There are several ways to deal with old, but not ancient, structures, such as excavation houses.
In my humble opinion, the best way is to turn them into (small) museums or visitor centres, as was the case with Howard Carter’s domicile in Western Thebes and with the subject of this article, Beyt Sobek.
Original name: Beyt Mandub Sami Brittani
Currently commonly known as: Beyt Sobek
location: Karanis, Fayum
Build: Appr. 1924
Occupied by: University of Michigan expedition to Karanis, Sir Miles Lampson, British Consul
Current owner: The Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA)
Current occupant: Visitor Center for the Karanis area
(Following paragraphs adapted from “The Fayum Project”)
Beyt Sobek was built in 1924 by the University of Michigan, when they first started their excavations in Karanis.
In the 1930’s the British Envoy, Sir Miles Lampson, used the house as his weekend retreat. Because of this, the house is locally known as “Beyt Mandub Sami Brittani”
The house is a unique example of vernacular architecture. It has many authentic features that were clearly inspired by the Roman architecture of the city of Karanis.
The layout of the building with its many court yards, vaulted entrances and palm rib roofing, seem to cite the Roman buildings.
In 2008, as part of a complete site management project for Karanis, restoration of the house started.
The first phase was financed by the Antiquities Endowment Fund from the American Research Center in Egypt (Karanis Site Management Project, Phase I & II), commissioned by both UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) and RUG (Rijks Universiteit Groningen) and supported by the Supreme Council of Antiquities.
Help to the project was provided by Willeke Wendrich, Argus Hardy, Hamed Yussef, Reda Sayed Hassan and Martin Hense.
The idea is to completely renovate and transform the old dig house into a visitor’s center over the period of 5 years.
The project will preserve the house’s features in the restoration work. A bold project, considering the state of the house (In some places, the debris was stacked up to 1.5 meters; walls had collapsed, parts of the roofing had caved in).
To ensure a descent end result, “the ReCollective” was brought in (a.o.).
The exhibit will emphasize three important aspects, which will be referred to in the routing through the site:
- excavation results
- development of archaeology.
The large open rooms in the house will evoke the landscape of the Fayum North Shore through panoramic photographs, information panels and the display of modern art made of local materials. Excavation results will be on display in the smaller rooms, representing the houses in the ancient city.
Dioramas, multimedia presentations, artifact replica’s and photographic panels will aid the understanding of life in early times. The development of archaeology in the Fayum will be visualized through replicated archaeological trenches and photographs.
Clean bathrooms and a small cafeteria will provide an important provision for visitors, as will a shop where local products such as olive oil, basketry, soap, pottery and jewellery can be purchased by visitors.
Restoration, with the help of “The ReCollective”
(translation from “The ReCollective’s portfolio)
“The ReCollective”, a consulting agency, specialized in management and presentation of cultural heritage, aided in the formation of the concept and realisation of the visitor’s center, consulted and supervised the restoration, designed the routing and themes of the presentation, gave their advice on visualisation, collection and arrangement of the presentation, advised on management and involvement and gave their advice on eco-tourism, eco-architecture and durability.
Beyt Sobek – The House of Sobek
In the name of the visitor’s center, Beyt Sobek, (Sobek was the Crocodile god in Ancient Egypt) the crocodile represents the alternately wet and dry character of the Northern coast of Lake Qarun in the Fayum.
In the area, archaeologists uncovered the oldest agricultural remains in Egypt, among them subterranean storage spaces for grain, 7000 years old. The area also held the Greco-Roman city of Karanis.
Although the Fayum still served as Egypt’s granary, archaeologists also found evidence of ecological disaster in previous millennia.
At the Visitor’s center, The ReCollective combined these themes into an integral concept:
- The changing landscape and it’s management,
- The Greco-Roman city of Karanis as pass-through for grain to Rome,
- The profession of archaeology and the changing ways of conducting research over time.
By re-using existing materials, it’s location and the Roman architecture, the visitor’s center is also an example of the central theme of the exhibition: Interaction between man and his environment and climatological changes.
Inspired by the Roman Era
In the 1920’s, Beyt Sobek was built in the traditional ways of the archaeologists who researched the Greco-Roman city of Karanis in those days.
After the excavations (in their opinion) had been completed, the house became a weekend retreat for Sir Miles Lampson, the British consul of the time.
Ever since the 60’s no-one has lived in or maintained the house.
Now, the house is under restoration and will be equipped as “Beyt Sobek” the visitor’s Center.
Renovation and rebuilding will be done with materials, found in the area. Probably some parts of a previous Greco-Roman building have been integrated in the house, at one time or another. Through a system of pipes, wastewater leaves the house to a garden, which was laid out in one of the open courtyards of the house.
In its restored form, this system serves as an example of the careful re-usage of scarce resources. How’s that for durability!
A characteristic feature of the house is its floor plan and the contrast between the many open spaces and large windows on the one hand and small rooms, small gates and small windows in thick walls on the other. These features have been thankfully used in directing the “visitor’s experience”.
The whole experience has been formed through a unique combination of (for the time) modern design and inspired by Roman Architecture.
Construction debris as building-blocks
Most of the house’s characteristic features have been preserved in restoration.
New mud-bricks were made from debris from the house itself, and, where necessary supplemented with clay from a nearby mine.
“The ReCollective” advice was, to rebuild the house, following a durable concept.
Both the materials used as well as the architecture were designed, according to this concept. Of course, when future use for the building was considered, conservation of the surrounding monuments and preservation of the landscape has been taken into account.
Local people were trained in the “art of restoration” to realize a long-lasting commitment from stakeholders in the area.
Stimulation of production of local souvenirs, eco-tourism and initiating educational programs also were an important part of “the ReCollective’s” advice.