Bedouin men on a hill over Petra in Jordan

Bedouin men on a hillside overlooking Petra. This is not one of my photos. However, it is a great image that captures something of the cultural landscape. I found bullet casings circa WWI while doing a survey near here. For more than a thousand years, Bedouin have inhabited the area around Petra. The men in this photo follow pretty much the same tempo of daily life, with similar cultural traits, as their ancestors. It is likely that their great-grandfathers knew T.E. Lawrence (aka: "Lawrence of Arabia"), whose exploits in this area are legendary.

 Anthropological Archaeology and
Arab Bedouin of the Levant

Folks who wanted some photos of Levantine Bedouin pinned on a website did not ask me to delve into anthropological theory. So for now I won't go too much into how investigating inter-regional exchange systems and their influence on societal development helps us gain a better sense of cultural evolution.

There has been recent publicity around UCSD and Dr. Thomas E. Levy's research projects in the region. I'd like to discuss our work there, however it cannot be the focal point for a website on Bedouin tribal culture.

And Dr. Levy's ongoing research projects are best understood with full attention given to much more detail than I am able to do on this simple 1-page site.

Friends have asked if this site is specifically about the Bedouin, people whose tribal lines cross-cut political borders demarcating Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and into North Africa and beyond.

My bedouin friends know how to set up geographic information systems in the wadiArab bedouin inhabiting southern Israel and Jordan have provided us with assistance and support over the years.

They are keen, resourceful, and I've always enjoyed hanging out with them.

Many website visitors want to see polaroid-like images of tribal bedouin and skim over background on the ancient or modern Middle East.

Others are more inclined to appreciate clear explanations for how we understand processes of increasing social complexity.


They want to learn about the work done here and terms such as "heterarchy," an organizational concept recently applied to segmentary societies in the Near East.

This concept has been elaborated by Thomas Levy for providing an explanatory framework to interpret shifting patterns of identity-formation processes and social interaction within tribal societies. It reveals the power of archaeological theory for generating explanations of social phenomena. It has also been effective for building models to understand recent sociocultural dynamics in Afghanistan.

Eco-tourism is a niche among world travelers. Eco-tourists are interested in environmental and cultural preservation. Along with pyramids and kings and ancient battles, they also want to know about people and ideas.

They follow National Geographic stories such as those on Israel's King Solomon and his mines to learn about cultural treasures being uncovered by a hard-working team of archaeologists and GIS experts from UCSD. But they also want to become aware of the cultures that created these objects.

My intention for this site (which doesn't deserve to be called a full fledged "website" because it's still just a web page) is to eventually share resources in anthropology, cultural informatics, geographic information systems and communication development. Time permitting, it can get traction and evolve into this.

It's not too ambitious, merely some reflections on how I came to live and work among tribal bedouin whose lifestyle is oriented around following their herds of sheep and goats zig-zagging across political boundaries demarcating Sinai, Israel, Jordan and Syria.

Signs of Life in Jordan's Wadi
("wadi." Arabic: Seasonal streambed or drainage, usu. along a valley)

Urban Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians, Saudis, Lebanese, Iraqis and Jordanians each have a local variant of spoken arabic. I am a fledgling student of arabic. A short course at UCLA pales in comparison with spending weeks and months around a bedouin village. When I go into the city (e.g., Amman) I am told that I speak arabic with a definite Bedouin accent. That is peculiar.

Despite the surprised reactions I've always gotten when I say something and it comes out the way a bedouin would say it, this is an ice breaker. When city people hear my Bedouin accent, they demand to know why. They want to make sense out of something that doesn't make sense to them. They (in the city) tell me it's a very traditional way of inflecting certain sounds in the language. It reveals an identity that has to do with classic values and lifestyle of semi-nomadic arab groups.

Hardly anyone imagines that a Westerner would have any reason to live alongside desert-dwelling bedouin tribes. It involves explaining the motives and interest in studying cultural geography. That's why. What sounds sensible, in an academic sense, is that "it's all about the archaeology." This seems... odd, I guess, to many otherwise rational folks. The contradictions must be resolved. That's just how people are.

