Other peoples of the trail
The Bedouin Trail is made by the people who live along it. At its heart are the region's Bedouin tribes and whilst the main thru hike route crosses the lands of just seven of these, 12 tribes are represented in the broader organisations of its three sister trails, 11 of whose lands can be traversed on alternative routes. Every tribe has its own history, culture and identity and walking with each one shows something of the diversity that exists across Bedouin tribes between Africa and Asia as well as the age old commonalities that bring them together. Whilst hikers spend most of their time walking with the Bedouin, other peoples will also be encountered from those in communities who live around the route to others who have long since disappeared but whose marks and memories still remain alive in the landscape. In the highlands of the Sinai, the Bedouin Trail passes the Monastery of St Katherine, where a community of monks have maintained an uninterrupted presence since the days of Byzantium nearly 1500 years ago. Upper Egypt's Nile Valley is home to a diverse community of settled peoples, including sections of Bedouin tribes who migrated to the deserts of Egypt from the Arabian Peninsula many centuries ago before settling by the River Nile and Christian communities who have been in the region since even earlier ages, whose ancestors spoke the native Egyptian language until Arabic became dominant after the Islamic Conquests. The Bedouin Trail begins at the ancient capital of the Nabataeans in Petra and ends where the Pharaonic kingdoms of Egypt flourished in Luxor, passing prehistoric tombs and rock art, Roman forts, Ptolemaic temples and Ottoman palaces on the way. Whether still present or long since passed, many peoples shaped these deserts into what they are and the Bedouin Trail invokes the memory of them all.
Upper Egypt is one of the historic heartlands of the Pharaohs and a region with a proud, independent sense of its own identity today. It has long been a centre of Coptic Chrisitanity and large communities of Coptic Christians live here today, most of whom trace their roots to pre-Islamic Egyptians. These communities once spoke Coptic; a late variation of the indigenous Egyptian language that was gradually replaced with Arabic in the centuries after the Islamic Conquests. Coptic chapels, churches, monasteries and convents all dot the region between Qena and Luxor. Communities of Bedouin origin live in Upper Egypt too, with many tracing their roots to the faraway deserts of Arabia. The Billi and Juheina tribes came to Egypt after the Islamic Conquest, settling in the Nile Valley and adopting an agricultural way of life. Sections of the Billi live near Sohag. Descendants of the Juheina are near Qena. The Alegat of the Sinai settled widely and one village bears their name between Qena and Luxor. Many other tribes are present too and their influence is seen in everything from Upper Egypt's distinctive dialect of Arabic to customs of hospitality, conflict resolution and religious celebration. Tribal identifications are remembered but the cultures of these tribal communities are in many ways more similar to those of other settled peoples locally than they are to desert sections of their tribes. Upper Egypt remains an important cultural hub of Egypt, with its own styles of folk art, music, poetry, storytelling, dancing and religious celebration, all of which remain important to life today.
The Hajj pilgrims of old
Muslim pilgrims made the Hajj to Mecca overland for many centuries and their marks are still seen on the Bedouin Trail. Hajj routes crossed the Arabian Peninsula from almost every direction, with a North African one traversing the Sinai from Suez to Aqaba, where a centuries-old fort used for securing Hajj caravans still stands today. The Bedouin Trail aligns with a section of a highland Hajj route that ran from Damascus to Mecca via Wadi Rum, along which the etchings of Hajj pilgrims can still be found. Travel by steamship and the opening of the Hejaz Railway ended overland Hajj pilgrimages in the early 20th century but their memory is still alive with the Bedouin, many of whose forebears escorted the caravans.
The Temple of Dendera stands on the Nile Valley section of the Bedouin Trail near Qena. One of the best preserved of all temples in Egypt, it was dedicated to the Egyptian Goddess Hathor, with construction starting under the Ptolemaic dynasty in the first century BC. The Ptolemies were a people of Hellenistic origin, descended from Ptolemy; a general of Alexander the Great whose forces ousted the Persians from Egypt in 332BC. Alexander's empire was divided between his generals when he died, with Ptolemy taking control of Egypt in 305BC. The Ptolemies embraced many parts of Egyptian culture and ruled for nearly 300 years until the death of Queen Cleopatra VII, who was defeated by the Romans in 31BC.
