Dimeh al-Siba in the Fayoum

Dimeh al-Siba in the Fayoum

by Jimmy Dunn

The ruins of Dimeh in the Fayoum

An excursion to Dimeh al-Siba (Dime, Dimia, and nearby Qasr al-Sagha) on the northern side of Birkat Qarun is one of the most interesting in the Fayoum, rewarding and memorable as much for the desert and lake scenery as for the historical interest of the sites themselves. Even those without the slightest interest in antiquities will enjoy this trip and cannot fail to be impressed by the magnificent, lonely ruins of Dimeh. However, beware that it is an isolated spot, and is best made with a knowledgeable guide and proper transport. Also note that permission from the SCA is required.

Dimeh al-Siba, Dimeh of the Lions, was a Ptolemaic city believed to be founded by Ptolemy II in the third century BC, on a site that shows evidence of habitation from the Neolithic period. Today, it is more isolated, but during ptolemaic times it was at the shore of the much larger lake, situated at the edge of Moeris Bay and the beginning of the caravan routes into the Western Desert.

A view of the temple area at Dimeh

According to Caton-Thompson, it was Ptolemy who reduced the size of the lake to provide land for the settlement of retired Macedonian soldiers and their families. The town served as a port, and was perhaps at one time located on an island, judging by its Ptolemaic name Soknopaiou Nesos, meaning Island of Soknopaios (from the Egyptian Sobek-en-Pai). However, some scholars maintain that it was in fact never an island. Today, the site is 65 meters higher and 2.5 kilometers beyond the water's edge.

During the troubles of the Roman Period, Dimeh reached its zenith and its ultimate decline. Although Roman soldiers were stationed there, no documents suggest that they made it their permanent home. It was on the fringe of the desert away from the cultivated lands on the south side of the lake, so it was rather of a frontier outpost. Retired Roman soldiers preferred to live in the villages to the south like Philadelpha and Karanis.

The Road of the Lions leading up to the ruins of Dimeh

Goods from the Fayoum were transported across the lake by boat to be unloaded at the docks of Dimeh, stored, or carried up the Avenue of the Lions, assessed for a customs fee, and reloaded on animals for desert caravans. These caravans moved north over Gebel Qatrani and probably via Wadi Natrun to the Mediterranean and on to Rome.

Some of the ruins at sunset at Dimeh

During this period of Egyptian history (as at other times), the country had a reputation throughout the Mediterranean of being plagued by desert bandits. Here at Soknopiaou Nesos, as in other desert outposts in the Western and Eastern deserts, and along the northern coast, security systems were in place to protect caravans, but they did not always succeed. Dimeh was inhabited for six centuries and was finally abandoned by the middle of the third century AD.

The ruins of Dimeh al-Siba contain the two temples, houses, underground chambers, streets and ten meter high walls that are sometimes up to five meters thick. The walls themselves are a testament to the survivability of mudbrick in the desert environment. The ground is strewn with debris. An uncountable number of shards cover the entire temple mound. They are all over the place. One can even find, we are told, ancient fish hooks, pottery and coins.

The city itself was spread out over a great distance through the desert, and the mudbrick walls that are still standing did not contain the entire town, but only the temple area. To the north were the agricultural fields, separated by long irrigation canals. To the south was the Gate of Soknopaios, at the end of the Avenue of the Lions, which ran down to the edge of the lake where the docks were located. Today, one can still see the remains of this road, which ends about a kilometer to the south of the ruins at a quay. The quay has two limestone piers and steps leading south, presumably to the water's edge.

The houses are located along the processional Avenue of the Lions, inside the walls, and on the plain surrounding the temple mound. At one time they reached several stories, had painted walls similar to those recently excavated at Amheida in the Dakhla Oasis, and had underground chambers which were used for storage.

On the east side of the road, the squat, white, mud-brick remains of a large building are particularly interesting. In the center, a passageway leads down into a perfectly preserved set of cellars. The first chamber has a marvelous mudbrick dome. The others are vaulted, and with their intact plaster finish, look modern. They are also somewhat of a refuge on a hot day, as they remain relatively cool.

The two temples at Dimeh consist of a northern one, which was constructed of stone, though only the foundation remains, and a brick and stone southern temple that may date from the Christian era. The stone temple measured 17.2 by 18.8 meters, and was probably dedicated to a form of Sobek. The Roman cemetery lies 900 yards southwest of the city.

When Belzoni came here, he confused Dimeh with Bacchias, located on the southern-eastern shore. The Dimeh area was excavated by a University of Michigan team under the direction of Professor Zuker in 1931. Prior to that, it was plundered by local Bedouin, people looking for papyrus scrolls, and farmers who value the rich soil of ancient sites as fertilizer. More recently, the site has been the subject of excavations by a combined archaeological mission that includes the University of Bologna.

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Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Fayoum, The Hewison, R. Neil 2001 American University in Cairo press, The ISBN 977 424 671 3
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4
Western Desert of Egypt, The Vivian, Cassandra 2000 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 527 X