Until 1985, the small B’doul tribe resided among the historic ruins of Petra. They made most of their income from tourism, serving as guides, renting out their caves, and selling food and beverages. They also sold archaeological objects found among the ruins, mostly the shards of pots.

In 1985 the Jordanian government moved them to a new village. This relocation was a consequence of two ongoing projects: one to sedentarize the Bedouin, the other to give Petra the status of a national park and thus improve tourism. The actual move was 20 years in the making.

Part of the B’doul strategy to resist the move was to promote themselves as descendants of the Nabateans — the builders of Petra — and thus the rightful heirs to the property. Most other Bedouin tribes stress their Muslim Arab ancestry. According to B’doul lore, by contrast, five (or seven) ancestors were being chased by Muslims when they took refuge in Petra. Eventually they were forced to surrender and convert to Islam, which is how they got their name: from baddalu dinuhum (they exchanged their religion).

J. L. Burckhardt first brought Petra to the attention of the Western world in 1806 followed throughout the nineteenth century by other travelers. In those days travel into Petra was risky because of the determination of the site’s guardian tribes to block the incursion of infidels. One type of nineteenth-century traveler was scholars, like Burckhardt, fluent in Arabic passing through to Mecca. They traveled in disguise as Muslim pilgrims, so their knowledge of Arabic, Islam and local relations among tribes was crucial to their safety. Christians on Holy Land adventures to rediscover biblical geography also traveled through the region associating the Bedouin they met with the people who lived in the same general area some 2,000 years before.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, these two types of travelers were joined by an ever growing legion of archaeologists, geographers, geologists and other scientists. The B’doul hired themselves out as guides and laborers. Tourism in general was on the rise throughout this century, giving the B’doul increasing opportunities to interact with and profit from foreigners.

The completion of the Hijaz railway in 1906 took Petra off the Mecca pilgrimage route, and undermined the power and influence of tribes in Jordan, including the B’douls’ patron tribe, the ‘Alawin. In 1948, with the establishment of Israel, the B’doul lost access to their main commercial trading centers: Beersheva, Gaza and Egypt. It was then that they retreated into Petra’s ruins, occupying the carved shelters and growing crops in open areas near the monuments.

Thomas Cook built the first hotel in Petra in the 1930s. A second was opened in 1958. During this period the number of tourists increased considerably. The B’douls’ move to occupy the site itself was a way for them to affirm their own presence and assert their claim to Petra. This was reinforced when the Jordanian government passed a law granting title to all those who made agricultural use of arable land. [1]

For several decades before they were relocated, the B’doul coexisted with tourists inside the site. The more well-known they became among Westerners, the more other Jordanian Bedouin rejected and despised them. The B’doul responded in two ways. They emphasized their Bedouin lifestyle by erecting tents in front of each family’s cave, and they injected new meaning into their origins myth, highlighting their pre-Bedouin, pre-Islamic roots grounded in the site of Petra.

The B’doul themselves were a major tourist attraction, a “living museum” infusing the stony splendor of Petra with life. Tourists of the twentieth century were just as eager as their nineteenth-century forebearers to see in the B’doul a direct link to a biblical past. [2]

The B’doul played the game. If the tourists wanted to see in them the incarnation of the Nabateans, they accepted the role. For the B’doul, the promotion of a particular identity was a strategy to gain recognition, with Petra as backdrop. The B’doul’s appropriation of Petra as their tribal patrimony was a way of capitalizing on the prestigious past of this most famous Jordanian tourist site.

Since 1985, the B’doul have resided in a government-built village and have gained a different kind of social recognition. Within the Jordanian national context, as elsewhere, tribal territory no longer holds the value it once did. Today, living in an urban area is a sign of integration and fluency in the modern cosmopolitanized world.


[1] This law was reversed in 1962-1964, when the Jordanian Department of Antiquities forbade all agriculture in the site. The B’doul moved their fields to Jabal Haroun and Bayda.
[2] For an account of Jewish-Israeli attitudes toward the Bedouin of the Sinai, see Smadar Lavie, “Birds, Bedouins and Desert Wanderlust,” Middle East Report 150 (January-February 1988).

How to cite this article:

Anna Ohannessian-Charpin "Strategic Myths: Petra’s B’doul," Middle East Report 196 (September/October 1995).

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