FAYUM (also spelled “Faiyum” or “Fayyum”), comes from the Coptic Phiom (“sea”), and geographically designates a muhafazah (governorate), formerly a mudiria (province) of Upper EGYPT, an oasis in northcentral Egypt adjacent to the NILE RIVER, with significant paleontological and archaeological interest. Fayum is one of 26 administrative divisions of the Arab Republic of Egypt and is located in a great depression of the Western (Lybian) Desert south-southwest of Cairo. The muhafazah has an area of 707 square mi (1,827 square km) and a population of 1,550,000.
Its capital, located in the southeastern quadrant, also called Fayum, was formerly Madinat-el-Fayum (Medina or City of the Fayyum). The settlement dates to the 12th dynasty (1938–1756 B.C.E.) and achieved considerable importance during the Middle Kingdom. The city was called Shedet in pharaonic times, Crocodilopolis in the Ptolemaic era, and Arsinoe during the Roman period; there were substantial Hellenistic, Roman, Coptic, and Mamluk occupations, and it was a major Coptic Christian center until the Arabs arrived in 640 C.E. The capital is a major Sunni Muslim center with a population of 230,000.
Fayum Oasis, situated 149 ft (45 m) below sea level, is 15 mi (25 km) west of the Nile and separated from the river by a gravel ridge bordered on the west by the Western (or Libyan) Desert. It extends about 50 mi (80 km) east-west and 35 mi (56 km) north-south and is connected with the Nile by the Bahr Yusuf, a canalized river. Irrigation canals were originally dug about 1800 B.C.E.
Paleontologist Elwyn Simons and colleagues conducted research on early anthropoids and other vertebrate fossils from the only continuous sequence of fossiliferous continental middle- to late-Eocene and early-Oligocene deposits on the Afro-Arabian landmass. Important fossils include the genera Propliopithecus, Aegyptopithecus, Parapithecus, Apidium, Oligopithecus, Catopithecus, Proteopithecus, Serapia, Qatrania, and Arsinoea.
Human presence dates to the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras; Fayum A is the oldest Neolithic culture in Egypt. Pyramids were constructed on the ridge funerary complex, built by Amenhotep III at Hawara. Ancient scholars Herodotus, Strabo, and Pliny describe the temple pyramid’s courtyard. The Roman cemetery north of Hawara yielded the famous and unique Fayum Portraits.