Tribes of the trail
The Bedouin Trail traverses Jordan, the Sinai and Egypt's Eastern Desert, crossing the territories of seven Bedouin tribes. If alternative routes are taken the territories of 11 tribes can be crossed, all of whom still represent only a small number of the tribes present in the wider Middle East. This world of tribes grew over many ages, from pre-Islamic times to the present and ancestry, culture and alliances have always kept it connected. Sometimes, single clans within a Bedouin tribe grew so large and powerful they came to be viewed as tribes in their own right. Often, these offshoot tribes remained close to their original tribe. Other times, they came into conflict. Conflict happened between tribes and sometimes within them too. Tribes have always grown from other tribes, with the pattern repeating and new relations evolving between them to shape the wider region. The Bedouin map has changed too. Sometimes a tribe would leave its homeland entirely, migrating to a new area. Other times, a single clan would leave a tribe to establish a new territory elsewhere. For this reason, Bedouin tribes often have several self-contained pockets of territory across the Middle East. Sometimes, tribes came to a new region, then departed. Alliances sometimes saw a part of one tribe absorbed into another, with both living in the same lands. Entire sections of tribes sometimes left the desert to settle in nearby agricultural regions. Parts of a tribe that settled often remained closely connected to their desert-dwelling counterparts with each helping the other. The Bedouin world has never been static; tribes have formed from other tribes and ancestry and alliances have kept them intertwined. Whilst tribal genealogies and histories are often best understood symbolically, a rough outline follows below of the tribes who live along the Bedouin Trail.
Jordan is a country with a rich Bedouin heritage, of which it remains proud today. Bedouin imagery is widely visible in Jordan, to a much greater extent than in Egypt and other neighbouring countries. Jordan's deserts are home to some of Arabia's biggest, best-known tribes and the Jordanian Royal Family themselves are descended from the Bani Hashim; a clan of the Quraysh tribe from Mecca, from which the Prophet Mohammed hailed himself. Known as the Hashamiyoon or Hashemites in English, they ruled Mecca for centuries before the rise of the Ibn Saud tribe, which conquered most of the region to form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Bedouin Trail runs through Howaytat and Anaza lands in Jordan, although several other tribes live within these same lands today.
The Howaytat have lands spanning several modern nations today. In Egypt's Eastern Desert, they are the northern neighbours of a tribe called the Maaza. They hold a part of the Sinai's Gulf of Suez coast near the tribe of the Alegat. They also have a large territory next to the Bani in the Hejaz of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which counts as their original homeland. A commonly-heard origin story often told with variations suggests the Howaytat were descended from a boy of noble blood called Jazi or Alayan, who fell sick on a pilgrimage to Mecca, being taken in by a Sheikh of the Maaza in Aqaba. Jazi grew up to marry the daughter of Atiya - one of the Sheikh's sons - before quarrelling with Atiya over the tribe's leadership following the Sheikh's death. A struggle ensued in which Jazi's son, nicknamed 'El Howayti', would come to be recognised as the forefather of a new tribe called the Howaytat. The Howaytat were known as formidable raiders and one of their great warrior heroes was Auda Abu Tayyeh of the Ibn Jazi clan. He raided as faraway as Syria, Iraq and Mecca and became a fighting leader of the Great Arab Revolt, which ended 400 years of Ottoman occupation across the Middle East in 1918. The Howaytat played a major role in ousting the Ottomans from their homeland but made their last stand in warfare in 1932 when the Hejaz was conquered by tribes loyal to Ibn Saud Abdulaziz; a Bedouin leader from an interior region of the Arabian Peninsula known as the Najd, who would go on to found the new state of Saudi Arabia, becoming its first king. The Howaytat live across southern Jordan today.
