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Ch. IV § 3
This webpage reproduces part of
The House of Ptolemy

by E. R. Bevan

published by Methuen Publishing, London,

The text is in the public domain.

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Ch. IV § 5


The People, The Cities, The Court

p114 § 4. The Fayûm

One of the greatest works executed under the second Ptolemy was the winning of large new tracts of land for cultivation and habitation in the Fayûm. This is the modern Arabic name for a depression, about 30 miles broad from north to south and 40 miles long from east to west, which lies to the west of the Nile Valley, separated from it by the line of bordering hills. There is, however, a gap in these hills, near the modern Illahûn, through which a branch of the Nile, which wanders off westward near Assiut, can flow into the depression and fill it up to the level of the Nile. Hence in the days of the first Egyptian dynasties, a great part of the p115depression presented the appearance of a natural lake, rising and falling with the river, and having villages of Egyptian fisher-folk along its shores. Kings of the XIIth dynasty took a great interest in this Lake Region; it became a favourite royal residence, and it was probably a king of this dynasty, concealed in Herodotus under the name "Moeris," who built the great dam with powerful locks across the gap through which the river flowed into the depression, so regulating the inflow and outflow that the inhabitants of the depression would be secured against destructive floods, and the country have a reservoir of water when the Nile was low. In the 5th century B.C. Herodotus visited and saw the great expanse of water — Lake Moeris, the Greeks called it after his time. It filled the depression in those days about up to the site of the present capital of the province, Medinet-el‑Fayûm, where then stood the Egyptian town of Shedet. The special god worshipped by the Lake people was the crocodile god, Sebek, depicted in hieroglyphics with a crocodile's head. Crocodiles were sacred for them, and one special crocodile was kept at Shedet, as the embodiment of Sebek, adorned with jewels and fed by the priests, just as the sacred bull, Apis, was kept at Memphis, as the embodiment of Hapi. When the Ptolemies took over Egypt the great lake was still there. Shedet the Greeks called Krokodeilōn-polis, "City of Crocodiles." But when the Greeks considered this fair and fertile country on the other side of the barren hills which bounded the Nile, it seemed to them possible to dry up a good part of the water in the depression and lay bare wide tracts of new good soil for colonization. It was a work befitting a great king. Also Ptolemy, following, as we have seen, the plan of creating an artificial Macedonia in Egypt, would have here virgin country for his Graeco-Macedonian soldier-settlers, where they might form the bulk of the population and where no Egyptians need be dispossessed. Greek engineering science, under Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II, took the work in hand, and in a few years, where there had been shortly before a sheet of water, there were stretches of cornº-fields with new villages and towns. The water was reduced to less than half its previous extent, lying only over the northern and deepest part of the depression, where it still is to‑day, Birket-el‑Karūn, become brackish and undrinkable, owing to the effect of evaporation upon its shrunk volume. The land won by Ptolemy II from the Lake is still covered p116by the fields and villages of the Egyptian province, El‑Fayûm.

The word "Fayûm" is an Arabic transcription of its Egyptian (Coptic) name, meaning "the Lake," and the first name given by the Greeks to this outlying nome was just a translation of the Egyptian name, hē Limnē, which means "the Lake" in Greek.82 Although the labourers here were mainly native Egyptians, as elsewhere, "the Lake" formed a province more Greek than any other in Egypt. It even looked to the Greek settlers more like their homeland, for the olive, which would not thrive in any other part of Egypt, here did well. No other part of Egypt has yielded to the modern excavator a richer yield of Greek papyri than the Fayûm. This is due, not only to the population here having written more largely in Greek, but to the towns on the edge of the desert having been abandoned rather rapidly, as irrigation fell out of working and the desert encroached, in the decline of the Roman Empire, so that their litter was quickly covered over by a layer of drifted sand.

