On the occasion of World Tourism Day: Fayoum, the unexplored treasure of Egypt

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In commemoration of United Nations World Tourism Day, The New Arab travels to the uncharted territory of Fayyoum, Egypt. Abundantly rich in archaeological treasures, Fayyoum has nonetheless been reduced to obscurity due to state neglect.

On United Nations World Tourism Day, The New Arab discovers one of Egypt’s ‘hidden gems’, home to both rich and breathtaking nature reserves and spectacular archaeological sites dating from close to 40 million years old.

Located about 100 kilometers southwest of Cairo, the site of Fayyoum City and the surrounding province is home to some of the country’s most spectacular and scenic sites.

Visiting Fayyoum is best enjoyed during the fall and winter months, where a soothing breeze will rejuvenate the passing traveler.

Housing around 15 hotels, Fayyoum largely functions as a local tourist destination. However, most hostels / guesthouses tend to be on the modesty side, with few shops available for those inclined towards luxury. Despite this, the views overlooking Qarun Lake more than make up for the lack of surplus amenities.

“Why haven’t more resources been given to Fayyum to increase its visibility within the Egyptian tourism industry? “

Tribute to “Om Angelo”

Perhaps the first stop on a visit to Fayyum is Tunisian village, 55 kilometers east of the city center, where a visitor can sample authentic Egyptian cuisine, natural scenery and shop for its famous handmade pottery products.

Tunis’s history dates back almost four decades when the Swiss artist and potter Evelyne Porret visited the village with her husband and children. She inevitably fell in love with the area, and will never leave again.

Porret decided to stay away from the luxurious life of his native country and live in the village, teaching the villagers the art of pottery and founding a school and workshop. Gradually, the impoverished village turned into a hub for the authentic art of handmade pottery.

In keeping with the traditional Egyptian custom in the countryside of naming a woman by the name of her eldest son, the villagers named Porret, who died in June of this year, “Om Angelo” (Angelo’s mother).

Handicraft pottery in the Tunisian village of Fayyoum [Thaer Mansour]

The village of Tunis, which is home to around 2,000 inhabitants, is now home to a multitude of shops and pottery workshops, accessible to the general public both for learning and for buying.

However, “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, life is not the same in the village with fewer visitors and therefore fewer buyers.” As a result of the nationwide crackdown due to the pandemic, “the pottery and craft festival, which was held at the end of each year, was also suspended,” said Mahmoud El-Sherif, Secretary. -general of the society of potters of the village of Tunis.

“By this time of year, we would have finalized the logistics of the festival,” he told TNA.

El-Sherif, one of Porret’s first pupils, learned the trade at an early age until he independently set up his own workshop and store, located at the entrance to the village.

“We have followed in Om Angelo’s footsteps and maintained his legacy by teaching and supporting the potters, solving the problems they face and developing the industry in the village,” he added.

A short walk from the entrance to Tunis, the passing visitor may also find an adobe-style clay building that houses cartoons that document the social, political and economic history of Egypt during the 20th and 20th centuries. 21st centuries.

Founded in 2009 by the famous 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 a neighborhood where people came especially for it. I didn’t want to open it in Cairo because in the capital, anyone passing by can think of visiting the place, whether they are interested or not, ”Abla told TNA.

Revered Egyptian artist Mohamed Abla outside the Caricature Museum in the village of Tunis, Fayyoum [Thaer Mansour]

The unique museum displays around 500 original works by Egyptian and other foreign and Arab designers, who lived in Egypt during this century and earlier ones, such as Georges bahgoury and late Ahmed Toughan, Salah jaheen, and Alexander Saroukhan. The museum also houses rare covers of original magazines from the last century.

“It’s a hobby, a passion just like stamp collecting. I had collected original caricatures for over 20 years before opening the museum until I felt I had collected enough to open the place, ”Abla recalls.

Abla never asked for the support of the Egyptian government when he established his project.

“Until I applied for funding, the government had no problem allowing me to open the venue. If I had applied for funding, I would have been forced to follow the line of the mandated government, I never wanted that to happen, ”he explained.

The caricature museum in Fayoum [Thaer Mansour]

Ancient times hidden among masterful nature

When we visit Fayyoum, one of the first features that we see are the waterfalls of Ouadi El-Rayan, commonly featured in classic Egyptian films.

Wadi El-Rayan is a small valley, 40 kilometers southwest of the city, where two man-made lakes, created by runoff from the oasis of Fayyoum, are connected by a channel of charming waterfalls.

While the upper lake is densely vegetated, the lower lake is salty and its shores are sparsely vegetated. The lakes winter and are home to waterfowl that migrate from the south to the north of Egypt.

The waterfalls of Wadi El-Rayan, Fayyoum [Thaer Mansour]

Visitors go there specifically to enjoy the natural scenery, horseback riding and sandboarding. Unfortunately, the area is not properly maintained for tourists, with no restaurants and few cafes.

Conversely, the protected area of Wadi El-Hitan (“The Valley of the Whales”) in the desert of Wadi El-Rayan is the diamond jewel of Fayyoum.

Located in the northwest, about 70 kilometers from the village of Tunis, Wadi El-Hitan is best known for the fossil of a 37 million year old suborder of whales and a 24 million year old crocodile fossil. years permanently housed at the Fossils and Climate Change Museum.

The fossil of a 37-million-year-old whale in Wadi El-Hitan, Fayyoum [Thaer Mansour]

As might be expected from the finds, 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 preserves a huge expanse of desert, containing a variety of landscapes and formations. Rare forms of wild animals are also found in the desert along with fossils and remains from past civilizations.

A few kilometers away is a spectacular lake surrounded by hills. It is called the “Magic Lake” after the effect it leaves on all who meet it. The lake changes color several times depending on the time of day and the amount of sunshine it receives.

The “Magic Lake” of Wadi El-Hitan, so called after its miraculous impact on passers-by [Thaer Mansour]

It is therefore clear that the entire Fayyoum region is home to various tourist activities. However, the region has been hampered by the government’s lack of financial resources. The reason why such resources are not optimized by the state therefore begs the question: why were more resources not granted to Fayyoum to increase its visibility in the Egyptian tourism industry?

“The state pays more attention to coastal towns and therefore has not properly promoted tourism in Fayyoum. It was only after the January 25 revolution when the village of Tunis was covered that Fayyoum became known on the tourist map, thanks to the efforts of the 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 led by visitors, local residents and journalists,” he told TNA.

“The main problem with the government is the bureaucracy. If we depend on official efforts, we won’t get much. Thanks to foreign visitors, the village of Tunis and other parts of Fayoum are starting to make themselves known abroad, ”El-Sheimy concluded.

Thaer Mansour is a Cairo-based journalist who works for The New Arab on politics, culture and social affairs in the Egyptian capital.


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