Ancient Gymnasium Found in Egypt

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November 12, 2017

A team of Egyptian and German archaeologists have found the first known ancient gymnasium in Egypt.

Ancient Egyptian gymnasiumEgypt was famously absorbed into the Hellenistic culture after the visits of Alexander the Great. His influence included the founding of several new cities, most famously Alexandria. The gymnasium recently unearthed is not there but near what was at that time a village named Philoteris. 

Ptolemy I Soter was the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty. His oldest son, Ptolemy II, maintained an imperial court in Alexandria and ruled Egypt in 285–246 B.C. One of the villages he founded was Philoteris, which he named after his sister, Philotera. The initial population of the village was 1,200, one-third of whom were Greek. The village was in an area known as Fayum, which was popular with Greek settlers.

The gymnasium would have once had several meeting halls, a dining hall, and a large courtyard, according to Cornelia Römer, leader of the excavations. Surrounding the building would have been large gardens and a 650-foot-long racing track, Römer said. 

Also reporting on the find was Aymen Ashmawi, who leads the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities part of the country's Ministry of Antiquities.

In the Greek tradition, a gymnasium was not only a place for athletic training but also a meeting place for upper-class men to study literature and philosophy. As well, the athletic training had a military bent to it in some cases.

Archaeologists have found gymnasia in other Hellenistic cities, including Asia Minor's Pergamon and Miletus and Italy's Pompeii.

Scholars have found references to gymnasia in texts from the Ptolemaic period in Egypt; none of those references included mention of Philoteris.

The Egyptian site is now called Medinet Watfa, at the western edge of the Fayoum oasis, a few miles east of Lake Qaroun, and about 50 miles southwest of Cairo.

The German Archaeological Institute has been digging in the Watfa area for several years. Inspectors from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities have been onsite for longer than that. Both teams have studied the town's canals. Other finds at the site include houses, a bath house, other mud brick buildings, potsherds, and grinding stones. 

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