The People

St Katherine Bedouin gathering

The traditional people of the area, the Jebeliya Bedouin, have been living in the region for over 1400 years. In the 6th century AD the Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered to build St. Catherine monastery (Jebel El Tur Monastery as it was named at the time) and brought about 200 Roman soldiers with their families to protect the monastery. Hundred of these men were brought from Egypt and the other hundred were brought from different parts of the Byzantine empire, mainly from the Black Sea territory. According to different accounts they are from Romania, Macedonia, Greece or Anatolia. The Jebeliya refer to themselves as of Romanian or Greek descent. According to oral traditions they came from a place called Black Mountain. Abu El Makarem mentions that the Roman soldiers who were brought from Egypt were named as Bni Saleh (Sons of Saleh) and the others were named as El Lakhmeen (the Arabic name describing people from the Black Sea Area). They are one of the first peoples of the present population of Sinai. They were here before most other Bedouin tribes and the spread of Islam, but along the centuries intermarried with other Arab tribes and converted to Islam. Some sections of the tribe settled in more recently (as late as 200 years ago), they are from other parts of Egypt, Palestine or the Saudi peninsula. The Jebeliya traditions and way of life are similar to other Bedouin groups, although their origins are remembered and there are some unique features.

Their name Jebeliya refers to the mountains (Jebel meaning Mountain) as they always lived in these mountains on their tribal territory. While most other Bedouin groups are desert dwellers, the home of the Jebeliya is in the labyrinth of high altitude wadis. The families have gardens at different locations in the valleys where they lived in the summer months. When the weather became colder people moved to lower altitude. Today they still practice this seasonal migration to some extent, as many families like to spend some time in the mountains in the summer school holidays. There are still a few older people who stay there for prolonged periods, but younger people, in general, are not to keen on spending much time out. The gardens are a unique feature of the Jebeliya, as other Bedouin groups were not involved in agriculture. (Other Bedouin had lands and trees in Oasises, though, but they were tended for a share by landless peasants.) The gardens – called karm or bustan – are encircled by massive stone walls which keep larger animals out, and protect the garden during flashfloods and retain the soil. Gardens were built in the water course in the wadi floor or in basins, where water remained underground longer. The houses are usually built a bit further up from the wadi floor, so sudden floods did not cause damege to people. In the gardens they grow many fruits not common in Egypt such as apples and almonds. Other crops include olives, apricots, figs, grapes and so on. They are expert gardeners who received their first seeds from monks, and developed drought resistant strains by grafting branches of higher yielding varieties from the low land onto tougher indigenous plants. They kept and still keep animals, such as camel, sheep, goat and poultry, although due to dry conditions grazing is more difficult and fodder has to be purchased from outside, making this a more costly venture. On average a family according to a Protectorate survey owns between 5 to 10 animals in settlements around St. Katherine City, and 15-20 in the mountainous areas. Good camels cost as much as 5000 LE (USD 800) and are the focus of pride. The Jebeliya hold an annual camel race in the main wadi, Wadi Sheikh.

The whole tribe gathered at certain occasions in the present day El Milga area of St Katherine (El Milga means the meeting place), or at other locations such as the tombs of Sheikhs. Some of the Bedouin still gather at these tombs to celebrate “Zuara”, while others consider this practice to be “bidaa”, an innovation and not consistent with Islam. (In fact, most of the bidaa is actually predating Islam and is rather a survival of a tradition than an innovation.) Zuara, also known as Sheik Day or Mulid (Moulid), “is performed by most Sinai tribes at the tombs of Sheiks, or in nearby shelters called mak’ad when a Bedouin or group of Bedouin wish to ask the Sheikh to intervene with Allah on their behalf. Zuara is the generic name for any activity of this sort. In addition to the Mulid, the bedouins often practice Zuara on a weekly basis. The sick Bedouins or their relatives, pregnant mothers looking for healthy children, or people looking for a good crop, go to a tomb. […] Until the 1956 war in the Sinai, the Gebeliya and the Auled-Said shared a common Mulid (the annual Zuara) at the tomb of Nebi-Saleh; however the war forced them to conduct the ceremonies at separate locations; but the tribes are still apparently close. Now the Gebeliya go to Aaron’s tomb down the road, and the Auled-Said go to Nebi Salah’s tomb. Both go in the 8th month. The Garasha and Sawalha also go to Nebi-Salah’s tomb for their Mulid but in the 7th Month.” Some of the Jebeliya gather at the Tomb of Sheikh Awad on the second day of Eid el Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice.

