Must see attractions in Cairo Outskirts & the Nile Delta

  • Top ChoiceSights in Al Fayoum

    Wadi Al Hittan

    This Unesco World Heritage Site is home to the earliest prehistoric whale fossils ever discovered. The more than 400 basilosaurus and dorodontus (both rather fierce water predators) skeletons found here are around 40 million years old and show the clear evolution of land-based mammals into sea-going ones, as they have vestigial front and back legs. The sands are also studded with the remains of manatees and big bony fish – which look very out of place in the vast desert. From the central site complex a small network of walking tracks leads out to more than a dozen skeleton sites. Although it doesn't sound like much, the desert setting is dramatic and it's a great destination for a day or overnight outing, usually combined with Wadi Rayyan. The site complex has toilets, a wilderness campground and the excellent Wadi Al Hittan Fossil & Climate Change Museum. The circular one-room museum does a good job of explaining the geological history and nature of the area with a series of information boards and fossil displays that surround the crowning exhibit, an 18-metre long skeleton of a Basilosaurus Isis whale. There's also a short documentary on Wadi Al Hittan. Wadi Al Hittan is reached by an unsealed corrugated desert track that runs off the main Wadi Rayyan road; a 4WD is necessary. From the turn off, it's 37 kilometres to the main site complex.

  • Sights in Al Fayoum

    Wadi Rayyan Protected Area

    The 'waterfalls' in the Wadi Rayyan Protected Area are a major attraction for weekend picnickers from Cairo. The waterfalls, where one lake drains into another, are about 20km away from the reserve's gate, on the left side of the road. Along the lakefront is a visitors centre, toilets and some cafes. From here, big wooden rowboats take, for about LE50 to LE75, a one-hour trip out to the middle of the lake and then back up close to the falls. The wider Wadi Rayyan area is rich in wildlife, including white gazelles, Egyptian gazelles, sand foxes and fennec foxes, as well as rare species of resident birds, migrant birds and various kinds of eagles and falcons. It's well worth exploring this fascinating area further. Five kilometres further along the road from the lake turn off is the rocky outcrop of Jabal Al Modawara, fairly easy to climb and a great place to spot eagles or falcons. In the 1960s, Egyptian authorities created three lakes in the Wadi Rayyan depression, southwest of Lake Qarun, to hold excess water from agricultural drainage. This was intended to be the first step in an ambitious land-reclamation project, though not everything went to plan when the water started to become increasingly brackish. On the bright side, these man-made lakes became particularly conducive to large colonies of birds, leading to the entire depression being administered as a national park. Wadi Al Hittan (officially part of the Wadi Rayyan Protected Area) is reached by taking the signposted turn off just past Jabal Al Modawara. You can camp here for LE15 per night.

  • Sights in Al Fayoum

    Fayoum Pottery School

    Established in the 1970s by Swiss artists, Evelyne Porret and Michel Pastore, this school, which trains children and adults in the local potting traditions, is set in a beautiful mudbrick compound. Its architecture – very much in the Egyptian vernacular style – is as attractive as the students’ creations from clay, which are on sale here. From the school, ask for directions to the workshop of Ahmed Abou Zeid, another noted local potter.

  • Sights in Al Fayoum

    Wadi Al Hittan Fossil & Climate Change Museum

    The displays of fossils and information boards within this circular one-room museum do an excellent job of explaining the geological history, nature, and the role of climate change on this area. The displays all surround the museum's crowning exhibit, an 18-metre long skeleton of a Basilosaurus Isis whale. There's also a short documentary you can watch on Wadi Al Hittan.

