The water trail
A day out in Fayoum is enough to minimise urban woes and reinvigorate the spirit, Serene Assir writes
However much we crave the adrenaline of the city, it generally isn't too long before cycles of urban life become mere expressions of meaningless routine and material anxiety. Moreover, the duller cities become, the more trapped we are in them -- and the more difficult it is for us to break away and spend time in the midst of trees or water, feeding our hungry spirits with strong doses of undeterred nature. Frequent longer holidays are a luxury we simply cannot afford, however much we may deserve and need them.
Luckily enough, in Egypt, there are solutions to this -- and Fayoum is just one of them. Seventy-six kilometres south of the capital, Fayoum is a beautiful town that can be reached in just over 90 minutes by car or microbus (for a mere LE5 from Giza Square) from central Cairo, its wealth in natural sites and warmth of temperament is enough to make a visitor feel completely replenished just a few hours after arrival. Most of all, despite its proximity to the most populated city in Africa, and one of the most densely populated in the world, it is a town which is at peace with itself, takes pride in its beauty and makes no petty attempts at self- aggrandisement. The humility of Fayoum's character, coupled with its small-scale natural beauty, inspires visitors to check themselves and to leave behind any false and urban- imposed sense of self-importance.
On arriving at the heart of the town of Fayoum, visitors coming in by microbus will find themselves at the main square. Although the town boasts a museum and plenty of cultural sites -- particularly of Coptic importance -- that are well worth exploring, it is the opportunity to commune with nature that is the most beneficial to the weary inhabitants of Cairo. For this purpose, the ideal route to take out into the open is that which follows the legendary Seven Waterwheels. For around LE30, one can rent a creaky yet quaint horse carriage -- mind that it doesn't allow for inconspicuousness -- and be transported along Bahr Youssef (the Sea of Youssef), a tributary of the Nile that runs from Assiut up to Fayoum, passing each of the seven remaining wheels, that continue to turn and make a sound so hypnotic that Egyptian diva Um Kalthoum sang about it.
Once over 200 waterwheels comparable to those still depended on by local farmers for irrigation purposes turned the water of the Nile's tributary at Fayoum. It is said that the mechanical skill with which the wheels were built is inimitable. "If technicians or engineers today tried to build wheels like this today," said local resident Mahmoud, aged 35, "they would fail. The genius of their construction is such that they continue to work over 5,000 years after they were built, and without them farmers would simply be unable to till their land." The secret of the waterwheels, Mahmoud explains, is that the land is tilted, but not enough to guarantee the steady flow of water at all times of the year. The large mechanical contraptions keep the flow going, and provide the rich Fayoumi soil with the water it needs.
Indeed, the colour green of the countryside in the outskirts of the town of Fayoum is a feast for sore eyes. It speaks of wealth, patience and plenty, and breathes life into a world that it is steadily descending into a pit of pollution and grey. Its brilliance in the sunlight also pays tribute to the water that feeds it, giving forth plants and fruits that range from mint to mango, and from spinach to melons, depending on the season. The natural wealth of the area surrounding the tributary also inspires joggers to practice their favourite sport on the banks of the water.
And, about half an hour out by taxi, for LE20, by motorbike for LE5 or by mini-van for a mere LE2, visitors can take a trip up to Lake Qaroun to bask in the astounding beauty of the salt-water natural protectorate. A number of small open- air restaurants, including Lulua, dot the banks, inviting passers-by to enjoy fish or meat meals and to relax in sunshine that reflects off the waters of the lake. Most of all, Lake Qaroun feeds the imagination with stories of archaeological marvels hidden beneath the waters and palaces that remain unexplored beneath the waves. The stuff of dreams, a little time spent by the lake is enough to re-awaken childhood yearnings for peace and discovery.
All in all, Fayoum is ideal for a day's getaway. Returning to Cairo after the sunset, one feels alive, and perspective on life and routine returns. Things are not, after all, as hard as they seemed in the morning. Soothed by colour, nature and water, the spirit is calm.