“The social and political units among the Arabian nomads were groups of varying sizes. Western writers usually refer to these as ‘tribes’ or, in the case of the smaller groups and subdivisions, ‘sub-tribes’ and ‘clans’, but those terms do not correspond exactly to Arabic terms. There are a number of words in Arabic for such social and political units, but the commonest usage is to refer to a tribe or clan simply as ‘the sons of so and-so’.” In the case of the Jebeliya there are four divisions (clans) called Roba (Quarter), which are further divided into smaller groups. The groups are named after a distant ancestor; Awlad (Ulad) means sons of -, Abu means father and refers to the forefather.

The Jebeliya tribal structure

Awlad Jindi
Awlad Saleem
Abu Krishian
Abu Jaes
Abu Masaud
El Diquni
Abu el Heim
Abu Mugannam
Al Agra
Abu Meqbil
Abu Hajazi
Abu Musaad
El Sana
El Hashash

Abu Heb
Abu Karsh
Abu Ghnimen
El Whebi
El Heneni
Abu Saeid

The Jebeliya is one of the smaller Sinai trbes, numbering only 4,603 in 1994, most of them living in the St. Katherina area. The neighbouring tribes are the Ulad Said and Muzeina. Bedouin tribes respect the tribal territories and intertribal agreements and get along well. There are some Ulad Said living with the Jebeliya in the St. Katherine area. Jebeliya people also live in Wadi Feiran and El Tur.

Today the Jebeliya are sedentary and live in stone or concrete-block houses. The Jebeliya, unlike other Bedouin groups, used stone buildings even in the past, as winters are cold and there is plenty of building material, but also used tents. Homes are divided into a guest area and one reserved for the family, and in most cases there are separate entrances to the different areas. The “sitting room”, where the guets stay is called Majma, Magaad or Majlis. Sitting often takes place outside, next to the house, in the garden, or in the arisha, a sitting area covered loosely with canes or other leafy materials (‘el arish’ actually means palm leaf). In most places the traditional tents are no longer in use (apart from a few places where it is erected next to the house to serve as the arisha), but the arrangements and functions are like it was in the tents. There are still some areas in the desert where people use and know how to make tents.
“The traditional tents of the Bedouin have come to symbolize life in the desert. These tents have to meet some basic requirements in order to protect the Bedouin from the harsh and demanding environment. They have to be easy to erect and dismantle, easy to maintain and repair, resistant to wind and rain and at the same time provide insulation from the sun and protection against the cold. Hair from black Arabian goats is used to make the wool for the tents which are known as Bait Al-Sha’ar, or ‘House of Hair’. Women of the tribe weave wool into long strips that are then assembled to form the roof of the tent which is supported by poles and secured to the ground by ropes. To ensure good ventilation, the cloth is secured with loose stitches. Swelling with the rain, the fibers expand in order to keep the tent waterproof. Curtains are hung as surrounding walls and panels of material separate the interior space into different rooms: the majlis, which is the public space for receiving visitors, and the mahram, the private space for the family.”
“One section of the tent is reserved for the men and their guests. A coffee hearth is scooped in the sand in front of this section, and a line of coffee pots, a pestle and mortar and a roasting pan stand ready to hand. Rugs are spread out on the ground, and there are cushions or camel saddles on which the men may lean. The women do not usually go into this part of the tent, but, if a woman’s husband is away, she may act as host and receive unexpected guests there herself.”
If you are invited for tea to someone’s home, take it as a honour and be respectful.

Bedouins have their unwritten law called Orf which even the Egyptian authorities accept. Each law was given a specific name like “Onwa”, “Doukhl” and “Hilf”. “All the land is a governmental property, however, the traditional usufruct rights of the Bedouin are respected by the Government of Egypt.” Decisions in important matters are made at tribal gatherings called Majlis (note the word is also used for the sitting room) with the participation of all and are based on consensus. At these gatherings “all might speak, but most weight attached to the words of men of recognised authority.” “The tribal shaykh is regarded as the man of authority who rests his case on his wealth, his inherited prestige, his personal capabilities in helping fellow tribe members, and-as a result of all of this-his occupying the most preeminent position in society. Miller states that people accept those leaders who forego the use of overwhelming force. With respect to tribal leaders, contentment, good relations, and direct, straightforward relationships facilitate the process of achieving cooperation when the leaders are managing affairs between themselves and their citizen subjects. Orders, arbitrary decisions, and harsh bureaucratic decrees can’t do this.”

One interesting law is Bisha, the Ordeal by Fire, which is still practiced today by all the Sinai Bedouin as described in detail below.

