Conservation of the Roman Bath in Karanis (Kom Aushim), Egypt

The Graeco-Roman city of Karanis flourished between the 3rd century BC, when it was founded by the king Ptolemy II Philadelphus to settle Greek army veterans, and the 4th century AD. It was finally abandoned in the early 5th century AD. Material excavated in Karanis, especially papyri, has been of crucial importance as a source of information about Graeco-Roman Egypt.

Since 2005, an expedition of the URU Fayum Project (UCLA-University of California, Los Angeles, with Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, Holland and University of Auckland, New Zealand) has been working in Karanis. This work comprises both excavation, and a site management component including public presentation. The conservation work by ARCHiNOS Architecture was a part of this programme.

Among the much-ravaged ruins of ancient Karanis, the small bathhouse situated in the Northern area of the site is a fine example of the Roman public baths in Egypt. It is also architecturally unique in comprising a complete set of rooms of different functions in spite of its small size. The building was constructed primarily of red bricks and sun-dried bricks, with the floors paved with local limestone flagstones. The red brick-built rooms that served for the actual bathing were covered with domes and vaults, while the large disrobing/banquet hall was covered with a wooden roof, now entirely missing. The hot section of the bath was heated by an elaborate and energy-efficient hot-air system with under-floor channels and chambers, and exhausts inside the walls. Naturalistic floral motifs painted in vivid colors, now only fragmentarily preserved, are an indication of the original decoration of the interiors.

The bath was originally excavated and carefully documented in 1975 by the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology (IFAO), and consequently conserved. Nevertheles, after almost 40 years of exposure to the elements the ruins seriously deteriorated in spite of emergency protective measures by the UCLA expedition in the 2000s.

ARCHiNOS Architecture’s work on site began in August 2014. The condition of the ruin was documented, and conservation interventions decided after initial inspections and tests. The objective of the work was to preserve the existing original material and to protect it from future damage, but not to reconstruct any lost elements. Conservators consolidated the masonry of the walls and vaults, capped the tops of the walls after installing a waterproof membrane, reattached peeling remnants of wall-plaster, installed permanent shoring under a broken stone lintel and reinstalled a missing wooden lintel. As far as possible, materials and techniques used were similar to those of the original construction.

As construction of a protective shelter over the ruin was not a part of the current project, the excavated building was partially back-filled. The on-site work was completed in May 2015.

For public presentation, a website has been produced, presenting the bath on-line in an interactive manner through models, animations, plans and photo galleries, with an in-depth commentary:

The project was funded by the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, and carried out under the supervision of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.

The Association for the Urban Development of Islamic Cairo, an Egyptian NGO, was the link between the project, the sponsors, and the Egyptian authorities.

Photo: Mahmud Badawi, ARCHiNOS

August 2014 –  ongoing (field work completed in May 2015)

Location: Kom Aushim, the site of ancient Karanis, Fayum Oasis, Egypt

Project Director: Agnieszka Dobrowolska;
Site Manager: Mahmud Badawi;
Head of the conservation team: Salem Imbarak