Kom Ushim is best known as ancient ‘Karanis’, is situated 30Km north of the city of El-Fayoum, the largest of the Graeco-Roman town sites in the Faiyum. The town was occupied for a total period of around seven centuries and saw many changes after the end of dynastic rule in Egypt. The site can be entered from the grounds of the museum.
Although Petrie had examined the site earlier, the first real excavations at Karanis began in 1925 and were undertaken by the University of Michigan, who were the first to realise the potential for the investigation and study of Graeco-Roman sites in Egypt. The town has since provided a very valuable source of information on everyday life, religious cults, administration and industries during this period.
There have also been numerous papyri and documents found – excellently preserved due to Egypt’s dry climate – which have the special significance of being able to be read in context with the architecture and artefacts of the town remains. The Michigan team found five datable levels of stratigraphy during their excavations over the three main areas they covered. The site has since been excavated by Cairo University and more recently by the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology.
The archaeological site of Karanis is situated on a huge mound which rises 12m above the surrounding plain. The town was founded by Ptolemy II in the 3rd century BC, primarily as a garrison for his troops, but prospered and grew, probably because of its accessibility from more populated cities to the north. At the time of building the town would have been on the shores of Lake Qarun.
The houses are arranged in clusters around the two main thoroughfares which run from north to south and range in style from simple mudbrick dwellings to the more elaborate villas of the high-status officials. Remains of millstones and olive presses still lie on the ground and there were also six dovecotes found in the ruins, similar to those seen in the Faiyum today. Although many occupations and industries are represented in the town, it would appear that the majority were farmers who worked on the fertile agricultural land of the surrounding area. Ten large granaries and seven smaller ones have been uncovered at Karanis.
The town was built around two temples of the Ptolemaic Period and much of the information from excavations at Karanis reflects the religious preoccupations of its inhabitants – 27 different Egyptian, Greek or Roman deities are recorded there. The southern temple was built in the latter part of the 1st century AD, on the site of an earlier structure and is the largest of the two. It was dedicated to the crocodile-god (Sobek, or Suchos) who was worshipped here as Pnepheros and Petesuchos.
The southern temple is built of limestone and though undecorated it follows the conventional Egyptian plan of a quay at the head of a processional way, leading through a paved colonnaded courtyard to the temple. The main entrance gate (usurped by Claudius) bears an inscription of Nero who is said to have originally dedicated the temple. A gate of Vespasian lies to the east, beyond a small sacred lake.
The structure contains three chambers, the largest room gave access to a vestibule from which the sanctuary was entered and from the roof there is a good view of the town of Karanis and the fertile land to the south. Deep niches in the walls of the vestibule were used to contain the mummies of the sacred crocodiles which would have been incorporated into the temple rituals. Many mummified crocodiles have been found buried at Karanis. In the sanctuary itself a large altar reveals a low hidden chamber beneath which was probably used by the priests to deliver oracles.
The northern temple, constructed on an earlier site, also dates to the end of the 1st century AD, but has no inscriptions at all. This grey limestone structure faces north, is smaller than the southern temple and was once surrounded by a mudbrick temenos wall which is now mostly destroyed. There are two small entrance pylons and the outer corners of the temple are decorated with four slender columns. A large stone altar, also with an oracle niche, dominates the sanctuary.
In addition to the cult of the crocodile-god, Karanis is known to have had devotees of the divine triad of Isis, Serapis, and Harpocrates, as well as numerous other ‘domestic gods’, both Egyptian and Greek. Although now mostly ruined, Karanis occupies a unique place in the Graeco-Roman monuments of Egypt. Investigation of the site over the past century has enormously enhanced understanding of the everyday lives of its inhabitants under Greek and Roman rule.