May 14, 2009

The Forced Resettlement of Petra's Bedouin
Al-Beidha, Jordan

The Bedouin are a predominantly desert-dwelling Arab ethnic group. The word "Bedouin" roughly means "those who wander." Its root is "Bedu" which means "Wanderer" or "Nomad."

Starting in the late 1800s, many Bedouins under British rule began to transition to semi-nomad-ism. In the 1950s as well as the 1960s, large numbers of Bedouin throughout the Middle East started to leave the traditional, nomadic life to settle in the cities of the Middle East, especially as ranges have shrunk and population levels have grown

What is a Bedouin?
A Bedouin is one who was born and raised in the desert or mountain wilderness and lives alongside nature in black tents or in caves. Someone who raises goats, sheep, donkeys, horses and camels, and who knows how to milk and shepherd the goats. One who knows how to use all kinds of herbs as food, drink and medicine. A person who can navigate and live with ease in the desert. His life is simple—but his famed hospitality and generosity is no myth. A Bedouin accepts and appreciates what he has and is willing to share this. He is happy to give and to assist. He is proud of who he is and is loyal to his land. A Bedouin sees bounty where you perceive barrenness and finds poetry in everything. It is more than a name, it is a way of life.

These black tents, that seem so romantic on the landscape, are the quintessential material possession of the Bedouin. Referred to as "house of hair" in Arabic, they are woven by the Bedouin women out of goats' hair, in separate sections. Goats' hair shrinks when it is wet, so in winter the tent is protected by the closely woven fabric. When it is dry, this fabric often sags, seeming to have holes everywhere, and allowing a breeze to enter.

Jordanian Bedouin Kicked Out of Petra's Caves

Until not long ago, the Bedouin of this region once lived in the caves at the site of Petra—most notably the Bedul clan. They'd summer in the tents, and spend winters in the caves (most commonly in the plentiful sandstone tombs of the ancient Nabataean kingdom that created today's tourist attraction).

Like most of his peers, my 29-year-old CouchSurfing host, Talal, was born in a cave. It's a very common trait in these parts for Bedouin born before the mid-80s.

But several decades ago, the freshly independent Jordanian government took notice of Petra as a source of revenue. Strategies for relocating the Bedul since the 1960s have included ideas about returning them to farming so that Petra could become an open-air tourist museum, free from the incursions of its native inhabitants.

After World War I, Emir Abdullah (who presided over postwar Transjordan from 1921 through independence in 1946 until his death in 1951) met with the Bedul Sheiks in 1923. When asked whether they wished their territorial claims to Petra and its environs formally recorded, hence making them responsible for taxation (which they could not afford), they alternatively accepted government trusteeship of the land in return for a guarantee of traditional rights of occupation and use.

While international interest in Petra, intensified by tourism, increased throughout the 20th century, the Bedul continued their traditional activities of goat pastoralism and rainfall farming of wheat and barley. Even in the late 1980s, most of the farming was done without mechanization, the fields tilled with ards, and even harvested by hand.

By the late 1960s, a formal development plan for Petra National Park was funded by USAID, and U. S. National Park Service was enlisted to advise on the future of Petra. Relocation of the Bedul away from the most significant Nabataean monuments was advised at that time.

In the 1970s there was armed resistance against the Jordanian government's initiatives, which ultimately constructed a pair of government-built settlements in 1984/85.

On December 6, 1985, Petra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One of the original dual-family houses built by the government to take the local Bedouins out of their tents and (Petra) caves and into a village of cinder block and concrete.

The relocation process held several consequences. The Bedul are concentrated in a very density settlement, with no space available for further expansion. Short-range goat herding from the village increases the pressure on the already-depleted rangelands immediately around Petra. Overall, fewer people participate in the traditional agricultural and pastoral pursuits while more initiate or expand their participation in the tourist trade, partially to compensate for economic losses in other areas and to support a growing population. Also, the tourism business seems to be the only option available, especially for the younger generations.

