Egypt is one of the most populous countries in Northern Africa and its famous for its ancient civilization specifically monuments like the pyramids that are a major draw for curious tourists year after year. The spectacular view of the pyramids gives people a glimpse into the ancient Egyptian way of life but there is way more to their culture than just these beautiful monuments. An in depth view of Egypt reveals one of their best kept secrets and possibly the most under discussed and that’s the ancient Bedouin life and culture.
The Bedouins are nomadic people who have intrigued archaeologists for centuries. The word Bedouin is derived from the Arabic word “Badawiyin” which means desert dweller. The Bedouins live out in the open desert and are often hailed as the “ideal” Arabs because of their herding lifestyle, their rich poetic tradition and their traditional code of honor. There are an estimated 4 million Bedouins spread out in communities in the Arabian and Syrian deserts, the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt and the Sahara desert. There are tons of Bedouin tribes and although a good portion of them have their origin in Jordan, quite a few have Egypt as their place of origin like the Bani Rasheed Rashaida, al-Murrah and Muzziena. They speak Badawi, often commonly referred to as Bedouin Arabic.
Although Egyptians refer to the Bedouins as strictly Arab, they are distinct from other Arabs because of their extensive kinship networks. These kinship networks serve the sole purpose of providing them with community support and the basic necessities for survival. In the ancient days, these networks were crucial in ensuring the safety of families and they traditionally served to protect the Bedouins property.
Bedouin nomads are incredibly smart travelers who mark their territory in the desert instead of just wandering around aimlessly. They travel light leaving caches in trees and navigate the desert relying on stars, familiar landmarks and stone markers left on previous treks.
Because they are nomadic tribal people by birth, the Bedouins move around in the deserts of Egypt with their herds of animals and the majority of them reside in goat-skin tents. One of the most distinct things about the Bedouins is their hospitality. Their honor is bound by their hospitality so they are famous for their lavish generosity. Part of their creed is that no traveler is ever turned away. If strangers or even enemies approach their tents, they are assured of at least three days’ lodging and protection.
Besides being distinguished by their astounding generosity, the Bedouins also typically have different facial features from other Egyptians and generally stand out because they dress different. The Bedouin men wear long “djellabaya” and a white draped head cover called a “smagg” or “aymemma”. The head dress is sometimes held in place by a black cord referred to as an “agall”.
The Bedouin women on the other hand usually wear brightly colored long dresses although once outside, they dress in a thin, long black coat covered with shiny embroidery called an “abaya”. Due to tradition, they never leave their houses without covering their head and hair with a black thin shawl called a “tarha”. In older generations, women’s faces were hidden behind a highly decorated “burqa’ah”.
When it comes to religion, the Egyptian Bedouin identify a hundred percent as Sunni Muslims who believe in the teachings of prophet Mohammed and the Koran. In fact, it is widely believed that the very first converts to Islam came from the Bedouin tribes. Prayer is a very crucial part of Bedouin life and since there are no formal mosques in the desert and barely any water at all, they pray facing the Ka’aba in Mecca after performing the ritual washing either with water or sand when water is unavailable.
Today, the Bedouin of Egypt fall into two social classes with one class known as the true Bedouin because they still live as nomadic shepherds. The other group is known as the fellahin because they have embraced farming despite the fact that the Bedouin once frowned upon labor jobs. While the true Bedouin continue to journey across the desert, the fellahin lead a more settled life on the edge of the desert.