  • Sights in Al Fayoum

    Karanis

    The vast, slumping ruins of ancient Karanis lie 25km north of Medinat Al Fayoum, on the edge of the oasis depression, along the road to Cairo. Founded by Ptolemy II’s mercenaries in the 3rd century BC, this was once a mudbrick settlement with a population in the thousands. Today, little of the ancient city remains intact aside from half-buried, crumbling walls scattered across the sand, though Karanis is home to two well-preserved Graeco-Roman temples. The larger and more interesting temple was built in the 1st century BC and is dedicated to two local crocodile gods, Pnepheros and Petesouchos. In front of the east entrance is a large square container – essentially a giant swimming pool for the holy crocs. Inside, niches in the wall are where crocodile mummies would’ve been stowed, and a block-like structure was the ‘house’ for the gods. The temple is also adorned with inscriptions dating from the reigns of the Roman emperors Nero, Claudius and Vespasian. It’s a trek to the north temple, and there is far less structure here – but you can see an ancient pigeon tower, off to the east, not so different from the ones that dot Al Fayoum today. In the ruined domestic area north of the temple, you’ll find a bathtub adorned with frescoes. The museum on-site, next to Lord Cromer’s one-time field house, holds an eclectic collection of artefacts from sites around Fayoum that cover the Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic eras. Just at the start of the ruins area, there's also a small open-air 'museum' of columns and stone statuary remnants rescued from Kiman Faris (ancient Crocodilopolis) which has been consumed by the modern city of Medinat Al Fayoum. The best way to get here is by taxi as the site sign is only in Arabic and only labelled with its Arabic name 'Kom Aushim'. The driver (and anyone else you ask in Fayoum) is also more likely to know the site by this name.

  • Sights in Al Fayoum

    Medinat Madi

    This ancient city is one of the most isolated in Al Fayoum, but this is part of its appeal, as you’re often alone out in the blowing sand that drifts over the heads of the stone sphinxes. Medinat Madi (Arabic for ‘City of the Past’) is noted for a well-preserved Middle Kingdom temple, few of which have survived in Egypt. It is dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek and the cobra goddess Renenutet, built by Amenemhat III and Amenemhat IV. Italian excavations in the early 20th century uncovered an archive of Greek texts, that refer to the city as Narmouthis. They also found a separate crocodile-cult temple where the beasts appear to have been bred in captivity – a cache of eggs was found, along with bodies of the creatures in various stages of development. Often they were sacrificed when still quite young. Visiting requires a 4WD vehicle, as there is no real track to the site.

  • Sights in Al Fayoum

    Lake Qarun

    Lake Qarun is a popular weekend spot for Cairenes looking to cool down, and the lake edge is dotted with cafes and wedding pavilions. It’s not a big swimming spot, but even the sight of an expansive lake on the edge of the desert is refreshing, and you can rent a rowing boat. The lake is now an important bird area where thousands of migratory birds rest during their winter migration pattern south, including large numbers of flamingos. Before the 12th-dynasty reigns of Sesostris III and his son Amenemhat III, the area that’s now known as Al Fayoum was entirely covered by Lake Qarun. In an early effort at land reclamation, both pharaohs dug a series of canals linking Qarun to the Nile, and drained much of the lake. Over the past few centuries, the lake has regained some of its former grandeur due to the diversion of the Nile to create more agricultural land, and it now stretches for 42km. However, since it presently sits at 45m below sea level, the water has suffered from increasing salinity. Remarkably, the wildlife has adapted, and today the self-proclaimed ‘world’s most ancient lake’ supports a unique ecosystem. Chances are that you’ll spot countless varieties of birds here, particularly in autumn, including a large colony of flamingos, grey herons, spoonbills and many duck species.

