From time immemorial, the caves and dens of Petra have been occupied by one of Jordan’s poorest and most downtrodden tribes, the Bdul. Surrounded by tribes living traditional tent-based lifestyles (the Saidiyeen to the south and west, the Ammareen to the north, and the Liyathneh to the east), the Bdul remain a community apart, looked down upon for their poverty, small numbers (only about three hundred families) and cave-centred lifestyle.
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Most bedouin tribes can trace their lineage back to a single founding father (whether real or fictitious), but mystery surrounds the origin of the Bdul. Some Bdul, naturally enough, claim descent from the Nabateans, but this may just be wishful thinking. Most claim that the name Bdul derives from the Arabic word badal, meaning to swap or change, and was given to the tribe after the survivors of a massacre at the hands of Moses and the Israelites had agreed to convert to Judaism; at some point in the centuries following, the tribe converted again, this time to Islam. Much more plausible is the possibility that the Bdul earned their name from being a nomadic tribe that decided to settle in the ruins of Petra, changing their habits to suit a more stable existence.
The Bdul were slow to benefit from the growth in tourism in Petra, largely because of cut-throat competition with the more cosmopolitan and better-educated Liyathneh of Wadi Musa. When the Resthouse hotel opened in the 1950s, Liyathneh were hired as construction workers, hotel staff, book- and postcard-sellers and even to provide horses for rides into Petra; their near-monopoly on tourist facilities in Wadi Musa has persisted to this day. Adding insult to injury, a USAID report dating from the establishment of Petra as a National Park in 1968 acknowledged that the Bdul held traditional rights over park lands, but nonetheless recommended that they be resettled elsewhere. This sparked a twenty-year battle to oust the Bdul from Petra, which saw the tribe’s traditional lifestyle of agriculture and goatherding decimated, income instead dribbling in from the refreshment cafés within Petra and the few individuals offering crafts and antiquities – real and fake – to tourists. In the mid-1980s, tempted by material comforts in the new, purpose-built village of Umm Sayhoun, many Bdul families finally left the caves of Petra for the breezeblock houses on the ridge. Some still herd a few goats, others cultivate small plots, but most Bdul make their living providing services to tourists. You’ll meet Bdul adults and kids in all corners of Petra, running the tent cafés or offering tea and trinkets in the hills, and often happy to chat (in surprisingly fluent English). The “bedouin named for changing”, as archeologist Kenneth Russell dubbed them, are embracing change yet again.
The best modern account of Bdul life in Petra is Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen. There’s some excellent background on the Bdul by anthropologist Rami Sajdi at w acacialand.com – and also see Ruth Caswell’s pages about the tribes of Wadi Musa at w jordanjubilee.com.