Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 July 2012
Issue No. 1106
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ancient land with green future

Mahmoud Bakr explores the many treasures of Fayoum

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Clockwise from top: Wadi Hitan; participants at the eco-tourism conference; Fayoum's water wheels, one of the oasis' landmarks; Fayoum's mystical desert

Fayoum has it all: blue skies, green fields, lakes that attract immigrant birds, and a desert plentiful with geological and archaeological material. Visitors to Fayoum gush about its climate, artisanship, food, and exploratory opportunities.

In recent years, however, Fayoum began to show the fatigue of modern life. The more tourists come, the more refuse the municipal authorities have to handle. This is not a big problem, says Fayoum Governor Ahmed Ali, who just received 12 garbage trucks and six tractors from the Ministry of Environment to help keep the city and the sites clean.

Magdi Allam, chairman of the Arab Federation for Youth and Environment (AFYE), says that Fayoum aims to become part of the country's green economy and attract tourists who are interested in nature and wildlife.

Allam says that the Arab world has been lagging behind in ecotourism but this is going to be reversed soon. AFYE and the Islamic Education, Science, and Culture Organisation (ISESCO) recently organised a regional event on environmental tourism. The Arab Youth Forum for Ecotourism, held in Cairo and Fayoum on 5-8 June, brought together 80 young men and women from 12 Arab and African countries to discuss ways of making the travel business more sustainable.

Speaking at the event, AFYE Secretary General Mamdouh Rashwan called for the creation of a national museum for Fayoum to showcase its history which dates back 40 million years. Other participants declared Fayoum an "ecotourism site." Fayoum artisans, who make carpets, pottery, and metalwork, can use more promotion and training, Rashwan added.

Participants in the AFYE event called for linking the road running north of Lake Qarun to the Cairo-Oasis road in order to encourage visitors to come more often. Environmental expert Mustafa Fouda urged for production of organic food and construction using environment-friendly techniques as part of the current efforts to encourage green economy.

Gebeili Abdel-Maqsud, a researcher with the Fayoum Nature Parks Department, says that Fayoum is the only depression in the Western Desert that is linked to the Nile.

Fayoum's natural history matches its rich archaeological and cultural heritage. Scientists have discovered some of the oldest skeletons of elephants and monkeys in the desert surrounding Fayoum, as well as whale skeletons nearly 40 million years old. Fayoum also includes the largest petrified forests in the world. In Gabal Qatrani, just north of Lake Qarun, miles of forest including trees that are 40-metres tall have survived in ossified form for thousands of years.

Evidence of a prosperous Stone Age community exists also in the desert just to the north of Lake Qarun, where thousands of knives, blades, and pots have been excavate, not far from Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman sites. Gebeili wants to see natural heritage sites in Fayoum, especially in Gabal Qatrani, receive the publicity they deserve. The area, he added, should be declared an open-air museum.

There are more than 214 types of birds an 55 archaeological sites in Fayoum, according to tourism promoter Mohamed El-Khatib, who predicts that Fayoum will be the country's top destination for ecotourism within the next ten or 15 years. Currently, Fayoum attracts 80,000 tourists or so every year, most of them citizens or residents of Egypt. The numbers can grow astronomically if the natural and archaeological sites are developed in a systematic manner, noted El-Khatib.

Steps have also been taken to promote the local handicraft industry. A handicraft centre operating in Sellin now includes 20 workshops focusing on palm frond furniture, baskets, pottery, and carpets. Meanwhile, four workshops have been earmarked for artist residency programmes. El-Fawakhir and El-Nazla, two villages known for their artistic aptitude and rich cultural legacy, are also being promoted as tourist destinations.

A dirt path leading to El-Nazla is being improved to be used as a promenade for visitors. Access to El-Fawakhir is also being developed to be used as a resting point for tourists. Soon, El-Fawakhir will have shops, cafeterias, and other tourist amenities, local officials say.

Oweis Said, director of the Environmental Affairs Organisation (EAO) in Fayoum, suggested that farmers should be trained to use dripping techniques instead of the commonly-used inundation methods. He is also concerned about the impact of moving sand dunes on the area, and suggested the creation of a green belt to stop the movement of sand dunes in the direction of the lake. The northern shores of Lake Qarun, he proposed, should be developed into eco-lodges.

Mahmoud El-Qasyouni, head of the Desert and Environmental Tourism at the Egyptian Federation of Tourism Chambers, said that for millions of years Fayoum was covered with the water of the Mediterranean. When the sea receded, the landscape was akin to the African savannah which explains the frequent finds of animal skeletons in Gabal Qatrani.

About 25 million years ago, noted El-Qasyouni, an earthquake in what is now Uganda created a river that headed north toward what is now Egypt. The river, which later on became the Nile, couldn't go past Qena at first. Due to the rock formations on its northern path, the river turned west, creating lush areas in what is now Fayoum, El-Wadi El-Gedid, El-Gelf El-Kebir, and El-Owaynat. Eventually, cave dwellers living near green pastures and rich hunting grounds produced primitive mural art that is still admired today, El-Qasyouni added.

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