The Ordeal by Fire among the Bedouin in the Sinaitic Peninsula,
witnessed by Austin Kennett as an Administrative Officer for the
Egyptian Government in Sinai in the 1920s
“The trial by ordeal is employed to settle disputes in the absence of evidence, usually only the more serious charges being disposed of in this way. Just as the Sinai Arabs are loath to employ the oath in their disputes, unless it has been found impossible to come to a decision by any other means, so do they reserve the “Bisha” (as they call the trial by ordeal) for the more important cases only, being anxious that the solemnity of the ordeal shall not be lost by frequent appeal in trivial cases. The procedure is as follows :When a suspect is accused of murder, theft, or any other serious charge, after heated affirmation of the truth of the charge on the part of the accuser and equally violent denials and repudiation on behalf of the accused, it may be mutually agreed that the case shall be taken to the Bisha for decision. The accuser and accused must first agree upon a neutral third party, whose duty it is to watch fair play between the two… The three then go to the sheikh of the Bisha, either in his own house or at some pre-arranged place in the desert, the whole proceedings being open to anybody to watch, and there being no secrecy or staging of any kind…In the particular instance in which the writer was an eye- witness, one Arab from Southern Palestine had accused another Arab from Khan Yunis of murdering his son. The boy had been found dead in the desert, and the body had been examined by the Government doctor, who had found no signs of violence whatsoever… The accused protested his innocence and challenged the other to support his charge by evidence.In spite of the entire absence of evidence, the father persisted in his accusation, and threatened that reprisals would be taken. The accused – apparently unwillingly – eventually consented to undergo the trial by ordeal, and the other agreed that if the Bisha decided in favour of the accused he would drop his claim. Arrangements were duly made, the sheikh of the Bisha came from his house in Central Sinai up to El Arish to meet the litigants half-way, and paid an official call on the writer, whom he invited to be present at any time or place convenient. The meeting was fixed for late afternoon, in the shade of a tree near the Government offices. A charcoal fire was burning, and a group of fifteen or twenty onlookers squatted in a semi-circle round the fire, in company with the accuser and the accused, their mutual assessor, and the two chosen by the sheikh himself. In the centre of the group, two or three paces in front of the rest of the assembly, sat the sheikh, stoking up his charcoal fire, on which the “spoon” was laid, with the sticks of charcoal built up round it. Some of the men were smoking cigarettes, others puffed contentedly at their enormous pipes, and the shadows from the big tree over the yellow sand completed the peaceful scene. It was difficult to believe that in a few moments one of those present would be tried for his life, his fate hanging on the ugly iron spoon in the charcoal fire.The buzz of conversation suddenly stopped, as one of those present made a last effort to reconcile the litigants, and appealed to the accuser to accept some form of compromise. His effort was unsuccessful, the accused himself, a swarthy Arab with finely chiselled features and a short black beard, declaring that he would not shirk the ordeal at this stage of the proceedings. He seemed quite unconcerned, took out a cigarette and lit it from a burning stick at the edge of the fire.

After a few minutes the sheikh of the Bisha intimated that the spoon was hot enbugh, and directed the accused to come and kneel just behind his left shoulder.

“In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate”, crooned the sheikh, as he quietly said a prayer, in which all present reverently joined. A small pot of water was then passed to the accused, who rinsed his mouth and spat noisily, after which the three assessors carefully examined his mouth, lips, and tongue. Taking the handle of the spoon in his right hand, the sheikh withdrew the spoon from the fire, flicked the ashes off its upturned bottom with his other hand, and presented it glowing red to the accused at his left elbow.

For one brief moment the accused paled, his dusky skin showing ash-grey ; and then, pulling himself together and tightly grasping his sword with both hands, he put out his tongue and licked the hot spoon. As his tongue returned to his mouth, the black mark of the ashes was clearly seen. “Again” called the crowd ; and this time rather frightened and unwilling he forced himself to comply. A third time he leant forward – this time recklessly – and licked the spoon, while the onlookers strained forward eagerly to watch the ordeal.

The sheikh passed the pot of water to the accused, who had by now released his nervous grasp on his sword ; and after again rinsing out his mouth, the accused returned the water to the sheikh, and squatted on the ground. The sheikh poured some water into the spoon, and the noisy boiling and the steam, together with the complete disappearance of the water, satisfied any doubts as to its temperature. Three times the sheikh poured water into the belly of the spoon – twice it boiled away immediately, and once it remained. Then he poured more water into the cup-like depression at the base of the handle, and again the water boiled away. When the spoon had been completely cooled, the sheikh called together his two witnesses and the assessor nominated by both litigants, and the four then ordered the accused to put out his tongue. With supreme selfconfidence he obeyed, and clearly visible to all was his tongue looking perfectly healthy and natural. “Clean” declared the sheikh ; “Clean” echoed the witnesses, and a group of onlookers (including the writer) went up to examine his tongue and mouth more closely. On closer inspection the faintest possible trace of a black ashy smudge was just visible in the centre of his tongue, which was otherwise perfectly healthy and normal every way.”