The names of the Lake towns were largely Greek, and some of them obviously given in honour of the royal family under Ptolemy II. The king's own name was preserved in Ptolemais Hormos (Harbour), on the westward-wandering branch of the Nile just before it passed through the hills into the depression, probably near the modern Illahûn — the port by which the province was in communication with the waterway of the Nile: corn from "the Lake" was there put on river-boats to be carried down to Alexandria. The surname of the queen Arsinoe Philadelphus reappears in Philadelphia (mod. Rubayyāt), and the divine brotherhood of king and queen was recorded by Theadelphia (Harît). The king's sister Philotera gives her name to Philoteris (Wadfa); the special connexion of the royal family with Dionysos is reflected in Bacchias (Umm‑el‑ʽAtl) and Dionysias (Kasr Kurun?). At the end of the reign of Ptolemy II, the whole nome was renamed after the great queen. It became, instead of "the Lake," the nome Arsinoïtēs. Its capital, the City of Crocodiles, was probably, in late Ptolemaic times, renamed Ptolemais Euergetis (after Euergetes II),83 but was commonly spoken of in Roman times as "the City of the Arsinoïtes." Beside the towns already mentioned, whose sites have been p117identified, there were others in the province bearing the same, or similar, names. There were, at least, five villages called Ptolemais. There was another Philoteris; two villages called Arsinoe; two villages called Berenicis; a village called "City of Aphrodite Berenice"; two villages called Philopator; a Lysimachis; a Magaïs. A certain number of places have names formed from that of a Greek deity — Hephaestias, City of Leto, Athenâs, City of Hermes, Areos, Heraclea, Polydeucia — or from the name of a Greek man — hamlet of Eucrates, hamlet of Philoxenus, Andromachis, Archelais — or simply a Greek name of good fortune — Euemeria (the modern Kasr el Banât). A large number have Egyptian names (which we know in their Greek transcript) — Kerkesūcha, Kerkeosiris, Pseuaryō, etc. — several of them corresponding to names of great Egyptian cities outside the Fayûm — Memphis, Athribis, Mendes, Bubastos, Tanis (called, Rostovtzeff supposes, after the home-city of the fellahîn settled there); and a few indicate the presence of Semitic settlers — Magdōla (Hebrew migdol, a "fortress"), Chanaanais, a village called Samaria. The Arsinoite nome, as a whole, was divided into three merides ("divisions") — the meris of Polemo on the south, the meris of Themistes on the west, and the meris of Heracleides on the north and north-east — a fourth smaller division called "the little Lake," mentioned in early times, being later on, it would seem, incorporated in the division of Heraclides.

It has been noted already that Ptolemy saw in the new-won land a tract in which he could specially settle his Graeco-Macedonian soldiers. As Rostovtzeff interprets the evidence, the Graeco-Macedonians were given in the first instance plots which consisted partly of fields already brought into a good state for corn cultivation by Egyptian fellahîn ("Royal Cultivators") and partly of land still unirrigated, but which, by some supplementary work, was capable of being transformed into vineyards, orchards, and kitchen-gardens.

Amongst the papyri found are a good many scraps of the official correspondence and papers of the two chief engineers who directed the new irrigation works in the Fayûm under Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III. The first was Cleon and the second Theodorus, and their title was architektōn, which evidently means here, not an architect in our sense, but an engineer. The architekton received his instructions direct p118from the dioiketes — in the case of Cleon from Apollonius. To Cleon's designs was probably due the great canal system which in future times fed the reclaimed land in the Fayûm. But his life was not without its troubles. He seems to have been more or less at feud with a certain Clearchus, apparently one of his subordinates.84 We have a letter to him from the manager of the large estate of Apollonius, threatening him, because his duties in another part of the province had prevented his attending to some repairs necessary to a canal on the dorea of the great dioiketes.85 When Ptolemy II himself visited the Fayûm, perhaps in his year 32, Cleon had to endure a burst of the king's anger (πικρῶς σοι ἐχρήσατο).86 But Cleon did not lose his post. He was still architekton in the last year of Ptolemy II. But we have a letter, written apparently just after the fall of Apollonius by the new dioiketes, announcing to the officials of the Arsinoite nome that Theodorus has now been appointed architekton of the nome.87

The Author's Notes:

82 It is so called in the Revenue Papyrus of Ptolemy II (258 B.C.).

83 See the discussion in Tebtunis, II pp398 ff.

84 Petrie, II.IV (4).

85 Petrie, II.XIII (5).

86 Witkowski, No. 6.

87 A note of Rostovtzeff (Large Estate, p18) points out that Theodorus is spoken of as architekton as early as 249‑8. Since, however, it seems proved that Cleon was still architekton in 246 B.C., we must probably suppose, as R. suggests, that Theodorus was really only sub-engineer at that time.

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Page updated: 9 Oct 12