Nomads: 1st millennium BC
Hikers on the Bedouin Trail will see marks made by early nomads all along, which give a vivid window into early life this region. Hunting scenes are commonly depicted in early rock art of the nomads, usually showing ibex as the main prey. Ostriches, lions and other animals now locally extinct are represented too. Raids and battles are a frequent theme, with camel-riding fighters using spears, swords and bows and arrows all illustrated. Nomads also learned ancient alphabets from people in nearby towns, using the Nabataean script and various other types of Thamudic and Hismaic lettering to etch their names, tribal affiliations and prayers on rocks. Markings of this nature typically date from the 1st millennium BC.
Monastic communities live throughout Egypt's Nile Valley and in more remote desert regions. The Monastery of St Katherine was founded by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 527AD and stands today as one of the oldest continuously operating Christian monasteries in the world. The smallest of the autonomous churches that make up what is known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is overseen by the Archbishop of the Sinai, who is elected by the brotherhood and consecrated by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. Standing in the high wilderness of the Sinai at the foot of the peak believed to be the holy mountain on which Moses received the Ten Commandments, the monastery is home to a small community of around 20 monks today, all of whom follow the ancient monastic way of life. Several satellite monasteries and a convent dot the mountains of the Sinai too, along with the ruins of chapels, hermit cells orchards, paths and mountain stairways built by earlier communities of Christians in the region. The movement that saw Christians abandon settled areas for the desert wilderness was a region-wide one driven by several factors, including the violent persecutions of ancient Rome. As well as the Sinai, Christians scattered into the deserts around Petra where several churches can be seen amongst the ancient ruins. Many also left the Nile Valley for Egypt's Eastern Desert, where their old hermit cells and chapels are still seen across Jebel Gattar and near the Roman town of Mons Porphyrites on the Red Sea Mountain Trail.
The Ottomans occupied much of the Middle East from the sixteenth century and continued to use Aqaba's old fort for securing the annual Hajj caravans. After nearly 400 years of occupation the Ottomans were pushed out of Aqaba in an ambush launched by the armies of the Great Arab Revolt in 1917, with the Hajj fort repurposed as a temporary HQ. The Great Arab Revolt was a local uprising in which Bedouin tribes of southern Jordan, northern Saudi Arabia and beyond - including some of the clans around Wadi Rum - had a frontline role. In the Sinai an unfinished mountain-top palace stands on the peak of Jebel Abbas Basha, close to the Bedouin Trail. It was built by Abbas I, the Ottoman backed ruler of Egypt, in 1854.
Relics of ancient Rome
Egypt came under the rule of the Roman Empire following Cleopatra's death and relics of the Roman occupation are found all over the Eastern Desert today. Hikers on the Red Sea Mountain Trail will walk zigzag Roman footpaths scattered with broken pottery. Roman roads will be followed dotted with waymarking cairns and waystations. The Roman town of Mons Porphyrites - where porphyry used to panel the birth chambers of Roman princes was quarried - will be passed. From occupying Egypt to bringing the Nabataean Kingdom under its rule, to persecuting Christians, then actively spreading the Christian faith itself the Roman Empire had a major role in making the Middle East as it exists today.
The earliest eras
The earliest representations of the nomadic world are found in prehistoric rock etchings in Jebel Gattar, on the Red Sea Mountain Trail. Etchings of giraffes, large wild cats and other animals no longer present in Egypt are carved into rocks near the springs of El Nagaata, offering an evocative snapshot of the early world in which these nomads lived. Probably dating from 6500-4500BC they record an era in which Egypt was distinctly wetter and greener with savanna-like desert regions. Around 4700BC Egypt's climate became more arid, intensifying from 4440BC. The desertification of this region would have driven many nomads towards the Nile and it was around this time Egypt's first settled cultures began to emerge.