Something in the Sand: The Haunted Landscapes of Bedouin Nomadic Pastoralists

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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in the Ghost Light II: Monstrosities series edited by Caroline Abbott. The 2023 theme of this series aims to problematise the notion of “monstrosity” in the environmental humanities in the interest of illuminating the relationships between non-human, or other-than-human beings, folklore, and environment.

During her travels in the Middle East the famed English explorer, archaeologist, and spy Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was escorted by a guide named Namrud, who, among other responsibilities, served as Bell’s informant on all manner of topics related to the Bedouin, the nomadic pastoralist inhabitants of West Asia and North Africa. Via Namrud, Bell recorded Bedouin beliefs of the otherworldly, especially in relation to the sites Bell visited on her travels. When “[Bell] asked whether the Arabs believed in Jinn. He said yes, to certain places they dare not go alone at night…”1 Bell quoted Namrud further on these beliefs: “We spoke, too, of superstition and of fears that clutch the heart at night. There are certain places, said he, where the Arabs would never venture after dark—haunted wells to which thirsty men dared not approach, ruins where the weary would not seek shelter, hollows that were bad camping grounds for the solitary.”2

The desert zones of the Middle East are home to the architectural legacies of a succession of empires, from the Roman to the Ottoman, which would eventually be abandoned by their imperial patrons and fall into decay. Nomadic pastoralist Bedouin tribes, however, have remained in active contact with these sites located on their migratory routes. While some historic buildings are used by Bedouin populations as meeting places, for shelter, or for religious worship, others are understood as being already occupied by more-than-human residents. Traditions abound, recorded in both oral poetry and the accounts of 19th- and 20th-century Orientalist explorers such as Gertrude Bell’s, of the built environment around the Bedouin as being haunted, inhabited by ghosts, spirits, ghouls, and jinn. The motifs surrounding these sites which are prevalent in Bedouin folklore—owls as spirits circling over the grave of the deceased; conceptions of the grave as a permanent, final resting place; the definitive end of life for a nomad represented by a built place from which the deceased cannot depart—come together to shape our understanding of how the Bedouin perceive both their natural and built environment, and the roles of the living and the dead within them across time.

Figure 1. Bedouin man with camel outside Qasr Azraq, American Colony Jerusalem photo department, 1926. Library of Congress Matson photographic collection, LC-DIG-matpc-02767.

Our sources for ideas of death and the afterlife among the Bedouin come primarily from pre- and early Islamic poetry composed by Bedouin tribespeople, later medieval commentaries on such poetry, and modern collections of Bedouin oral poetry. Two themes proliferate in these poetic corpuses. One is the idea of owls as spirits of the dead.3 Owls frequently appear in poetry alongside mentions of graves and burial-places, which in the Bedouin tradition are marked by rock piles. Ideas of the afterlife as a place of fixed residence, in contrast with the mobility of the nomad, are another common theme in Bedouin oral poetry. A deceased person is often referred to as a muqīm, a “sedentary.”4 This word in its transitive usage—“that which causes to stay”—is synonymous with “grave.” Aqāma, a causative verb from the same root meaning “to become sedentary, to be made to stay” is similarly used as meaning “to die.”5

The motif of the grave as a permanent resting place, a literal house of death, appears frequently in Arabic poetry, but takes on new significance in light of the Bedouins’ nomadic pastoralist lifestyle. The poets expressed an awareness and acceptance that their lives will culminate in this final resting place, as for example in the verses of the sixth-century poet Zuhayr b. Abi Sulma: “I see the natural course of my life thus: During the night I am hungry, and at dawn I set out—until the day I will be carried to a pit which makes me stay.”6 These linguistic motifs recur in more modern Bedouin poetry as well, where the verb from the root hfr means either to dig a grave or to dig a well, and is associated with both death and sedentarization.7 Likewise, owls continue to be associated with spirits, death, and ruined buildings in modern Arabic poetry. Indeed, owls are sometimes referred to in poetry as umm al-kharāb: mother of ruins.8

The living Bedouin seemed to fear these graves, and tended not to linger at the sites where their members were buried. As the seventh-century poet Ka’b b. Malik said of the hero of one of his poems: “He became sedentary in Dhu al-‘Awsa in the evening, his grave is in the well; the tribesmen hurried on with their wanderings already early on the next morning and forsook him.”9 Beyond literary motifs or poetic allusions, more tangible evidence for how Bedouin migrations were shaped by ideas of haunted ruins are provided by 19th and 20th century European explorers and travelers. Their paths throughout the desert, guided by Indigenous Bedouin escorts, often intersected with the same haunted sites which their guides tended to avoid. Among them, English archaeologist Charles Frederick Tyrwhitt-Drake, excavating in Palestine in 1874 alongside members of the Abu Nusair Bedouin, wrote of the Herodean settlement of Fasayil that:

