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The natural world

The Bedouin are a people of nomadic heritage who survived by crossing the desert landscapes of the Middle East, looking for water and grazing for their herds. Bedouin tribes typically migrated within their own territories, walking the same landscapes over and again and developing a close knowledge of their terrain and resources. They saw their territories change over time; between seasons of a single year and over longer periods spanning decades and lifetimes, becoming aware of rhythms in the natural world that would affect everything around them. As much as Bedouin knowledge of the environment was specific - offering guidance on everything from the whereabouts of a water source to the medicinal use of a plant or the warning revealed by a certain kind of animal behaviour - it was also a broader way of seeing the natural world; an understanding of how its parts connected and changed and a set of guiding principles about how to survive successfully within it. Nature was seen in its wildest, most untamed form and Bedouin knowledge was not won easily; its learning involved hardships and grew over many generations, with each one passing its lessons to the next. Whilst the great settled civilisations of the ancient world were making advances in art, technology and other fields, a parallel process of human discovery was happening in their adjoining deserts, with the nomadic forerunners of the Bedouin deepening humanity's knowledge of the natural world. Bedouin knowledge of the natural world reflects in part what was passed down from the very earliest chapters of our collective human past; it is a treasure of the greatest antiquity and value that remains mostly unwritten and which has proved vulnerable to loss as it becomes irrelevant and forgotten for an increasingly sedentary life in villages and towns. 

The lie of the land

Every Bedouin tribe had its own tribal territory and each tribe depended on a deep, extensive knowledge of its lands and the resources within it to survive. It was first important for the Bedouin to know the geography of their homelands; what was where and the best route for travelling from any one part to another, whether moving with laden-camels, riding camels or going on foot. The Bedouin had to know the major routes in their lands, secondary alternatives, minor tracks, shortcuts and everything in between, along with the sources of water, shade and shelter on the way and any dangers on each; from sections vulnerable to flash floods to areas contested by other tribes or locales where desert spirits or jinn were said to dwell. An intricate knowledge of their homeland's geography enabled the Bedouin to migrate effectively with their herds and move safely for other reasons, whether carrying messages or escaping raids by other tribes. Every tribe needed to know the whereabouts of its key resources too; from the most verdant regions of pasture to the best grounds for hunting ibex, oryx and other game and foraging useful plants. Typically, these territories would change between months, years and decades and also over longer periods and news of their status - such as the blooming of new pastures after rain - would spread quickly around a tribe to help all of its members survive. The Bedouin went deep into their territories in one of the most challenging environments on earth and hold an extraordinary body of geographical knowledge about the deserts of the Middle East. When the history of exploration is told, the Bedouin remain largely invisible but their contribution was remarkable and deserving today of the highest recognition. 

The animal world

Herds of goats and sheep have been central to the pastoral nomadism of the Middle East for several thousand years, with camels being integrated around 2500 years ago. Grazing on desert pasturage, these animals gave the Bedouin much of what they needed to survive, including meat and milk, from which yoghurt, butter and dried cheese could be produced. Goat hair was woven into the black and white tent known as the Bayt el Shaar or 'House of Hair' in which many mobile groups of Bedouin still live in the desert today. Animal skins were crafted into waterbags that kept their contents cool on the hottest desert days and wool was used to weave rugs, carpets and clothing. Even horns, bones and dung had uses. Herds represented a source of material wealth and could also be sold or exchanged for other goods in nearby towns. Alongside grazing domestic herds, the Bedouin hunted wild animals including ibex, oryx, gazelle, hares and large lizards. Taboos existed over certain meats in some Bedouin groups, such as the Khushmaan clan of Egypt's Maaza tribe, who avoided rock hyrax on account of a perceived anthropomorphism. Animal behaviour was carefully observed by the Bedouin, who knew animals have powerful senses for detecting things of which humans remain unaware. Camels would retreat to high ground before a dangerous flood swept through a wadi. Some birds would call to indicate the presence of snakes. Crows would fly off before an enemy approached. The Bedouin sometimes used animals in medicine too; one common ritual still practised widely was to grind a scorpion into a powder, which a mother would apply to her nipple as a baby suckled, believing it to give her infant a lifelong immunity against stings. 

Bedouin botany

Trees, bushes and small shrubs grow widely over the deserts of the Middle East and have long been at the heart of the Bedouin survival strategy. Successive generations experimented and re-experimented with the plants of their homelands, getting to know their uses and dangers. Every plant had a use of some kind for the Bedouin and some had several. Many plants were foraged to be eaten. Dates were an important source of energy and the Bedouin often pollinated wild date palms to ensure their harvests. From the fig to the jujube, doum, and caper, many other trees and bushes offered fruits, edible gums and sometimes seeds from which cooking oil could be extracted. Shrubs like onionweed and sorrel gave quick, easy snacks and oregano, horsemint and other herbs were used as flavourings. Bedouin medicine was largely herbal. Some plants could be used raw; others needed careful preparation. They were used to treat everything from coughs and colds to skin rashes, respiratory and digestive problems, diabetes, rheumatism and uteral bleeding. Veterinary medicine was also herbal and had a similarly important place in a nomadic pastoral society whose welfare was intricately connected to the health of its animals. Desert plants were used for many other purposes too, from making soap, toothbrushes and pleasant smelling cologne to cords, ropes and glues, and from tanning leather to coating tinder cloths and making musical flutes and resins for instrumental strings. Some plants were also harvested and turned into useful resources like charcoal that could be sold in the towns or exchanged for coffee, sugar and other goods unavailable in the desert. Bedouin communities including settled ones still use desert plants for many things.

The heavens

Every night stars rise, turn and fall in the big desert skies and the Bedouin tribes of Arabia have watched them for millennia, using them for guidance on everything from navigation to forecasting rain, fortune and danger. The Bedouin recognise some of the same asterisms as modern astronomers including The Plough, which they call El Sabaa or The Seven, and Orion's Belt, which they call El Jawzi. The Bedouin also identified bigger constellations such as Scorpio - which is also known as The Scorpion or El Aqrab in Arabic - although they often made their own modifications too, with some stars added to constellations and others ignored. The Bedouin call the north star El Jiddi and have long used it to find their bearings. Visible only for a few months of the year and rising only low over the horizon, the south star is known as El Suhayl. It appears in October and marks the start of a period when the Bedouin choose their camp grounds with extra care, knowing it to portend the arrival of rains and flash floods. The sign of the Pleiades, known as Wasm el Thoraya, was the most important sign to Bedouin herders and its rise in late October marked the onset of a 75 day period in which they prayed for rains. If rains fell during this time rich pastures would follow for their animals in spring; if they did not, the Bedouin knew hardship was ahead. El Ahaymir was a small red star said to warn of evil winds and rains. The Bedouin also identified a weekly period in each summer month when the moon passed through Scorpio's head and tail, during which any journey, raid or other venture started was fated to fail. The Bedouin had astral legends too, ascribing personalities to stars based on their movements, some of which have been told from pre-Islamic times until today. 

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