In 2017, when the ruins of an ancient Greek gymnasium were discovered in an oasis of a desert in Egypt, archaeologists said that it was the first of its kind.
The Watfa gymnasium that was used to train young Greek-speaking men in sports, literacy and philosophy was discovered by a joint Egyptian-German archeological team on the site of an ancient village southwest of Cairo in the Faiyum Oasis.
The gymnasium included a large meeting hall, once adorned with statues, a dining hall and a courtyard in the main building. Surrounded by gardens, this center of Greek learning for young men in ancient Egypt also had a 200-meter (660-foot) running track, on which they trained for important 180-meter races.
Watfa was founded 2,300 years ago in a small, rural village of 1,200 people – two-thirds Egyptians and one-third Greeks – by King Ptolemy II. The king named the village in Fayoum Oasis for his second sister Philotera.
Philoteris was one of the new villages founded in the years after Alexander the Great invaded Egypt. Thousands of Greek-speaking settlers moved to the territory by the River Nile and built public buildings and baths which became meeting places for themselves and their Egyptian neighbors.
— Dr Margaret Maitland (@eloquentpeasant) November 6, 2017
Ancient Greek gymnasium in Egypt founded by the wealthy
The Hellenistic gymnasium was run by the village authorities and open to young men up to the age of 30. Women, slaves, freedmen, tradesmen, male prostitutes, drunkards and madmen were excluded.
The Ptolemaic dynasty ended with the Roman conquest in 30 BC although Greek culture continued to thrive in Egypt until the Muslim conquest in the seventh century.
The elite school or gymnasium was similar to others founded by wealthy Greek-speaking people who wanted their sons to be trained in sports, to learn to read and write, and to enjoy philosophical discussions.
In the Hellenistic Period, gymnasia became highly standardized both in architecture and function and continued their important role in a young male’s physical and general education. They became a common feature across the Greek world and were adopted and adapted by the later Romans, eventually evolving into the huge multi-purpose complex that was the Roman baths.
The foundations of the installation were exposed by the team led by Professor Cornelia Romer, of the German Archaeological Institute.
“The gymnasium of Watfa clearly shows the impact of Greek life in Egypt, not only in Alexandria, but also in the countryside,” Romer said at the time.
Alexander the Great, she pointed out, had made Egypt part of the Hellenistic world, thousands of Greek-speaking settlers flocked into the land on the Nile attracted by the new Ptolemaic empire which promised prosperity and peace.
In particular in the Delta and in the Fayum new villages were founded, in which the indigenous population lived together with the Greek newcomers.
Such villages were equipped not only with Egyptian temples but also with Greek sanctuaries. There existed also public baths, an institution very popular in the Greek world. The baths soon became places of social encounter in the villages and meeting points of the Egyptian and Greek-speaking inhabitants.