Numbering only about 1,000 people, the Bedul represented a distinct case of an indigenous people encountering the benefits as well as the threats of rapid modernization. It has to be noted, however, that the establishment of the village gave the Bedul a certain measure of national recognition which they did not previously have.

I see a tremendous amount of indifference from those contemporary Bedouin that I've spoken with. Most of those around my age have little memory of full-time life outdoors, and don't have much of a desire to continue the semi-nomadic traditions of their elders. There are clearly growing pains inside the community regarding way of life inside a concrete box versus outside in a goat hair tent. This has clearly been a difficult cultural transition into modernity for the Bedul Bedouin that won't settle itself for a long time to come.


Costa Rica

Hotel Villa Caletas

September 17th, 2009

Those are certainly difficult conditions, but I guess they are happy with the way they live as that is what they are accustomed to it

The United Kingdom

Jack from eyeflare travel advice

September 18th, 2009

Sounds nearly as bad as the forced resettlement of Indians in America in centuries past. It upsets me that there are so many cases of this kind of thing in the history of nearly every country and ethnicity. Even in my native Sweden, we have instances of 'coercive' settlement of the nomadic Samii.

The United States


September 19th, 2009

Nomadic peoples get pushed around in many places. It's unfortunate that they get taken advantage of and are forced to struggle and maintain their way of life.

The United Kingdom

Gonda Bueletar

October 25th, 2009

The world has always been a cruel place and man kind are the worst species on the face of it.

Life goes on, the world moves on, news becomes old too fast these days and nobody really cares about anything anymore!

The Philippines

Timeshare Relief

December 23rd, 2009

Definitely very difficult living condition. How could they survived in this very cruel type of life. I could not imagine how they can survived. timeshare relief



July 6th, 2010

i really like the photo of the bedouin at the top of this page. you are a good photographer craig. if i were you i would copyright protect them so as people dont nick them to pass off as there own or sell.



August 14th, 2010

Hello !
I have stayed with the Bedouins of Petra as well, not through any organization, I actually met some really nice Bedouins and they invited me to stay for a wedding, which I did. I never stop thinking about them and their genuine kindness, and I was wondering if you knew the address I should use to send them some presents and photos. They live in the new settlements. Is it just called "Bedu Village" in Petra? Thanks in advance.


Craig |

August 14th, 2010

Howdy Charlotte,

There aren't many locations where the Bedouin have settlements, so you're probably referring to the most visible one, Umm Sayhun.

Typical of Latin alphabet translations from Arabic words, this city name has several popular spellings, including: Umm Şayḩūn, Um Sayhoun & Omsayhoun.

To the best of my knowledge homes have no address and receive no postal mail. Your best bet is to make contact with a local who can instruct you on where to mail your parcel (and have them send you that address in Arabic).

My family and I have slept in the homes of several Bedouin, and can recommend Mohammad (who runs Bedouin Discovery) as the most technologically savvy of the lot. I'm sure he'll be able to assist you.



August 20th, 2010

That's fabulous, thank you very much. I live in Belgium and I'd love to send them some little goodies as a thank you for their (legendary) hospitality.

I was indeed referring to Umm Sayhun but simply couldn't recall the name, thank you very much for your help for that !

I thought of sending it to Umm Sayhun and the Wadi Musa post office should normally hold the package until someone who knows the receiver picks it up for them. I know it is common for Bedouins to pick each other's mail up at the post office in Wadi Musa, but I'll contact your friend Mohamed first to ask him.

You've been a great help, thank you very much, and I enjoy reading your article over and over again. The Bdoul have shown me a reality I needed to see for myself. I am glad many others experience it as well.

Take care.

The United States


August 25th, 2010

Thank you for posting this analysis of the Bedouin situation.

I was pretty curious about all of the caves that appeared to be homes around Petra, but never really asked about it.

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