It helps that in the Middle East there is generally a profound respect for bedouin culture and language. The Bedouin capture something in the imagination of arabs everywhere. It offers a glimpse of the "pan-arab Bedouin live in the area known in the Bible as Edomidentity," evoking images of the genuine tribesman living a desert warrior's life with his ear close to the ground and vigilantly protecting kin and clan.

For urban arabs, references to bedouin bring to mind images of warrior herdsmen descending from the hills on horseback to sweep through the countryside and wipe out townsfolk for no other reason than the simple fact that they are city dwellers.

Defiant, fierce, loyal and generous. These are words that immediately come to mind when modern arabs think of the Bedouin.


This makes it a kind of convenient ice-breaker when I remark to someone in a city (such as Amman) about the Bedouin living only a few hundred kilometers south and east.

Their lifestyle is still very different than that of the people who are removed from it by several generations, even if not so much by geographic distance.

Let me offer one anecdote to make the point. One day in the foothills rising above canyons cross cutting the landscape from Ma'an to the west, I discussed the idea of sport hunting with local Bedouin. 

I explained how we have game animals such as moose and deer in North America. Hunting is very popular in America and Canada. I explained to them that although some hunt for sport, many others consider it unsportsmanlike to hunt for any reason other than for food, out of necessity. It came out differently than I intended, kind of abstracted from the original point I tried to make, which basically was just another way to find common ground with my hosts.

I got into this conversation right after I watched guys from a local tribe hunting a gazelle by trying to run it over in a 4-wheel drive Subaru.

It's not easy to describe this memory of the bedouin men in a beat up station wagon with its engine screaming as it chased the gazelle through the wadi (a "wadi" is a seasonal streambed similar to what in the southwest United States is known as an "arroyo"). I saw the car airborne at least twice.

I expected them to fail at even coming close to the gazelle. This is an animal that is, after all, an animal built for speed. Yet I admired their focus and their persistence. Hunting is a primal activity. It's instinctive and natural. I guess if you don't have a spear or a rifle handy, you use what you have in the moment. But a Subaru?

Our high technologies involving subterranean imaging and GIS, our elaborate field survey methods and our cultural theories, all became in a moment juxtaposed with the style and unapologetic action of the Bedouin men. They were thoroughly committed to winning this contest. It happened fast, a deathly swerve at the end of the canyon, a quick slingshot as the car ramped into the wadi at full speed, and then... It was surreal. And their enthusiasm was contagious.

Growing up riding motorcycles off-road and pushing stunts to a novice-level of risk instills respect for speed and motors. I know the excitement of being a spectator to something that is fantastic and has an element of danger.

What comes to mind in describing this bizarre event in the rugged desert wadi is something more akin to Joe Frank's story about a horrific experience mountain climbing in his Ascent to K2.  It is punishing, exclusive, extreme. And as Joe Frank remarks: "Too often our lives are mapped out for us."

Amazingly, the Bedouin hunting party succeeded. Before that gazelle became dinner, I stood over it shaking my head: I couldn't believe someone could "hunt" a game animal by running it down in a car. But like I said, the Bedouin are resourceful.Jordan camel in wadi arabah

Somewhere in the back of my mind stirred a passing thought that there are laws against this. That's how we're conditioned: By laws.

There are no park rangers to police the area. There are still places where laws - so basic to the lifestyle of urbanites - is replaced by culture and custom.


For some reason this reminds me of Tonnies' classic work, "Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft"


(social connections organized along lines of informal rules and customs of the community, its culture, and its dichotomy with the lifestyle found in society, its urbane worldview, informed by its legal codes).

Social Networks and the Idioverse

(Image: Social networks and the individual in two modes of highly integrated society)

For anyone interested in cultural evolution, read German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies. It is thought provoking.