The Schweich lectures of the British Academy 1931, London, Oxford University Press 1933

•  “One of the most interesting Bedouin communal laws in St. Katherine’s Protectorate was the “Hilf”. Through communal agreement places were set aside from grazing during certain times of the year to allow flora to recover before grazing again. Every year, the Sheikh’s agreed which areas were to be set aside and for what period. The period usually started before rain in October, and ran until the following summer. The setting of the apricot fruit was usually the indication that grazing could start again. For the first month camels would be allowed to graze after which sheep and goats would also be allowed to graze in the previously set aside area. Monastery maps identify Hilf agreements up until 1973. Beyond this practice appears to have died out.”

•  Borders are well known to tribesmen, though they generally do not prevent movement of individuals or groups in the area. Grazing and water resources are available to all tribes through inter-tribal agreement. Under traditional law individual who discover new water sources are able to settle next to it, so long as it is in his tribal area, however he would not be allowed to prohibit use of the water by others. Individuals can however have the rights to exclusive cultivate an area of land, however the viability of this is dependent on the availability of the water.

•  Between clansmen, verbal tongue-lashing was usually sufficient to ensure compliance, with agreements, but in the event there is conflict over land or usufruct The “Sheikh” or tribal leader resolves disputes both within the tribe and represents the tribe in disputes with other tribes. A “Haseeb” is selected to represent each party in the dispute. One interviewee during household surveys in the said Bedouin could be fined 50 LE. for cutting the green parts of a tree. It is interesting to note that Bedouins are relatively powerless to discipline non-Bedouin offenders, and this has important implications on resource use in St Katherine’s Protectorate with immigration into the area.

Conservation and the Traditional Bedouin Way of Life

•  Pastoral nomads are widely regarded as being uninterested in protecting their natural resources. While they may inadvertently be in balance with their environment as long as pastures are plentiful, they make no effort to safeguard resources during times of stress, or to ensure that future generation will enjoy what nature provides. However investigation of their life style, culture, customs and traditions especially regarding their use of plants and animals suggest the opposite conclusion; traditionally pastoral nomads do protective of their environment and work to maintain a balance between themselves, their herds, and the availability of wild resources. Attitudes towards resource management do consider future impacts of present actions.

•  The principle resource supporting the nomads’ desert livelihood is one that they have no control over, rainfall. Remarkably, their careful use of perennial trees, like acacia and sayal, is one of the nomads’ principle means of maintaining their traditional life-style during prolonged drought. These trees produce green leaves that can sustain livestock when no other pasture is available. In times of environmental stress, then, the nomads must achieve a very delicate balance between using and abusing their perennial resources. Their conservation rules are defined clearly. The most important rule is that only dead wood can be cut. Only when no other food is available should a man take acacia or other tree leaves for his herd, and only then by shaking them off. This prohibition, which may be rooted in an understanding of the trees ecological and economic importance, is justified by a religious explanation. God the nomads say, demanded in the Koran that man should not cut living trees. As recently as the first century AD, the long-term effects of tree cutting were observed, and proclamations were made to protect trees on a family-by-family and place-by-place basis. Similar guidelines also apply to certain shrubs. Although they fetch high price in Nile markets, plants such as argel and wormwood must never be uprooted or defoliated completely, in the Bedouin tradition.

•  Bedouin practices come from a detailed knowledge of the desert ecosystem. For example they can offer biologist a nearly complete basic inventory of their regions plants, animals and other resources. They can distinguish between habitats, identify floral ranges, life cycles, and identify species with medicinal uses, those that are palatable for man and animals, and the usefulness of a species as a source of fuel. Bedouin also have a good sense the extent to which an area can exploited without degrading it and diminishing its capacity to recover.

•  The Bedouins’ conservation practices preserve not only economic and aesthetic values, but also an entire way of life. Conservation of plants and animals is an expression of the nomads’ deep-seated beliefs. Loss of livelihoods, also means loss a desert home and without their cultural and historical ties that go with the place.”


UNDP Global Environment Facility
• Larry Roeder:
• Larry Roeder:
R. A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs, Cambridge 1930, 79. (W. Montgomery Watt)
Blending Tradition and Progress in the Desert

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