“[T]his place is superstitiously avoided by the Arabs who believe that it is haunted by a ghuleh [ghoul] or evil spirit and consequently never camp there. The Abu Nusayr men who accompanied us thus far took their leave as speedily as possible […] This desertion was due to […] dread of the ghuleh […] I asked one of the Emirs whether they were afraid of a jinn or ghoul [and] with much hesitation he avowed that such was the case. This fear of ghouls is not uncommon in the country [and] I have seen several places said to be haunted by them which are carefully avoided after dark by the neighbouring peasantry.”

Charles Frederick Tyrwhitt-Drake, Wady el Farah: Report XX, March 21, 1874, PEF/WS/DRA/82, Palestine Exploration Fund: Greenwich, United Kingdom.

In addition to the narratives of figures like Drake and Bell, other prominent Orientalists recorded firsthand encounters with the supernatural at historic sites throughout the deserts of the Middle East. During World War I and the Great Arab Revolt, T. E. Lawrence made his base of operations at the Roman-era fort of Qasr Azraq in eastern Jordan (Fig. 1). Of his first night spent at the fort along with his Bedouin companions, Lawrence wrote:

“[T]here rose a strange, long wailing round the towers outside. Ibn Bani […] gasped that the dogs of the Beni Hillal, the mythical builders of the fort, quested the six towers each night for their dead masters. […] No Bedouin would lie outside in wait for the mystery, and from our windows we saw nothing but the motes of water in the dank air which drove through the radiance of our firelight. So it remained a legend: but wolves or jackals, hyasnas, or hunting dogs, their ghost-watch kept our ward more closely than arms could have done.”

Thomas Edward Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (London: Cape, 1935), 438.
Figure 2. Orthogonale Aussenansicht von Nord und Ost, published in Aloïs Musil, Ḳuṣejr ʻAmra … Mit einer Karte von Arabia Petraea, Vienna: K. K. Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, 1907. New York Public Library, b14312686.

These impressions continued into the interwar period of the 20th century. British Royal Air Force Lieutenant Percy Maitland, who undertook extensive amateur archaeological work during his service in the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s, documented that “to the Bedouin[,] Azrak is a meeting place of considerable importance—by day only be it understood. After dusk the Bedouin has far too great a respect for the Afrits [a type of demon in Islamic mythology] of the old Roumi cohorts, which frequent the strongholds which they once held, ever to wish to spend a night near Kasr Azrak.”10 Likewise, the Czech explorer and geographer Aloïs Musil (1868-1994) recounted his Bedouin companions’ tales of the sites he set out to visit and document throughout the Middle East. Credited as the “discoverer” of Qusayr ‘Amra (Fig. 2), an eighth-century CE castle and bathhouse in eastern Jordan, Musil was in fact guided to the site by members of the Banu Sakhr Bedouin, residents of Qusayr ‘Amra’s desert landscape for centuries. It was their experiences and perceptions of the castle that in turn shaped Musil’s interpretation of it: “The castle stood as gloomy as if it were forsaken by heaven itself… No wonder the Arabs attribute such a place to none but the ghoul.”11 Musil’s guides used the grounds around the castle as a cemetery, and refused to linger there late at night for fear of the spirits believed to haunt the premises.

On their way to Qusayr ‘Amra, Musil and his party passed the early Islamic castle Qasr Kharana (figure 3), Musil writing that it seemed “a cloud enveloped the castle.”12 According to the Banu Sakhr, this was the atmospheric result of the castle’s inhabitance by a spirit who would not “brook the gaze of the sons of Adam.”13 At an unidentified site in the province of al-Jawf, in northern Saudi Arabia, Musil wrote of another such “forsaken settlement […] where a ghost is said to dwell.”14 On the way to the ancient city of Resafa in north-central Syria, Musil’s Bedouin guides insisted that its ruins were haunted likewise: particularly, “[o]ur guide Khalil especially begged me not to sleep near a town where spirits live.”15 Upon arriving at the site, some of Musil’s companions refused to enter, claiming to be able to “[see] a ghost called ar-Resafa.”16 They eventually abandoned Musil entirely out of their fear of the spirit.