The Anaza are a large tribe with a presence from Saudi Arabia to Jordan and Syria. Their origins lie in the Hisma Desert of Saudi Arabia, where they still hold a large territory today. Over many centuries, clans of the Anaza such as the Ruwalla and Hassanna became so large, powerful and distinctive they came to be recognised as tribes in their own right. It is for this reason the Anaza is often described as a confederation of tribes, rather than a single tribe in itself. The forefather of the Anaza was said to be a tribesman called Wael; Wael became the father of twins, one of whom was Anaz Ibn el Jebel, from whom the Anaza and all the clans that grew from them are descended. The other twin was Maieez Ibn el Jebel, who the Maaza claim as their forefather. Several royal lineages emerged in the Anaza, with one of its clans called the Ibn Saud becoming the royal family of Saudi Arabia. Another one would become the royal family of Kuwait. Two small clans of Anaza heritage live in southern Jordan today, including the Zalabia of Wadi Rum and, a short way north around the village of Deesa, the clan of the Zuwayda. Both claim descent from an Anaza tribesman who arrived from the Hisma Desert several centuries ago looking to escape a blood feud. On his arrival, it is said the Howaytat gave him refuge and assistance and allowed him and his descendants to remain in the area. The Zalabia and Zuwayda are on account of this alliance and ongoing links often thought to be clans of the Howaytat, but their true heritage is an Anaza one. Bedouin of both clans often return to their original homeland in the Hisma Desert.
The Billi are a large, ancient tribe with a long-standing presence in the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and the Sinai. They are the southern neighbours of the Howaytat in Saudi Arabia, with a territory encompassing the Red Sea coast between El Wejh and Umluj and a rugged tract of mountains in the Hejaz. Alongside their homeland in Arabia the Billi have a separate, self-contained territory in North Sinai, bordering the Tarabin and Howaytat. The Billi were amongst the first tribes to convert to Islam and played an important role in the Islamic Conquests. Widely held to be first-rate cavaliers, they joined the Arab Commander Amr Ibn el As as his forces swept into Egypt in 639AD, conquering the Byzantine Empire within three years. Historical sources record the Billi aiding the Byzantine General Heraclius against the Islamic armies too, which may suggest other sections of the Billi had established a pre-Islamic presence in the Sinai. Assuming these sources to be correct, it would make the Billi one of the earliest documented of all tribes still present in the Sinai today. Some of the Billi who remained in Egypt after the Islamic conquests settled in the Nile Valley, where descendants of the tribe remain today. They often moved into the Eastern Desert, where place names still record their presence; amongst them Wadi Billi on the Red Sea Mountain Trail. Families of Billi origins known as the Bluwi or Bilawna live in Jordan's Wadi Rum today. Fighting alongside the Howaytat, the Billi were defeated in a battle for their Hejaz homeland by Ibn Saud Abdulaziz in 1932, who went on to found the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Bani Atiya have been central in shaping the tribal societies of Egypt, the Sinai and northern Arabia. They share a distant ancestry with the Anaza, with both claiming descent from a tribal forefather called Wael. The origin story of the Howaytat underlines shared beginnings too, referring to a Sheikh of the Maaza who took in a boy who later came to quarrel over his adopted tribe's leadership and whose son 'El Howayti' would become the forefather of the Howaytat. The Sheikh's true son Atiya would assert his claim to the tribal leadership of the Maaza, becoming the Sheikh Atiya whose descendants form the Bani Atiya today; a clan within the Maaza that would grow large, powerful and distinct enough to be viewed as a tribe in its own right, with the name Maaza being used mostly by members of the tribe who emigrated to Egypt. Whilst known by different names and having their own, stand-alone territories in different parts of the Middle East, the Maaza and Bani Atiya consider themselves the same tribe and remain closely connected today. The Tarabin and other tribes of the Sinai including the Tiyaha and Ahaywat are also said to have Bani Atiya roots. The tribal homeland of the Bani Atiya stands in modern-day Saudi Arabia, centering on the northern parts of the Hisma Desert and Hejaz Mountains, although a few Bani Atiya tribesmen also live across southern Jordan. Jebel el Loz is the highest point in Bani Atiya territory and the summits of the Red Sea Mountains - which represent the faraway tribal homeland of the Maaza in Egypt - can be seen from its peak on the clearest of days.
