Al-Fayoum WaterwheelsThe Seven Waterwheels The symbol of Al-Fayoum Governorate is the large, black waterwheel that is peculiar to the province. Al-Fayoum’s waterwheels are not only unique but also quite beautiful. Big, solid, shiny black, with crystal-clear water gushing from them (even in the dirtiest of streams), their great axles whining and moaning and groaning with hypnotic effect, they are the most marvelous of machines.
Their uniqueness lies in the fact that they are driven by the stream itself the power of the water pushes round the large paddles, while the boxes in the rim fill with water, lift it up, and spill it out of the holes in their sides when they reach the top, into a channel that leads the water off to the fields. The wheels run continuously, but if water is not required the opening of a sluice sends it back into the mainstream.
The practicability of water-driven wheels in Al-Fayoum is mostly due to the gradient of the land (from 26 meters above sea level in the southeast to 45 below in the north) and the consequent abundance of fast-flowing streams, as opposed to the sluggish canals of Upper fast-flowing streams, as opposed to the sluggish canals of Upper Egypt and the Delta; and to the ingenuity of Ptolemaic engineers, who first introduced the wheels as part of the general drive to develop agriculture in Al-Fayoum in the third century BCE.
The wheels are said to number about two hundred throughout the province. They are usually between 4 and 5 meters in diameter and are capable of lifting water to a maximum of 3 meters. Tarring gives them their color and protects them from decay.
Repairs are most easily carried out in January every year when the canals are dry and the wheels stop and become white with dead algae. If repairs are needed at other times of the year, the wheels must be stopped by hand, a feat that requires the strength of half a dozen men.
The Seven Waterwheels (currently only six, though it is to be hoped that the missing one will be replaced soon) are situated picturesquely on the Bahr Sinnûris, a half-hour walk out of the town. Follow the Baḥr Sinnûris, first on its west bank then, on its east, northward out of town, behind the Governorate Club, into the country.
A short way down the canal is a single wheel at a farm; a little farther on is a beautiful group of four, backed by rich mango trees, tall palms, and classic weeping willows; and a little farther still is the final pair, with a rough bridge. Quite apart from the attraction of the waterwheels, this is a delightful country walk, especially in the early morning or just before sunset.