The Faiyum in the Graeco-Roman Period

One region benefited more than any other from new Ptolemaic settlement – the Faiyum. Like their Middle Kingdom predecessors, the Ptolemies recognized the concentration of agricultural potential of the Faiyum – which they named the Arsinoite Nome after Queen Arsinoe (sister and second wife of Ptolemy II) – and exploited it through a project of draining Lake Moeris to create new agricultural land. The ancient regional capital of Shedet (on the site of what is now the modern regional capital of Medinet el-Faiyum) became known as Krokodilopolis (after its local god, the crocodile-headed Sobek) or Ptolemais Euergetis after 117 BC (the date it passed into their hands). Krokodilopolis was the only polis in the Arsinoite nome, the other settlements each being termed a kome – village. Nevertheless, these villages could be substantial in size: Krokodilopolis was probably 288 hectares in area at its greatest extent, but the ‘village’ of Karanis – the next largest settlement in the Faiyum, was a not-inconsiderable 79 hectares.

Greeks and Egyptians in the Faiyum

Although Greek place names are commonly used in official, Greek documents, ancient toponyms continued to be used by the Egyptian population. German scholar Katja Mueller gives the example of ‘The town of Sobek Ratakheny which is called the Hall of Ptolemy’. ‘The town of Sobek’ is a prefix often given to settlements in the Faiyum to stress their connection with the local god; Ratakheny is the traditional dynastic name, while ‘Hall of Ptolemy’ is the Greek name for the site, Ptolemais Hermiou. The local Egyptian population would have used the ancient, traditional name Ratakheny. Today we know this town as Illahun.

For new settlements, a regular, Hellenistic street-plan was the norm. The archaeological exploration of the site of Philadelphia (Kom el-Kharaba el-Kebir), established in the Faiyum by Ptolemy II, has revealed a settlement of probably 1,000 by 500 metres (3,280 by 1,640 ft), laid out on a very regular grid-plan of right-angled streets and insulae – housing blocks of 100 by 50 metres (328 by 164 ft), each of which contained up to 20 mudbrick houses with a footprint of 12 by 12 metres (39 by 39 ft). The settlement at Dionysias (Qasr Qarun) on the western edge of the Faiyum also had a strict orthogonal plan with square insulae of 50 by 50 metres (164 by 164 ft). However, other settlements had a more traditional Egyptian feel to their planning because the key factor was the dominant presence of a temple whose dromos (avenue) acted both as a processional route and a main street, echoing the key principles of the planning of New Kingdom royal cities such as Thebes and Amarna.


Karanis, although technically a village, was very large indeed: its archaeological remains cover an area of 1,050 by 750 metres (3,445 by 2,460 ft) and by the 2nd century AD its population was perhaps 4,000. At this time the influence of the temple-centred major settlement was still present in the provinces, and the two most striking architectural survivals are its two large temples: the stone-built southern temple was 15 by 22 metres (49 by 72 ft) and was located within a sacred enclosure of 75 by 60 metres (246 by 197 ft). The god worshipped here, as in several places in the Faiyum in the Graeco-Roman Period, was a form of Souchos, the Classicized name of the crocodile-god Sobek. At Karanis, Souchos was worshipped in the form of the paired deities Pnepheros and Petesouchos. As was typical of the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods, the worship of gods who had animal forms developed into reverence for sacred animals themselves and a necropolis of mummified crocodiles grew up at Karanis, impressive for a ‘village’, but nothing to rival the catacombs at Hermopolis Magna where ibises and baboons were mummified and interred to honour the local god Thoth.

The excavations by the University of Michigan at Karanis (here shown during their 1924–25 season) are one of the most important and large-scale excavations of a provincial settlement of the Graeco-Roman Period. Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan.

The extensive, if rather bleak, remains of Karanis (Kom Aushim) constitute one of the largest archaeological sites in the Faiyum. Steven Snape.

The most important aspect of Karanis is that, a desert-edge town-mound, it was abandoned before the end of the Roman Period and not re-occupied later. Karanis has principally been excavated by a team from the University of Michigan. It is therefore the best example to have survived of a settlement site of Graeco-Roman Egypt; its two- or three-storey mudbrick houses, clustered together in complex localities, give a strong impression of what life must have been like in a ‘real’ town of this period. It provides a counterpoint to the site of Oxyrhynchus in Middle Egypt, which has provided a mass of documentary evidence for life in a provincial town, but relatively little in the way of coherent archaeological remains.

The inhabitants of Oxyrhynchus dumped their rubbish in the desert to the west of the town where it was well preserved. This rubbish included papyrus documents, most written in Greek, many of which were recovered in the period 1896 to 1907 by the British papyrologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt. Some of these papyri were fragments of plays by Classical authors or early versions of the New Testament, but 90% were administrative documents or private correspondence. The ongoing project to translate this huge archive is gradually revealing the life of the town in the period from the 4th century BC to the 7th century AD.


The population evidence from the Faiyum suggests an overall population decline during the 2nd century AD. In the AD 160s, Egypt suffered from a very serious plague, which had the effect of depopulating much of the country. Where figures exist, or can be estimated, the decline was dramatic and long-lasting. In the 50 years between AD 150–200 the population of Karanis fell by 40 per cent and seems not to have recovered, since by the 4th century it stood at only 10 per cent of its 2nd-century level. Elsewhere in the Faiyum, other large villages suffered a catastrophic decline in population and some were completely abandoned.

The ruins of Antinoöpolis (Sheikh Abada) constitute a huge, and largely unexplored, archaeological site. Rutherford Picture Library.

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