I met my Bedouin friend Hemaid several years ago when he invited me one morning…
The Kingdom of Jordan is filled with hundreds of desert caves. Many of these are inside the famous archaeological site called Petra. It is a known fact that the Petra caves were inhabited by Bedouins as recently as the late 20th Century. Then the government told them to leave. Today, the Petra, Jordan caves should be empty. But are they really?
I have the answer to that question.
The Bedouins of Petra
If you’ve ever been to Petra, you probably cannot forget the many Bedouin men who are at the site. Colorful scarves on their heads, light-colored eyes dramatically lined with thick dark kohl, they invite you to buy souvenirs and offer you rides on their camels and donkeys.
Most of these Bedouins are members of the Bedul tribe. This tribe consists of only a small percentage of the four million Bedouins who live in Jordan. The Beduls may be descendants of the Nabateans, or they may not. It depends on who you ask.
It was around 1985, when the United Nations named Petra a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that the Jordanian government told the Beduls to leave. Knowing tourism could increase as a result of Petra’s new status and believing that those tourists might be bothered by the Bedouins, the government relocated them to nearby a settlement called Uum Sayhoum.
Although officially ordered out of the Petra caves, the Bedul Bedouins didn’t all exactly follow those orders. In January 2012, one of them invited me to have tea with him and his mother in their cave.
Inside a Petra cave for a cup of tea with Bedouins
This was the first time I had traveled to the kingdom, as a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board. On the day I visited Petra, after I’d climbed back down the 800 steps which had led me up to the incredible monastery which towers over the site, I saw a Bedouin man sitting off the side of the trail. Earlier, on the way up to the monastery, I’d noticed this same man leading a donkey with a woman sitting on top.
Now he told me his name was Awda. He was Bedouin, he said, as was his friend Ibrahim who sat with him. Ibrahim was draped in a sort of coat/rug combination, a fairly common sight in Middle Eastern winters.
Awda invited me to sit with them, so I climbed over the low wall which separated us. Then I sat and watched as they passed a shisha pipe back and forth, each of them taking long yet quick puffs before handing it to the other.
Would you like to have tea with me and my mother? Awda asked as they smoked, his voice as light as a breeze.
Always interested in spending time with people from different cultures, I said yes.
Okay, come with me, he said, standing up.
Where? I asked.
To my mother’s cave, he replied.
Your mother’s cave? What do you mean, your mother’s cave?
Awda held out his hand. I will take you to my mother’s cave. Please, get on the donkey.
I climbed atop Awda’s donkey, and he grabbed the rope around its neck. He began leading us up a trail on a jerky, swaying, sometimes faltering journey. I started to slide sideways a few times as the donkey leaned to negotiate rock-strewn curves in the trail.
After about 15 minutes I saw a woman in a colorful hijab outside a curved opening in one of the cliff’s walls, with a small girl riding a donkey around in circles outside. This is my mother, Awda said.
Okay, I thought, maybe this guy’s mother really actually does live in a cave.
Awda halted the donkey, I climbed off and entered the rounded opening in the cliff. I was now standing inside a cave. I stood looking around at Awda’s mother’s few belongings – a small rug spread out on the floor, a few bottles, a couple of plastic bins, a few other other small items. This little cave didn’t exactly appear to be a home, but this woman did seem to have laid claim to it.
Her name is Basma, he told me.
Come outside, and we will have tea. This man seemed such a mellow spirit, every word quiet and calm.
Basma was already building a fire just outside the cave’s entrance. The girl riding the little donkey around the entrance had now disappeared. Now Basma, Awda and I sat alone, the mother and son piling small sticks under a black kettle which was heating on the fire before us.
You see my dog? Awda asked, pointing to a white, short haired dog with pointy ears running around off in the distance. His father was a wolf, he said.
Are you sure? I asked.
Yes, I am sure.
Several moments passed. Where do you live, anyway? I asked.
Over there, he said, stretching out his arm and pointing to the left. My cave is about ten minutes from here.
You live in a cave too?
Yes, Awda said. It’s a good life. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful. I have everything I need. He lit a shisha pipe, and I joined him in inhaling its apple-flavored smoke as I pondered the cave people with whom I was having afternoon tea.
You know, actually, I said, my guide told me people don’t live in these caves anymore.
These words seemed to make the otherwise very peaceful Awda a little angry. He is lying, he said, his gentle voice turned strong. People have lived in caves here for many years. Your guide knows this.
I wanted to believe him. After all, here I was, sitting outside the entrance to a cave filled with personal belongings, smoking shisha and drinking tea with two Bedouin people who claimed to be modern-day cave dwellers. They certainly did seem to live here.
Soon, I said I must leave. I knew my guide, who’d been waiting for me since I began the climb up to the monastery, might be worried because I’d been gone for so long.
It’s not hard to walk back down. I’ll show you the way, Awda said.
Shukran, I said to Basma, thanking her for her hospitality. Ma’a salama. Good-bye.
We left the donkey behind with her and began the walk down the mountain, Awda helping me over the loose, slippery rocks. After we said good-bye and he climbed back up the mountain to his mother’s cave, I knew I’d never forget the amazing world of modern-day cave dwellers which I’d just been so privileged to experience .
Although the above true story took place in 2012, I could easily see when I last visited Petra in 2023 that the Bedouins are still very much there. My friend, an experienced Petra tour guide who’s lived adjacent to the site all of his life, told me that the Jordanian government recently has been cracking down on unlicensed undertakings by the Bedouins at Petra, such as unauthorized souvenir stands and unofficial trails. However, he said, the Bedouins are still continuing on with these prohibited activities. He assumes they are still living inside the Petra caves without permission as well.
The Bedouins may only live inside Petra caves part of the time. They may only live there temporarily. They may have other homes in addition to the caves. It is not exactly legal for them to live in caves. Nevertheless, Bedouins definitely have lived in the Petra caves as recently as 2012 and, based on what I’ve personally heard and seen, they are are certainly continuing to live in the Petra caves today.