  • Sights in Al Fayoum

    Pyramid of Hawara

    About 8km southeast of Medinat Al Fayoum, on the north side of the canal Bahr Yusuf, the canal that connects Al Fayoum to the Nile, stands the dilapidated second pyramid of Amenemhat III, built at a gentler angle than his first one (the towerlike Black Pyramid at Dahshur). Herodotus described this temple (300m by 250m) as a 3000-room labyrinth that surpassed even the Pyramids of Giza. Strabo claimed it had as many rooms as there were provinces. Although the Pyramid of Hawara was originally covered with white limestone casing, sadly only the mudbrick core remains today, and even the once-famous temple has been quarried. The interior of the pyramid, now closed to visitors, revealed several technical developments: corridors were blocked using a series of huge stone portcullises; the burial chamber is carved from a single piece of quartzite; and the chamber was sealed by an ingenious device using sand to lower the roof block into place. Microbuses between Medinat Al Fayoum and Beni Suef pass through the town of Hawarat Al Makta. From here, it is just a short walk to the pyramid. Alternatively, you can visit in a taxi as part of a circuit.

  • Sights in Al Fayoum

    Pyramid of Meidum

    About 30km northeast of Medinat Al Fayoum is the ruin of the first true pyramid attempted by the ancient Egyptians. It began as an eight-stepped structure, with the steps later filled in and an outer casing added to form the first pyramid shell. There were design flaws and, sometime after completion (possibly as late as the last few centuries BC), the pyramid’s own weight caused the sides to collapse. Today, only the core stands, though it is still an impressive sight. Pharaoh Huni (2637–2613 BC) commissioned the pyramid, although it was his son Sneferu who was responsible for the actual building. Sneferu’s architects then went on to build the more successful Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid at Dahshur. The guard will unlock the entrance of the pyramid, from where steps lead 75m down to the empty burial chamber. Near the pyramid are the large mastaba tombs of some of Sneferu’s family and officials, including his son Rahotep and wife Nofret. The pyramid is hard to reach. The best option is to hire a taxi and visit as part of a larger tour.

  • Sights in Al Fayoum

    Qasr Qarun

    At the western end of Lake Qarun, just east of the village of Qasr Qarun, are the ruins of ancient Dionysias, once the starting point for caravans to the Western Desert oasis of Bahariya. All that remains of the ancient settlement is a Ptolemaic temple, known as Qasr Qarun, built in 4 BC and dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile-headed god of Al Fayoum. There are excellent views from the rooftop. The temple is built of blocks of yellow limestone, but unusually for Egypt there are no inscriptions, except over the entrance, where there is a winged sun, and on the roof, a headless relief of Sobek on the left and a king on the right. The internal structure has been reinforced; if you are feeling adventurous explore the amazing maze of chambers, tunnels and stairways. Take a torch or candles.

  • Sights in Al Fayoum

    Pyramid of Al Lahun

    About 10km southeast of Hawara are the ruins of this mudbrick pyramid, built by Pharaoh Sesostris II (1880–1874 BC). It’s not worth a separate trip, but if you’re driving by, look out for its strangely lumpen shape, set on an existing rock outcropping for extra stature. Ancient tomb robbers stripped it of all its rock and treasures, except for the amazing solid-gold cobra that is now displayed in the jewellery room (Room 4) of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

  • Sights in Al Fayoum

    Fayoum Art Center Residency

    This project run by painter Mohamed Abla hosts classes and resident artists from around the world in the cooler months of January and February; email him for information on upcoming workshops. For the casual visitor, the onsite Caricature Museum holds an interesting collection of Egyptian political cartoons.

  • Sights in Al Fayoum

    Obelisk of Senusert

    This red granite obelisk, dedicated to 12th-dynasty pharaoh Senusert I, stands proudly in the centre of a traffic roundabout overlooking the northern entry to Medinat Al Fayoum. It was removed from its original site (a few kilometres north in the village of Abgig) and re-erected in the city during the 1970s.

  • Sights in Al Fayoum

    Waterwheels

    Al Fayoum is famous for its more than 200 waterwheels, which have become a prominent symbol of the town and the oasis. These four rather rickety and unassumingly small examples are slap in the centre of Medinat Al Fayoum. The Greeks invented the waterwheel, and the first depictions of them are seen in Ptolemaic Egyptian sources, so it’s quite likely that since Pharaonic times these devices have kept the town well irrigated despite its irregular topography of rolling hills and steep depressions.