Anyway, this is the Bedouin tribal homeland. The action flows from cultural behavior involving social obligations, expectations, reciprocity, and tribal sanction as it has for many hundreds of years.

It reveals an identity that is acted out as it cycles through a symbolic milieu linked with an often competitive and fluid existence between urban centers and intra-regional rivals. Bedouin identity is generated out of functional realities of the cultural landscape. They do not look to the State for this.

But this has begun to change.

I was lucky to get these pics in the wilderness northeast of Aqaba. The bedouin have their own expressive way of communicating, and I can easily miss an important point, but I think the guys told me this is a type of large deer in the area.

They were impressed with my description of Canadian moose and caribou. I usually agreed with whatever they said, but I suggested that if it's a desert elk then it looks quite different than its Canadian cousins.

Whatever it is, there are many of them around here, as you can see.

wadi fidan  Bedouin tribal area north of aqaba


brent myotte with bedouin friends in wadi arabah jordan

Language instructors. These fellows taught me slang that I should not repeat on this website.
( but I still use it )


Jordan bedouin sheik abu shushi 

Extraordinary hospitality comes to mind when I think of the Bedouin in Jordan and Sinai.

... this trait extends beyond this cultural area, found universally among the Bedouin across North Africa, Saudi Arabia, the Levant and farther east. It's a good way to be.

Archaeology is uniquely effective for looking at culture change. For example, we may be interested in looking at the material culture surrounding down-the-line trade over long distances and how it offers a perspective of change in human societies through time.

Economic exchange is not only "economic" behavior. It also expresses cultural aspects of society. In important ways, such interactions within defined peer networks can be viewed as information flows, channeling significant symbolic meaning along lines of communication between participants. Not surprisingly, inter-regional exchange systems are central to analyzing diachronic change observed in culture areas.

A bunch of guys hanging around a truck and I don't remember exactly why. It is a wide area, and myotte company at qureyquramaybe I was unsure which direction to head in.

We at least try to look busy even if we don't always know what to do. 

Local Bedouin men enjoy participating as field assistants. They are around the dozens of daily tasks essential to keep momentum moving with these kinds of projects, taking responsibility for many of them.

They offer suggestions and generously share insights grounded in their unique familiarity with local social and natural environments.

Their new identities as field workers supporting anthropologists probably gives them a wider scope for viewing their own experience in ways that otherwise would have not been available to them.

This itself is an example of how cultural development occurs.

I am not suggesting a simple "Diffusion of Culture" model. It is more involved than that. I believe our social interactions significantly influence how we - Bedouin and Westerner - perceive each other. Through communication this affects the wider social spheres in which we find ourselves.Jordan night fieldwork













A long day. Toyota was put to the test. Taking them through unforgiving desert mountains daily for weeks and months relentlessly hammers these vehicles. It's not Wilshire Boulevard and these trucks handle rough terrain well.

Still, there is the occasional breakdown in the desert.  

 It's amazing watching a bedouin strip spark plug wires with his teeth, then mix spit and dirt to form some kind of bond, get a spark, and get the truck back in action (there's a pic somewhere which I'll eventually post.)


Jordan wadi fidan survey


This lifestyle involves weeks and months trekking along treacherous paths cutting through desert mountains. It is not unlike an extreme style of camping. But it's not Yosemite.

Azazmah tribe in mountains west of Ma'an


We always encounter Bedouin from various tribes. Some of them join us, even if they don't entirely "get" why we are there. Maybe it's just something different and exotic for them.

Some folks have suggested that local tribes people must think we are out of our minds for going to such trouble climbing hills and poking under rocks, recording and analyzing, and then arguing over what it all means.

But I think the Bedouin appreciate how much importance we place on their desert mountains.

They find it sometimes amusing, but they also take pride in the fact that we endure much to be in the wadi. The Bedouin across southern Israel, Jordan and beyond realize that their corner of the Near East has held an uncommonly significant influence on western civilization since antiquity.