The Bidool are a Bedouin group with a long-standing presence in Wadi Musa and a tribal territory centred on the ancient Nabataean city of Petra. Until the last few decades most families of the Bidool combined mobile pastoralism based on herding goats and sheep with small, subsistence farming, cultivating small plots of grains and vegetables. Over winter, many Bidool families lived in Nabataean tombs, which offered excellent, warm shelter; in summer they would typically range out with their black goat-hair tents. Either through bloodlines or a historic tribal alliance the Bidool have close ties to the Howaytat and are widely considered to be a clan of the tribe. The Bidool are proud of their connection to Petra and their historical guardianship of the site which ensured the safety of its monuments over centuries. Nevertheless, when UNESCO recognised Petra as a World Heritage Site in 1985 they were resettled to a nearby village called Um Sayhoun. The Jordanian government acted with broad international support and its re-settlement of the Bidool has been significantly more respectful than resettlement initiatives have been for Bedouin communities in some countries. Nevertheless, whilst it has brought some beneficial change it has had challenges too. Once largely self sufficient, many Bidool now rely on casual work in an unstable tourism economy. Academic research suggests Bidool health was better before resettlement. Some complain Um Sayhoun is neglected and lacking in services and there is even talk the Bidool will be resettled again, with Um Sayhoun developed for tourism.
The Sinai has been inhabited by nomadic peoples for many millennia and counts as one of the great Bedouin homelands of the Middle East. Covering just 61,000 square kilometres, the Sinai is smaller in its entirety than the territory of the Maaza tribe alone in mainland Egypt and 23 tribes are packed within it today, each of which holds its own territory. Historically, North and South Sinai had their own tribal alliances, with the one in the south an eight-tribe alliance known as the Towara. The Bedouin Trail remains entirely within South Sinai today, crossing the lands of four of its tribes. Alternative routes allow all eight of its tribal territories to be traversed too, except those of a small tribe known as the Bani Waasil, who now live exclusively in the coastal town of El Tur.
The Tarabin have two separate territories in the Sinai, with each belonging to a different section of the tribe. One is in North Sinai and is bisected by the border between Egypt and Israel, dividing the Tarabin across two nations. Encompassing most of the Sinai's Gulf of Aqaba coast north of Nuweiba and a large tract of inland deserts, the other Tarabin territory is in the south. The Tarabin trace their roots to the northern Hejaz in Saudi Arabia. Along with other tribes in the Sinai including the Tiyaha and Ahaywat, the Tarabin are said to be descended from the Bani Atiya and may have departed the Hejaz due to an intratribal conflict. They claim descent from a forefather called Sheikh Atiya, whose memorial tomb stands in South Sinai today. Of their origins in the Sinai, it is said two of Sheikh Atiya's sons came to the region and were welcomed by a Sheikh of the Bani Waasil. This Sheikh had two daughters but no sons and as he attended his Tarabin guests, a group of armed raiders stole away with his camels. With no sons able to protect him the Tarabin tribesmen asked his permission to chase the raiders; the Sheikh agreed and his camels were returned, upon which he gave one of his daughters to each of the two tribesman in marriage. The Tarabin claim descent from one of these tribesmen. The Tarabin are not counted in the South Sinai's alliance of tribes, but they have nevertheless have good relations with tribes across the region. The Tarabin once had a major role in caravan traffic and are widely known for their bravery and poetry. Of the Bani Waasil, they still live in the Sinai, in the coastal town of El Tur.
The Garasha occupy the wild, westerly mountains of the Sinai and their territory incorporates two of the peninsula's great natural gems; the spectacular summit of Jebel Serbal - once believed to be the true Mount Sinai of The Bible - and the winding gorge of Wadi Feiran, in which verdant groves of palms grew until water levels began to drop. As with almost all tribes in the Sinai, the Garasha trace their origins to the Hejaz. It is not clear when or how they arrived in the Sinai but their first documented mention is in the 1500s. Sheikhs of the Garasha were the last leaders of South Sinai to head the tribal alliance of the Towara before the office was discontinued a century ago. The Garasha were once counted in a smaller three-tribe alliance within the Towara alliance itself known as the Sowalha, alongside the Awlad Said and Awarma tribes.
