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A quick history

When the history of the Middle East is told, it is Egypt, the city states of Mesopotamia, the Persians, Greeks, Romans and other settled civilisations that typically take centre-stage. The nomadic peoples who lived on the wilderness fringes of these civilisations remain much less visible. At least part of this is down to the availability of evidence with which history has been pieced together; from the ruins of villages, temples and monuments to written records of everything from politics to religion and economies, settled powers left a more visible historical fingerprint. Nomads lived in movable tents and remained close to nature, leaving a less tangible trace; written records would have only hindered the mobility they needed to survive and as such their histories were recorded and passed between generations verbally. Whilst the histories of nomadic peoples would have been as unique and rich as those of their settled counterparts they remained unwritten and have now been largely lost forever. What little we do know of nomadic peoples rarely comes from nomads themselves, but from the settled civilisations on whose borders they lived; it reflects more how they were seen by settled people, rather than how they would have told their own stories. Conflict is often encountered in historical sources. An early carving depicts one of Egypt's first Pharaohs preparing to execute a nomad from the Sinai. Egyptian sources refer to nomads called the Shasu, suggesting troubled relations at times. Sources in Mesopotamia show Babylon was sacked by Amarru nomads in 1900BC. Other sources show a more cooperative relationship. Whilst little can be said with certainty, nomads were a real part of the ancient world, with an active, powerful agency in shaping events around them, playing a part in making the Middle East the place it is today.

The early eras

Our human origins are entirely nomadic and for the vast majority of our collective past our ancestors lived a wilderness existence, surviving as hunter gatherers. Around 9500BC a major change happened as people began domesticating crops and animals, gradually adopting a more fixed, settled way of life. This process was a slow, experimental one unfolding stop-start over millennia but by 3000BC it had become developed enough for great settled states and kingdoms to emerge in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Whilst many peoples of the ancient world settled, others kept their nomadic ways alive but moved increasingly from hunter-gathering to herding newly-domesticated animals such as goats and sheep; a way of life known as pastoral nomadism. Hunting and foraging were still practised, but herding was the primary means by which nomads survived. A glimpse of these early pastoral nomads comes in a range of Egyptian sources from around 1500BC onwards, most of which refer to them as the Shasu. The Shasu are depicted as a people of clans and chiefs who herded animals and lived in tents, occupying deserts from the Sinai to southern Jordan and beyond, with most sources suggesting a difficult relationship with Egypt. Images of battles between Egypt and the Shasu were carved into the walls of Karnak Temple under Pharaoh Seti I after 1300BC and from 1200BC other Pharaohs like Ramesses III boasted of having destroyed their tents. Other sources suggest cooperation, noting how nomads were allowed into Egypt to water their animals by the River Nile. Nomads might have served in Egypt's army and helped guide desert expeditions but for the most part this is an era of nomadic history likely to remain forever unclear. 

The dawn of Islam

Nomads had grown wealthy and powerful across the Middle East by controlling the lucrative trade routes upon which aromatic gums were carried to the faraway kingdoms of Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. Petra, Tudmor and other major caravan cities had been founded on their trade routes, with the most important one in the deeper parts of Arabia known as Mecca. Mecca stood in the heartlands of the Hejaz - a chain of high mountains that line the Red Sea coast of the Arabian Peninsula - and by the sixth century AD had come to be settled and ruled by a tribe of nomadic heritage known as the 'Quraysh'. Born in 570AD, the Prophet Mohammed was a tribesman of the Quraysh from a clan known as the Bani Hashim and tradition holds that at the age of 40 the Archangel Gabriel began revealing the sacred verses to him that came to constitute Islam's holy book, The Quran. His early preachings challenged the religion of his times, resulting in his exile from Mecca; nevertheless, he would return and by the time of his death in 632AD he was widely recognised as a Prophet with the new faith of Islam having many thousands of followers. The nomadic tribes of Arabia were the first peoples to convert to Islam and they played a spearhead role in spreading it from their homeland to new regions. Within just a few decades of the Prophet Mohammed's death a series of lightning military expeditions known as the Islamic Conquests had brought Arabia, the Levant, Mesopotamia and Egypt under the control of a new Islamic Caliphate spanning both Asia and Africa. Originating within a society of nomadic heritage in the Arabian Peninsula, Islam has the strongest connections to the Bedouin of the region and it continues to influence every part of their society today.

The age of the camel

Nomadism saw a major shift in the Middle East when sheep, goats and other animals were domesticated, moving from a way of life based around hunter-gathering to one with pastoral herding at its heart. Nevertheless, a change that would be every bit as revolutionary for the nomads would come with the domestication of the camel. Camels had long been known but they roamed wild; they were not used at all in Pharaonic times and amidst all the varied iconography of cattle, birds, baboons, lions and other animals in Egyptian art there is not a single depiction of a domesticated camel. Historical sources from Mesopotamia show the camel was domesticated relatively late, after 1000BC. Camel raising had become widespread in the region by 500BC and its widespread adoption by nomadic pastoralists led to a remaking of the entire nomadic world. Able to walk long distances carrying heavy loads without drinking water for days at a time the camel enabled nomads to greatly expand their range, going deeper into the desert wilderness than ever before and accessing vast new territories, with all their water, grazing and resources. The camel changed the everyday way of life for nomads and also opened lucrative new economic opportunities in the desert that had never existed before. Within just a few centuries nomads had become involved in the growing trade of frankincense and other aromatic gums from the southern kingdoms of Arabia to Mesopotamia and beyond, carrying the produce by camel. Gradually, nomads began to control this trade, growing in power, establishing caravan towns across the region and sometimes even creating their own empires, as with a people of nomadic origins known as the Nabataeans.  

Onwards to modern times

Every major cultural pillar for the nomadic society of the Middle East's Bedouin had been put in place over a millennium ago. Tribes were an age old unit of nomadic society, present from the earliest of eras. A transition had been made from hunter gathering to nomadic pastoralism by at least 3000BC. Domesticated camels had become integral parts of nomadic societies by 500BC and Islam had been adopted shortly after 500 AD, with Arabic the universal language spoken across the region. As the wheel of history turned Bedouin tribes rose in power, whilst others fell. Tribal maps continued to be realigned as territories were won and others lost by Bedouin tribes. New economies opened up, as others dwindled. Occupations by faraway foreign empires dawned, whilst others faded. The Bedouin world continued to experience many kinds of change from one age to the next but the basic pillars of its society remained unchanged. It is only within the last century that cultural change on a level comparable to anything since the dawn of Islam has happened within the Bedouin world of the Middle East, represented chiefly by the widespread switchover to a more fixed, sedentary kind of life and their closer integration into modern political states. Nomadism had been at the heart of survival for the Bedouin, shaping every part of their society, economy and culture into what it was from the earliest of ages; the shift from the desert to settlements does not just represent a simple change in location but the uptake of an entirely new way of life. Bedouin living the nomadic pastoral way of life are still present in the region today but remain in a small minority. A new era in Bedouin history is now beginning to unfold. 

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