8-9 October 2015. In an arid mountainous desert region over 1000 metres (3400 ft) above sea level, and some eight kilometres (five miles) north of the town of Wadi Musa, is the archaeological site of Siq al-Barid, commonly known as Little Petra. Siq al-Barid is situated in a short high gorge, and, like Petra itself, has the same familiar buildings, with carved facades, excavated into the sandstone canyon.
Siq al-Barid is quite short, only about 400 metres (1300 ft) long, unlike the Siq at Petra, which is over one kilometre. As we enter through the high walls of the gorge we are aware that almost no sunlight penetrates. Siq al-Barid, meaning “cold canyon”, lives up to its name. There are temples, houses, and large dining rooms for entertaining guests.
Established in the 1st century AD when Nabataean culture was at its height, archaeologists believe Siq al-Barid was an affluent suburb of Petra, a thriving community some five kilometres from the main city, housing merchants, traders, and their visiting counterparts. At one time, almost two thousand years ago, it was humming with life. After the decline of the Nabataeans it was gradually abandoned, and for centuries was used only by Bedouin nomads.
Today we find no one there but our group, and two Bedouins: a musician,
and a merchant
selling trinkets to tourists high up at the top of the ancient stone stairs.
He lives here, at least part-time, with his wares spread out on the rock shelf in front of his tent.
Within one of the large dining rooms there are 2,000-year-old Hellenistic-style wall paintings that had been obscured for centuries by soot, smoke and graffiti until they were discovered in 2010.
They were created by the Nabataeans, who traded extensively with the Greek, Roman and Egyptian empires, and give a hint as to their lifestyle. The paintings include three kinds of vines, all of which were associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and the surrounding land shows evidence of ancient vineyards and grape-pressing sites. Apparently their lifestyle was very good.
Driving from Petra to Wadi Rum, from the bus, we see this:
and many others like them.
They are Bedouin camps, easily distinguishable by the style of tent known as beit al-sha’ar, or “house of hair”. The tents are made from goat hair.
Bedouins have been roaming the desert sands for centuries and have fashioned a life in this unforgiving environment. Scarcity of water and pasture required them to move constantly. Between the 14th and 18th centuries tribes migrated from the Arabian Peninsula to what is now Jordan, and today Bedouins make up about forty percent of Jordan’s population. The word bedouin, or bedu, simply means “desert dweller” in their native tongue of Arabic.
Found throughout the south and east of the country, some tribes are still completely nomadic, and many combine raising crops with a nomadic existence. Often their only concession to the modern world will be plastic water containers, a truck to help with moving herds when they need to seek new pasture, and perhaps a kerosene stove. They are traditionally herders of goats,
camels, and sheep, which they use for meat, dairy products, and wool. Each family has its own tent; a group of tents constitutes a clan; a number of clans make up a tribe. There are more than twenty nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes in Jordan.
Although the Jordanian government in the past promoted the settling of the Bedouin, it now recognizes the value of their unique contribution to Jordanian culture and heritage. The government provides education, housing and health clinics, however many Bedouin prefer to live in the traditional way that for centuries has served them so well.
Hiking in the high country around Petra we notice a herd of goats, and their young Bedouin goatherd.
She waits with this nanny who had given birth to twins moments before we walk by.
The Bedouin of Petra, known as the B’doule, are from the Huwaitat tribe, and claim to be the direct descendants of the Nabataeans. When Petra was awarded UNESCO World heritage status in 1985, the B’doule, somewhat reluctantly, were moved from Petra by the government of Jordan to a purpose-built village nearby where most still live. Feeling a strong connection to the site, most come to Petra daily to earn a living selling traditional crafts and donkey and camel rides to tourists.
Children often accompany their parents,
and boys learn young to wrangle donkeys.
Petra is their home and their playground.
Some one hundred and fifty people who refused resettlement in the village still live the traditional way in the Petra area.
From an article in Middle East Eye
Tofik Abdullah, 28: “My family has been in the caves of this area for more than 450 years. They came as nomads with goats, camels and sheep and they followed the land. Their camels found water springs here, and they found grass and then the caves – it is peaceful and so they decided to stay”.
“More people are moving back [to the valley and caves of Petra] because in the village we don’t have any more land to build on. We’ve tried talking with the government to ask for more land, but they say it isn’t allowed. I think there are more than 700 families who don’t have houses and are living in cramped conditions with their parents”.
Arbaya, 26: “I was born in a cave; I’ve lived in one all my life. My family has now moved to the village, but I have remained because I prefer it, it is a lot more fun and interesting. You do everything with fire. I have to carry water up to the cave with a donkey, 50 gallons at a time. And food too – we have to carry everything, and I have to wash my clothes with my hands.”
The Bedouin provide a link back to the Nabataeans, desert dwellers who have learned through ingenuity and necessity how to survive in a harsh, dry climate. We had little direct contact with them, highlighting the limitations of being on a tour rather than independent travel. Had we been travelling alone it’s likely we would have looked into the possibility of visiting a Bedouin community, but it’s the same wherever we go – there’s never enough time to do everything.
Next post: The breathtaking desert landscape of Wadi Rum and another glimpse of the Bedouin lifestyle.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.