by Aggelos Skordas
Remains of the first ever Hellenistic gymnasium in Egypt was discovered by a German-led archaeological mission at Watfa, northwest of the Faiyum oasis, near the river Nile. The German Archaeological Institute’s (DAI) mission, headed by Professor Cornelia Römer, has been excavating in the area of Watfa since 2010 and this is considered among its most important findings. The ancient gymnasium was used to train Greek-speaking young men between the age of 18 and 30 in sports, literacy and philosophy and dates back to the days of the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt during the Hellenistic period, following the conquest of Alexander the Great.
Gymnasiums were elite schools privately founded by wealthy Greeks in all major centers of the Hellenistic world, including Athens, cities of the Asia Minor and elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. The ancient village Philoteris, where the remains were discovered, was inhabited both by Egyptians and Greeks. Founded by King Ptolemy II in the 3rd century BC and located in Watfa, the village was named after the King’s sister Philotera. According to the head of the Ancient Egyptian Sector of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, Aymen Ashmawi, the gymnasium, which is smaller compared to similar ones in major cities, was surrounded by leafy gardens. In addition, it included a large statue-decorated meeting hall, a dining hall, a courtyard and a 200-meter running track.
“Although much smaller, the gymnasium of Watfa clearly shows the impact of Greek life in Egypt, not only in Alexandria, but also in the countryside”, Professor Cornelia Römer explains, adding that the gymnasia in the Egyptian countryside were built after the pattern of the ones already existing in other Greek cities and colonies. Alexander the Great, she underlines, had made Egypt part of the Hellenistic world, and thousands of Greek-speaking settlers flocked to the land by the Nile, attracted by the new Ptolemaic empire, which promised prosperity and peace. Watfa, ancient Philoteris, was one of the many villages founded under the first Ptolemies. The Ptolemaic dynasty was a Macedonian Greek royal family, which ruled the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt during the Hellenistic period. Their rule lasted for 275 years, starting from 305 until 30 BC, when the land was conquered by Romans. It was the last dynasty of ancient Egypt, although Greek cultured continued to thrive up to the days of the M