Egypt's Newest Oasis

Times Staff Writer

When the Greek historian Herodotus arrived here for a visit 2,400 years ago, he was startled to find a tame crocodile that wore glass earrings and was fed on "bread, with a certain number of victims."

Herodotus did some checking, and discovered that the town here, then known as Crocodilopolis, had been named in honor of a local god, Sobek, who was perceived as a crocodile. The discovery presumably convinced the historian that the Egyptians' reverence for the crocodile was not as extraordinary as he had thought.

Visitors are still coming to Faiyum Oasis, 75 miles southwest of Cairo, and many of them, like Herodotus, are taken aback to find, in the middle of the desert, an oasis of lush farmland spreading out from the shores of a saltwater lake covering 150 square miles.

Watered by the Nile

Faiyum is one of several oases scattered across Egypt's desert but, unlike the others, it is fed by the Nile, 30 miles away, through a series of irrigation channels conceived 5,000 years ago. By the time the polluted river water mixes with the area's alkaline rocks and sand, it has become as salty as the ocean.

The oasis, once a favorite hunting retreat of the pharaohs, has in the past few years become Egypt's newest tourist attraction. The government is trying to capitalize on the fact that most Egyptians have never seen a lake, and on Faiyum's important but mostly forgotten role in history: It is the earliest known site of pottery-making in the world.

King Farouk's hunting lodge on Lake Quran, Auberge du Lac, which had been allowed to deteriorate, has been renovated and taken over by the Indian hotel chain Oberoi. It was opened recently as a 55-room hotel, and the government hopes it will be the first step in developing Faiyum as a major resort area.

Working Out the Bugs

Notes placed on each guest's pillow explain that the hotel is having a "soft opening," meaning that there are still bugs to be worked out. The staff is local, with no hotel experience, and still in the process of being trained, the notes say. Electricity is being tested, the muddy tap water is under investigation.

But in terms of effort and hospitality, the hotel has reached a high standard, although it's probably not quite as stylish as when British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill and King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia conferred here in February, 1945.

Faiyum, once the granary of Egypt, is still an important producer of cotton, potatoes, tomatoes and other vegetables. Industry is limited, consisting mainly of a cotton mill, several small ice factories and a government-run Coca-Cola bottling plant.

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