Fear of the otherworldly as a factor in human migration and settlement is not an unknown or unusual phenomenon. Archaeologist Letty ten Harkel has shown how settlement patterns in the Dartmoor region of England in the Roman and early medieval periods shifted to avoid topographical features such as moors, fens, uplands, and barrows, which contemporaneous lore and mythology associated with “evil spirits and monsters.”17 Indeed, in Beowulf and other early medieval texts, dragons and monsters inhabited the same moors and fens where later archaeologists observed that “no shepherd, no farmhand…will go after dark.”18 Archaeologist Lucy Franklin later interpreted this phenomenon in a manner that parallels the Bedouin and their beliefs, reminding us that “stories were associated with archaeological features in an attempt to explain their existence and origin when…the true nature of their origins was unknown.”19

Figure 3. Qasr Kharana, photographed John D. Whiting and G. Eric Matson, 1936-1937. Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-18430.

Bedouin beliefs about their built environment and its more-than-human inhabitants have traditionally been dismissed as mere superstition and folklore, appearing frequently in Orientalist scholarship as a means of suggesting the primitiveness of the Near East’s mobile inhabitants and their opposition to the extractive, knowledge-seeking quests of European archaeologists and travelers. But when taken seriously—and given the historical context they deserve—these belief systems reveal an important dimension of how nomadic pastoralist lifeways are shaped both by the seen and the unseen, the known and unknown, the real and imagined. As archaeologist Michael Frachetti writes, mobile pastoralists use and invest in “historically meaningful places that accumulate significance through a palimpsest of interactions.”20 Despite not settling permanently in or around expeditionist-encountered sites such as Qusayr ‘Amra or Qasr Azraq, and indeed seeming to insist on spending as little time at these sites as possible, the historical architecture of the desert played an important role in not only Bedouin migration routes but in Bedouin conceptions of their own history and that of the landscape they occupied, animating their built and natural environment as a place still occupied by ghosts of the past and the spirits of the otherworld.

1 Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, “Diary Entry 10 February 1905” (Newcastle upon Tyne: Gertrude Bell Archive, 1905).
2 Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, Syria: The Desert and the Sown (New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1907), 34-35.
3 T. Emil Homerin, “Echoes of a Thirsty Owl: Death and Afterlife in Pre-Islamic Arabic Poetry,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 44, no. 3 (1985), 165–84.
4 M.M. Bravmann, The Spiritual Background of Early Islam (Leiden: Brill, 1972). 
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid., 289.
7 Ibid., p.289; Marcel Kurpershoek, Voices from the Desert, Vol. 5, 5 vols, Studies in Arabic Literature 17, Leiden/New York, Brill, 2005, p.59.
8 Kurpershoek, 2005, p. 20.
9 Bravmann, The Spiritual Background of Early Islam.
10 Flight-Lieutenant Maitland, “The ‘Works of the Old Men’ in Arabia” in Antiquity, 1, no. 2, 1927, p. 198.
11Aloïs Musil, Arabia Deserta: A Topographical Itinerary (New York: American Geographical Society, 1927): 334-335.
12 Musil, Arabia Deserta: A Topographical Itinerary, 1927.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Aloïs Musil, Palmyrena: A Topographical Itinerary (New York: American Geographical Society, 1928).
16 Ibid.
17 Letty ten Harkel et al., “Understanding the Relationship between Landscape and Identity: A Case Study from Dartmoor and the Tamar Valley, Devon, c. 1500 BC – AD 1086,” ed. Gerd Grasshoff and Michael Meyer, eTopoi: Journal for Ancient Studies, 2012, 181–88.
18 ten Harkel et al., 2012, p. 183; originally cited from Mary Butts, “Ghosties and Ghoulies. Uses of the Supernatural in English Fiction,” in Ashe of Rings and Other Writings (New York: McPherson, 1998), 331–33.
19 Lucy Franklin, “Imagined Landscapes: Archaeology, Perception and Folklore in the Study of Medieval Devon,” in Medieval Devon and Cornwall. Shaping an Ancient Countryside, ed. S. Turner (Macclesfield: Windgather, 2006), 144–66.
20 Michael D. Frachetti, Pastoralist Landscapes and Social Interaction in Bronze Age Eurasia (University of California Press, 2009), p. 24.
Feature Image: Orthogonale Aussenansicht von Nord und Ost, published in Aloïs Musil, Ḳuṣejr ʻAmra … Mit einer Karte von Arabia Petraea, Vienna: K. K. Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, 1907. New York Public Library, b14312686.

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Margaret Freeman

Margaret Freeman is a PhD candidate in History, Theory and Criticism of Art & Architecture and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her dissertation examines colonial uses of architecture as a mechanism of control over nomadic peoples during the British Mandate in the Middle East. She also talks about and interviews experts on all manner of topics related to nomadism in her podcast, Nomads, Past and Present.

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