The Sowalha was once the term for a small alliance of three tribes, which existed within South Sinai's bigger eight tribe alliance, the Towara. Counted in the Sowalha were the Awarma, Awlad Said and Garasha. Today, the Awlad Said and Garasha are typically referred to independently, with the Awarma known most commonly as the Sowalha. It is said the Sowalha arrived in Egypt soon after the Islamic Conquest, grazing their flocks near Salhiya in Egypt's Delta. Their presence is noted in the Sinai as early as the 1300s, when they captured lands from the Hamada and Bani Waasil. They grew into the region's most powerful tribe but defeat in a long conflict with the Alegat and Muzeina and a loss of the Cairo-Suez caravan trade in recent centuries to the newly-arrived Maaza of the Hejaz saw their wealth and influence begin to dwindle.
The Muzeina are the biggest tribe in South Sinai in both numbers and the size of their territory. Muzeina lands encompass the Gulf of Aqaba coast from its southern tip near Sharm el Sheikh to Nuweiba in the north, along with a large swathe of inland mountains and deserts. The Muzeina trace their origins to the Medina region of modern-day Saudi Arabia and claim association with a tribe called the Harb; possibly shared bloodlines, but more probably an old political alliance. Of Muzeina origins in the Sinai, it is said they arrived as just seven tribesmen in Sharm el Sheikh, fleeing a blood dispute in their homeland. With little to offer in return they asked the Sowalha for permission to graze in their lands but the Sowalha agreed only on condition the Muzeina would pay an annual tribute of sheep. Accepting the offer would have bestowed the status of outcasts on them in Bedouin society which the Muzeina rejected outright, appealing instead to the Alegat. The Alegat had been involved in a long-running conflict with the Sowalha and welcomed the Muzeina to strengthen their ranks. The Alegat and Muzeina would soon come to battle and defeat the Sowalha together and whilst relations between all these tribes are good today the Muzeina remain especially close to the Alegat. Over the last few decades large-scale commercial developments have transformed the coastal lands of the Muzeina into Egypt's booming Red Sea Riviera. A world has been built in which many feel no real place and few Bedouin are seen in towns like Sharm el Sheikh today, with most living in villages on the outskirts.
Jebel means mountain in Arabic and the name the Jebeleya can be translated as the Mountain People. The Jebeleya have a small but spectacular tribal territory centering on the town of St Katherine and encompassing Egypt's highest peaks. These highlands are home to the holy summits of Mount Sinai and Jebel Katherina, along with the Monastery of St Katherine, which has operated continuously in the region since the Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered its construction 1500 years ago. The Jebeleya are an anthropological oddity in Bedouin terms, with it often said at least part of the tribe is descended from European and Egyptian soldiers sent to guard the monastery after its founding. This genealogy is often contested within the tribe, with Jebeleya tribesmen pointing to purely Arab bloodlines, but whatever version is correct, the Jebeleya have long been closely connected with the monastery. They helped care for its properties, represented it in the Sinai's tribal society and protected it from danger. As civil unrest spread across Egypt in the 2011 revolution Jebeleya Sheikhs met with St Katherine's monks to affirm the tribe would protect them as the first Byzantine soldiers had vowed to do. Alongside herding goats and sheep the Jebeleya grew food in mountain orchards and have long welcomed outside visitors, from the pilgrims of old to the tourists of today. They stand in uncertain times, with St Katherine undergoing a huge urban redevelopment aimed at turning it from a small Bedouin town to a major hub of high-end commercial tourism in Egypt; a Sharm el Sheikh of the mountains.
The Awlad Said are the neighbours of the Jebeleya and another one of the Sinai's mountain tribes. Their territory encompasses the most remote highland country in the peninsula and is home to impressive peaks like Jebel Rimhan and Jebel Um Shomer; once believed to be the highest summit in Egypt. The Awlad Said played a major role in ferrying supplies and pilgrims to the Monastery of St Katherine and their tribesmen once cared for a small mosque within its grounds. Monastery sources record the Awlad Said giving auxiliary support to the Jebeleya, helping them defend themselves in times of danger. Alongside the Garasha and Awarma, the Awlad Said were once counted in a small, three-tribe alliance within the broader Towara alliance, known as the Sowalha. They are known for their hunting skills and mountain prowess.
