Qaroun received its protectorate status, not only because of its obvious beauty and location, but for its unparalleled historical and scientific importance.
If you are a bird watcher, you are in luck. This is a bird sanctuary where 88 varieties of birds come to winter by the lake, even flamingos have been seen there.
Sailing in a felucca is a precious experience as you will witness the most picturesque views.
If the artist in you is rumbling you can try your hand at some pottery by visiting Tunis Village, overlooking the lake. Pottery schools can help you create your very own masterpiece. The village’s popularity has exploded in recent years, because of the Annual Pottery Exhibition.
Residents create gorgeous pottery found in galleries and show rooms. You can purchase a piece or two to remind you of this idyllic spot hidden away in the heart of Egypt.
So rich in history and folklore, it stirs the imagination.
Did Moses and his people really cross Lake Qaroun? Is this the birthplace of the prophet Joseph? Some researchers claim that. Take it or leave it, this is an idyllic spot that is little known, yet every inch cries history, culture, beauty and richness.
It is rather shameful that this peaceful haven with all its treasures failed to be listed as one of the destination’s top attractions.
It emphatically is, even if you do nothing but watch the colours of the lake change throughout the day and hear the silence of repose and the whisper of the West Wind by day’s end.
It is pure magic.
“If you get simple beauty and naught else/ You get about the best thing that God invents.”
Robert Browning (1812-1889)
* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly