Note on the Bedouin of Sinai

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Note on the Bedouin of Sinai

C. Ritter, trans. W. L. Gage, The Comparative Geography of Palestine and the Sinaitic Peninsula, vol. 1, New York, 1866, p. 386ff.


“The earliest description of this great southern group of Beduins, to whom Sir John Maundeville, writing(2) in the middle of the fourteenth century, gives the name of Bedoynes and Ascopardes, we find in the celebrated Brocardus (Burchard), who wrote in the thirteenth century, and who called them Turoniani, as well as Madianites (Midianites) and Beduins. He has been followed by almost all authors up to the most recent times. The name is unquestionably derived, not, as Volney has conjectured, from Tor, the harbour, but from the central mountain chain which bears that name.

“The Towara (Tûry in the singular according to Robinson) do not form a single people, but are divided into five leading tribes, which again are subdivided into still smaller groups. The five tribes are very similar in numbers and in general appearance; and in case of any attack, either by the Arabs of the north or by any foreign force, they instantly combine and form a single army. The Towara lay claim to all the Peninsula lying south of the line of the Hadj from Suez to Akaba, but in fact they hold only what is south of the Tih mountains. The district north of the Tih plateau is not held by the Tihyahah, however, but by a number of tribes in alliance, the men of which are stronger and more hardy than the Towara, and have no close amicable relations with them.


2 Halliwell, The Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville, etc., London 1839, viii. ch. vi. p. 63.

{End of Footnotes.}

“The five leading tribes of the Towara bear these names: 1. Szowaleha; 2. Aleygat; 3. El-Mezeine; 4. Ulad Soleiman; and 5. Beni Wassel.

“1. The Szowaleha (Sawâlihah, Robinson; Soelhe, Ruppell; Saualhe, Lepsius). This is the largest of all, and boasts of being the first that settled in the land. They can be traced historically back to the Jedham, who were in Mohammed’s time the well-known inhabitants of Madian, on the east side of what is now the Gulf of Akaba. They seem to have entered the Sinai Peninsula somewhere between the seventh and the thirteenth centuries. If we can ascribe any historical foundation to Mohammed’s words, “Welcome are the ancestors of the wife of Moses; welcome the race of Shoaib” (i.e. Jethro), it would be certain that they are directly connected with the fate of Joseph (Gen. xxxvii. 27, 28), and with the marriage of Moses to the daughter of their priest Jethro (Ex. ii. 15, xviii. 14-23), as well as with the later fortunes of Israel (Num. xxx.). In the time of the greatest Mohammedan prosperity they were a cultivated and powerful people, far in advance of their descendants, as is manifested by the monuments of that time which remain, sparsely met with, it is true, yet satisfactorily exhibiting marks of what the Towara attained to after taking possession of the central mountain land of Sinai.

“We learn that the terms Ishmaelites and Midianites were often used interchangeably, to indicate the descendants of Abraham by the side lines of Hagar and Keturah (Gen. xxxvii. 27, 28; Judg. viii. 10, 21-27); and it appears that they were divided into twelve tribes. It will be recollected by the reader, that the present Towara, in contradistinction to the Tihyahah, are subdivided into tribes: among the Tihyahah no such division has ever been detected. The wise counsel which Jethro gave to Moses (Ex. xviii. 21-23), not to bear alone the whole burden of judging, but to appoint able men over thousands and over hundreds, over fifties and over tens, and only himself to decide in cases of the greatest importance, seems to have been drawn from his own experience; and even now we find the sheikhs of the special tribes of the Towara subordinate to one sheikh superior. We find in the case of Joshua (Num. xxvii. 21), that the first place in Israel was given at the death of Moses, not to his son, but to a military chieftain outside of his own kindred; but we find the place of supreme power among the apparent descendants of the Midianites is hereditary, and is held by a single small tribe, the Owareme.

“It is perfectly evident from the history of Joseph, that from the remotest times the Midianites transported on camels the products of the East to Egypt; and it is the Towara now who claim the same right: they insist on monopolizing the escorting of travellers and of carrying goods, and contend even to blood with those who infringe upon their claims.

“The subdivisions of the Szowaleha inhabiting the district mainly west and north-west of the convent, Burckhardt gives as four: 1. Ulad Said (Aulad Said, Robinson; Wellad Said, Lepsius); 2. Korashy (Kurrâshy, Robinson); 3. Owareme (Awarimeh, Robinson; Auarmi, Lepsius); and 4. Rahamy.

(1.) The Ulad Said, whose hospitality Burckhardt praised, are not so poor as the other tribes; they are in possession of the best lands; their sheikh is the second in rank among all the Towara. There are three subdivisions of this tribe — the Seheri, Saidi, and Retesi.

(2.) The Korashy (variously spelled by travellers). This seems to be a tribe which once came from the Hejas, and which was not affiliated at the outset in blood with the Towara, but which has at length become thoroughly blended with them. Their late sheikh Saleh was the first sheikh of the Peninsula. They seem to be out of favour at the convent; but under the powerful administration of their leader, they have long negotiated all bargains for safe conduct across the country. Schimper tells us that there are two subdivisions recognised among them.

(3.) The Owareme. This tribe is very small, numbering but about forty able-bodied men. It is remarkable for this fact, that in it the office of military leader of the whole Towara is hereditary. This tribe is proud of its long possession of the country, and boasts of being the first to settle on the Peninsula.

(4.) The Rahamy, of whom we know very little, save that they are very few in number, scarcely reckoning more than ten families. Burckhardt could learn no particulars about them: Robinson seems to doubt their existence.

“These various tribes, to which Schimper adds a few subordinate ones, possess and occupy all the best places west and north-west of the convent. These places are common to all the tribes; but the spots where the date palm grows are the property of private individuals. As they stand in the close alliance of kindred stock, they intermarry freely; and they have one locality in the middle of Wadi Sheikh specially sacred to the celebration of their various festivals.

“2. The Aleygat (Burckhardt), Aliekat (Robinson), Leghat (Niebuhr, Coutelle, and Seetzen), Alekati (Ruppell), Alekat (Lepsius), the second leading tribe among the Towara, is much smaller in number than the Szowaleha, enrolling but about a hundred armed men, according to the best authorities, but so closely allied with the Mezeine, having their encampments in common, as to form a power equal to that of the above-mentioned tribe. They seem to be an ancient tribe, and may possibly on this account be reckoned as among the protectors, or ghafirs, of the convent. Intermarriages with other tribes seldom occur among them.

“Burckhardt discovered a nomadic branch of this tribe on the Nile, in Nubia, a day’s journey north of Deir. The Aleygat of Sinai know perfectly well of the existence of this branch, but did not know of its history, and the reason of its colonization. The name of this tribe seems to have a commemoration in the valley of Aleiat or Aleiyat. They appear to dwell in the region between the Wadi Nasb and the Wadi Gharundel, and also to the north-east, through the little known Wadi Wutah, as far as the base of the Jebel Tih. They seem to have come originally from the more easterly part of the desert, and have attained to any political importance only within very recent times.

“At the period when Ruppell prosecuted his researches in the country, the Viceroy of Egypt, Mehmed Ali, in pursuing his policy of divide et impera, had subsidized two sheikhs — one of them the distinguished Salih of the Korashy, the other always chosen from the Aleygat — as mediators between himself and all the Beduins. This exposed the Aleygat chieftain to universal hatred; and as the sheikhs enjoy great consideration among the tribes, and are the judges, although they have no executive power, the vote of a sheikh having no more weight than that of any other man, this movement was supposed to imply the subjection of the whole Arab race to the viceroy’s sway. The energetic ruler of Egypt gradually extended his power over Syria and the Hejas, and would not tolerate the predatory excursions of these Arab tribes. But instead of pursuing an exterminating war against them, recognising that the root of the evil lay in their penury, and consequent hunger, he found the most easy solution of the difficulty in pensioning them, pledging to give to each of a certain number of their armed men six Egyptian para (about three farthings English) a day, provided they would abstain from all acts of violence to caravans passing through the land. His constantly increasing power gave him, after this, sufficient security for the fulfilment of their promise. Indeed, ere long, he felt himself strong enough to insist upon their submission, and yet to withhold his allowance, and for years it remained unpaid. Upon this the Arabs reverted to their old habits of plundering; and on one occasion they had the audacity to capture one of the viceroy’s own caravans, and one of great size, near Suez. Before they were taken, the plunder was sold in Syria; but they were compelled to yield, and to pay a heavy tribute in the form of charcoal. After that they were taken back under the protection of Egypt, and their plundering has largely ceased. Not wholly, however; for Seetzen found traces of a recent marauding expedition when he passed through the country.

“3. The Mezeine, Muzeiny (Robinson), Misene (Ruppell), Mizéne (Lepsius), the third main tribe of the Towara, have come recently to the Peninsula, and are looked down upon with great scorn. No other tribe is permitted to intermarry with them. In fact, this matter of liberty of intermarrying, is the manner in which the Arabs signify their regard for other tribes, or their hatred of them.

“The Szowaleha and the Aleygat were continually in strife at an early period; and during the continuance of their quarrels, four families of the powerful tribe of the Mezeine in the Hejas, fleeing from the consequences of a deed of blood, took refuge in the Sinai Peninsula. They were received not on equal terms, but as vassals, and a tribute of sheep was exacted of them yearly. This their haughty spirit would not brook; and taking a bold and independent stand, and laying claim to a portion of the country, the Aleygat received them as allies, and made them serviceable in their wars with the Szowaleha. A contest of forty years continued after the junction of the Mezeine with the Aleygat, till at last it was ended with one of the bloodiest battles ever fought in the country, the victory remaining on the side of the allies. The two armies then divided their lands equally, and the Aleygat gave a third of their half to the Mezeine as a reward for their faithful service. At the same time, the sheikh of the Szowaleha was appointed sheikh superior of the whole Peninsula.

“Since that time the Mezeine have become a larger tribe than the Aleygat, and each of them is now about the same size with the Szowaleha. They possess that portion of the eastern side of the Peninsula which is claimed by the Towara, including the whole western coast of the Gulf of Akaba, from its extremity at the town of Akaba to Ras Mohammed. The southern stations, Sherm, Dahab, and Nuweibi, are their leading villages, and fishing their chief occupation. They have no relations of special intimacy with the convent. The Aleygat, their old allies, have, on the other hand, withdrawn more to the western part of the Peninsula. Traces of the old relation between them are still manifest in the united right of escort possessed by the Aleygat and the Mezeine in the neighbourhood of Sherm, and in the common possession of the date groves there.

“Ruppell, Lindsay, and other travellers, have given us accounts of the collision of the Arab tribes over questions of escort. It sometimes happens that the Szowaleha undertake, for the sake of the money, to convoy tourists all the way to Akaba; but this gives great offence, and has in one case convulsed the Peninsula with war.

“4. The Ulad Soleiman, Beni Selman (Burckhardt), Aulâd Suleimân (Robinson), Weled Suleiman (Lepsius), form the fourth great subdivision of the Towara. They appear to be reduced to a very few families, living at the harbour of Tor, and in various localities along the Wadi el Sheikh. Repeated wars with the combined Szowaleha and Aleygat threatened to absolutely annihilate them; and Lepsius, who was in the country in 1846, supposed them to be then extinct, — a fate, it may be remarked in passing, which also seems in store for the Htim, i.e. Hutemi, a fishing tribe on the Gulf of Akaba.

“Burckhardt discovered some remnants of the Ulad Soleiman clustering around the harbour of Tor: they claim for themselves, with some pride, the first settlement of the country. This may be the same tribe which Pococke erroneously connected, deceived by the name, with Solomon, and which he also supposed to descend from the ancient Midianite inhabitants of the country. In the latter conclusion I agree with him, but place it on altogether different grounds from him, as will be seen from my remarks a few pages back regarding all the Towara tribes.

“Schimper, who was brought intimately into contact with these people in the course of his botanical researches, speaks of another small tribe which he calls el-Badera, inhabiting the neighbourhood of Tor, and numbering about forty armed men. These, he says, are not genuine Arabs, but immigrants from Mount Hor, the grave of Aaron, the ancient Edom, and the present Jebal. They live in a place called Jebele, an hour’s distance south-east of Tor, and have date vineyards, practise agriculture, and a rude kind of navigation, chiefly as pilots. This is probably the same tribe mentioned by Ruppell, and called by him Haterie.

“5. The Beni Wassel or Wasel, who form the fifth tribe of the Towara, number but a few families: only fifteen in Burckhardt’s time, and only two or three when Lepsius passed; they are therefore plainly dying out. They live scattered among the Mezeine, in the neighbourhood of Sherm. They are also found in Upper Egypt, and seem to have come originally from Barbary.

“In the time of the great Mohammedan conquest, or somewhat later, in the seventh or eighth century, the whole Peninsula of Sinai seems to have been in the possession of Christian monks, and of the tribe of Ulad Soleiman. The Szowaleha and Aleygat were at one time living in Egypt, on the most eastern district of the Delta; and it is probable that they oscillated between that region and the desert, driven to and fro according to the greater or less fertility of Egypt. In times of scarcity along the Nile, they could betake themselves to their wild robber life; and, so far as mere vegetation is concerned, they could draw more sustenance from the aromatic shrubs which their own hills bear, than from the luxuriant and succulent plants of the Nile valley. Yet, when the Egyptian grain harvest was abundant, it was altogether preferable to the really meagre supplies of their own country. In their return to Arabia they came into collision with the Ulad Soleiman, and probably with the Christian population of the Peninsula. The Ulad Suleiman seem, so far as our records show, to have been the aboriginal settlers; they came into hostile collision with the Szowaleha, and were never on so friendly terms as would allow them to be blended. They must not, therefore, although apparently Midianitic in origin, be confounded with tribes whose origin we have already traced beyond the Gulf of Akaba. The dying out of the Ulad Soleiman will probably preclude the settlement of the primitive origin of the tribe, and leave the question in an unsettled state. We have now no reason to doubt that they are aboriginal in the land.”

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