The Hamada live in the remote westerly deserts of the Sinai and have a small territory between the Sowalha and Alegat. The Hamada are one of the smallest tribes in the Sinai and they claim to be the oldest too. Exactly how long their presence goes back is unclear but their claim of antiquity is backed up both by early written records and the oral histories of their neighbouring tribes. Some suggest the Hamada are descended from the earliest groups of the Sinai's nomads. If true, which it may well be, at least in part, it would make the Hamada the closest thing the Sinai has to an indigenous people. Hamada lands are a spectacular mix of towering mountains, deep gorges and austere tablelands. The Hamada are known for their hospitality and are currently the only tribe in the Sinai in which Bedouin women can work as guides.
The Alegat hold a territory in the western deserts of the Sinai, between the coastal town of Abu Zenima and the small, inland settlement of Serabit el Khadem; home to turquoise mines that were excavated by the Pharaohs, along with a temple dedicated to the Egyptian Goddess Hathor. The Alegat trace their roots to the Arabian Peninsula, sometimes claiming descent from a tribe known as the Bani Uqba. Their presence in the Sinai is first recorded in the 1300s, when they lived mostly on the eastern side of the peninsula. On the western side of the Sinai were the Sowalha, with whom the Alegat have been both friend and foe over the ages. Aided by a small group of Muzeina tribesmen, the Alegat won a decisive tribal war against the Sowalha in the late 1500s, which changed the power balance in the Sinai and redrew its tribal map. Out of gratitude to the Muzeina the Alegat granted them a large tract of their territory. The Alegat became centred on the western side of the Sinai, with the Muzeina dominating the east. Many families living the traditional nomadic pastoralist way of life are seen in the deserts of the Alegat today and other sections of the tribe are found as faraway as Egypt's mainland too. A village known as 'Alegat' stands between Qena and Luxor in the Nile Valley and Alegat families are found on the desert fringes near Aswan too; both said to be descendants of early groups of Alegat tribesmen who left the desert to settle. Although now sedentary they identify as Alegat and are seen as settled but legitimate tribal members by the Alegat Bedouin of the Sinai too.
Egypt: the Eastern Desert
The Bedouin Trail traverses Egypt's Eastern Desert; a vast tract of wilderness separating the Nile Valley from the Red Sea, in which the Red Sea Mountains tower high. The southern parts of Egypt's Eastern Desert are home to three tribes, including the Maaza, Ababda and Bisharin. Whilst the Maaza trace their roots to the Hejaz of the Arabian Peninsula the Bisharin are a tribe of African origin, whose native language is Beja. The Ababda trace their roots to Arabia but their tribal culture also shows unique African influences. The Howaytat live within the northern parts of the Eastern Desert, south of Suez. Whilst the Bedouin Trail traverses only the lands of the Maaza, it runs through a wider region of exceptional tribal diversity, which still bears marks of tribes with an African influence.
The Maaza hold the northern half of Egypt's Eastern Desert, with their territory covering a gigantic 75,000 square kilometres; roughly the size of Ireland. They trace their roots to the Hejaz mountains of modern-day Saudi Arabia - where many of the tribe still live today - and arrived in Egypt in several waves of migrations starting in the eighteenth century and ending in the Great Arab Revolt of the early 1900s. Although known by different names, Egypt's Maaza and the Bani Atiya of Saudi Arabia recognise themselves as the same tribe and remain closely connected today. The exact reasons for the first Maaza migration to Egypt are not known; some say sections of the tribe came to escape conflict with their neighbours the Howaytat. Others claim they migrated in a time of environmental hardship, looking for new water and grazing. On arrival in Egypt the Maaza fought many battles with a tribe called the Ababda to establish their new desert homeland. Tombs of Ababda Sheikhs and place names of Ababda origin can still be found in Maaza territory. Hostilities ceased long ago and both tribes now live as peaceful neighbours, with the Ababda holding most of the southern half of Egypt's Eastern Desert. The Bisharin make up the third tribe in the southern parts of the Eastern Desert, with their lands running over Egypt's border into Sudan. The Maaza's name is said to come from an ancestor called Maieez Ibn el Jebel. He was one of two twins, with the other called Anaz Ibn el Jebel. Whilst the descendants of Maieez became the Maaza, those of Anaz became the Anaza, a large, powerful tribe in Arabia.