A hidden gem: Fayyoum, Egypt's uncharted treasure
On United Nations' World Tourism Day, The New Arab uncovers one of Egypt’s ‘hidden gems’ that hosts both rich, breath-taking nature reserves and spectacular archaeological sites dating back nearly 40 million years.
Located about 100 kilometres southwest of Cairo, Fayyoum's city site and the surrounding province are hosts to some of the country’s most spectacular and picturesque sites.
Visiting Fayyoum is best enjoyed throughout the autumn and winter months, where a calming breeze will rejuvenate the passing traveller.
Home to approximately 15 hotels, Fayyoum does operate largely as a local tourist destination. However, most of the inns/guest houses tend to be on the side of modesty, with a few boutique spots available for those inclined towards luxury. Despite this, the views overlooking Lake Qarun more than makeup for the lack of excess amenities.
"Why weren't greater resources afforded to Fayyoum to increase its visibility within Egypt's tourism industry?"
A tribute to ‘Om Angelo’
Perhaps the first stop in a visit to Fayyoum is Tunis village, 55 kilometres east of the city centre, where a visitor can enjoy authentic Egyptian food, natural scenery and shop for its famous hand-made pottery products.
The story behind Tunis dates back almost four decades when Swiss artist and potter Evelyne Porret visited the village with her husband and children. She inevitably fell in love with the area, and would never leave again.
Porret decided to stay away from the luxurious life in her homeland and live in the village, teaching the villagers the art of pottery and founding a school and a workshop. Bit by bit, the impoverished village turned into a hub for the handmade, authentic art of pottery.
In keeping with the traditional Egyptian custom in the countryside to name a woman after her elder son’s name, the villagers named name Porret, who passed away in June this year, ‘Om Angelo’ (Angelo’s mother).
Tunis village, which hosts roughly 2000 residents, is now home to a wealth of pottery stores and workshops, are accessible to the general public both to learn and to purchase.
However, "due to the COVID-19 pandemic, life is no longer the same at the village with fewer visitors and, accordingly, fewer buyers". As a consequence of the nation-wide crackdown due to the pandemic, "the festival for pottery and handmade crafts, that used to be held at the end of every year, has also been placed on hold,” said Mahmoud El-Sherif, secretary-general of the Tunis village potters’ society.
“At this time of the year, we would have been finalising the logistics of the festival,” he told The New Arab.
El-Sherif, one of the early students of Porret, learned the craft at an early age until he independently set up his own workshop and store, located at the entrance of the village.
“We have been following Om Angelo’s footsteps and maintaining her legacy by teaching and supporting potters, solving problems facing them and developing the industry in the village,” he added.
Just a few-minute-walk from the entrance of Tunis, the passing visitor can also find an adobe-styled clay building that hosts cartoons that document Egypt's social, political, and economic history throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
Founded in 2009 by renowned Egyptian sculptor and painter Mohamed Abla, the Caricature Museum is the first of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa.
“I opened the museum in an area where people would come especially for it. I didn’t want to open it in Cairo as in the capital anyone passing by may think of checking out the place, regardless of whether s/he is interested or not,” Abla told The New Arab.
The unique museum showcases about 500 original works by Egyptian cartoonists and other foreign and Arab ones, who lived in Egypt in this century and the previous ones, such as George Bahgoury and late Ahmed Toughan, Salah Jaheen, and Alexander Saroukhan. The museum also hosts rare covers of original magazines dating back to the past century.
“It is a hobby, a passion just like stamp collecting. I had been collecting original caricature drawings for over 20 years prior to opening the museum until I felt that I have gathered enough to open the place,” Abla recalled.
Abla never sought the Egyptian government’s support when he established his project.
“As long as I didn’t ask for funding, the government had no problem allowing me to open the place. Had I asked for funding, I would have been obliged to follow the mandated government line, I never wanted that to happen,” he explained.
Ancient times hid among magisterial nature
When one visits Fayyoum, one of the first features one sees is the Waterfalls of Wadi El-Rayan, commonly featured in classical Egyptian films.
Wadi El-Rayan is a small valley, 40 kilometres southwest of the city, where two man-made lakes, created by run-off water from the Fayyoum oasis, are joined by a channel of charming waterfalls.
Whilst the upper lake is densely vegetated, the lower lake is salty and its shores are poorly vegetated. The lakes are overwintering home to waterbirds migrating from southern to northern Egypt.
Visitors go there specially to enjoy the natural scenery, ride horses and sandboard. Unfortunately, the area is not maintained properly for tourists with no restaurants and sparse availability of cafes.
Conversely, the protected area of Wadi El-Hitan ('The Valley of the Whales') in the Wadi El-Rayan desert is Fayyoum's diamond jewel.
Situated in the northwest, around 70 kilometres from Tunis village, Wadi El-Hitan is most famed for the fossil of a 37 million-year-old suborder of whales, and a 24 million-year-old fossil of a crocodile permanently housed at the Fossils and Climate Change Museum.
Expectedly on account of the discoveries, Wadi El-Hitan was listed by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2005 as a World Heritage Site.
The site also conserves a huge span of the desert, containing a variety of landscapes and formations. Rare forms of wildlife are also found in deserts along with fossils and remnants of past civilisations.
Just a few kilometres away, there is a spectacular lake surrounded by hills. It is called the "Magic Lake" after the effect that it leaves any who come across it. The lake changes its colour several times depending on the time of the day and the amount of sunlight it receives.
It's therefore clear that the whole region of Fayyoum is home to diverse touristic activities. However, the area has been hampered by being under-resourced by government grants. The reason why such resources are not optimised by the state thus poses the question: why weren't greater resources afforded to Fayyoum to increase its visibility in Egypt's tourism industry?
“The state gives more attention to coastal cities and has thus not properly promoted tourism in Fayyoum. It was only after the January 25 Revolution where Tunis village received coverage that Fayyoum became known on the touristic map, thanks to the efforts of late Porret and the potters there,” said Hossam El-Sheimy, team leader of an online initiative named Tunis Travel.
“All promotional initiatives are individual efforts carried out through visitors, local residents and journalists,” he told The New Arab.
“The main problem with the government is bureaucracy. If we depend on official efforts, we won’t achieve much. Thanks to the foreign visitors, Tunis village and other parts of Fayyoum are beginning to become known abroad,” El-Sheimy concluded.
Thaer Mansour is a journalist based in Cairo, reporting for The New Arab on politics, culture and social affairs from the Egyptian capital.