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Bedouin Place Names in The Eastern Desert of Egypt

This paper analyses Maʿaza Bedouin toponymy in the northern half of Egypt’s Eastern Desert. Maʿaza people started naming places as they began immigrating from northwest Arabia about 250 years ago




Imagine someone asking you, ‘How did your street get its name?’ Chances are that you do not know, that the name tells you nothing about the place and that the place’s meaning plays no role in your everyday life. This paper discusses a culture in which there is almost always an explanation for how a place got its name, in which the place name is rooted in local environment and experience and in which place names have important, even lifesaving, roles. This is the geographic culture of the Khushmaan, a clan of the Maʿaza Bedouin tribe in Egypt’s Eastern Desert. Relative to the total number of place names used by these Bedouin in everyday life, few place names are published even on large-scale maps of the Eastern Desert (e.g. the 1:50,000 series drafted in twentieth century British and Egyptian surveys). Those non-Bedouin surveyors did not have enough time, resources and local contacts to fill in the blanks with place names. Maps drafted by Maʿaza Bedouin would, in contrast, depict few topographic features without names. But no such maps exist: with few exceptions these people cannot read or write, and they have no tradition of making or using maps. Just  as all of our ancestors did for millennia, the Bedouin rely on oral tradition to perpetuate knowledge of all kinds, including knowledge of places. This paper explores Maʿaza toponymy, focusing on how these nomadic pastoralists have created, inherited, recalled and used places on the landscape. I discuss what geographic features are named, what the names mean and how their toponymy serves the pastoral Maʿaza livelihood. Place names are an important and often overlooked category of indigenous environmental knowledge, and reveal a great deal about a people’s perceptions and uses of resources (Afable and Beeler 1986: 185; Jett 1997: 481). The essays in this special issue of Nomadic Peoples are built around the theme of Bedouin self-representation. Khushmaan Maʿaza place names and the stories behind them relate how immigrant Bedouin with no roots or rights in the Eastern Desert fashioned a new geographic identity on the landscape. Their place names comprise a self-portrait of a people experiencing land and life and laying claim to a homeland in the wilderness.

The Setting

The Maʿaza Bedouin tribe, made up of about twenty patrilineal clan subgroups, has its homeland in roughly the northern half of Egypt’s Eastern Desert, between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea (Figure 1). The northern boundary of Maʿaza tribal territory runs from the Red Sea town of Zaʿafarana across the Wadi ʿAraba plain to the Nile Valley town of al-Kuraymat. The southern boundary is marked by the road linking Qoseir on the Red Sea coast with Qift in the Nile Valley. The total tribal territory is about 102,000 square kilometers (39,000 square miles), about the size of Iceland or the U.S. state of Kentucky. Comprising about ten per cent of Egypt’s land area, the Maʿaza territory was home to probably no more than a thousand nomadic pastoralists in the 1980s, when I did most of the fieldwork for this paper. A large majority of these were members of a single clan, the Khushmaan, whose clan territory occupies most of the southern half of the Maʿaza tribal territory. Three other clans have territories that are subsets of Maʿaza tribal territory (see Figure 1). The territories and boundaries defined here come from Khushmaan sources, and might be contested by other clans or tribes. Egyptian authorities do not formally recognise any of these territories and define the region simply as sovereign Egyptian land. Immediately after the February 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ revolution that ousted the Mubarak regime, Khushmaan friends reached me on social media to ask if I could assist in making their case in Egypt and abroad for formal territorial recognition. If this were possible, a major step would be presenting to authorities a summary of the place associations and assertions discussed in this paper.

The mountains, wadis, plateaus and plains of the Maʿaza lie in one of the hottest and driest areas on earth. Years and even decades may pass between rains at a given location, and prolonged drought of a decade or more over the entire region occurs periodically. The basis of the Maʿaza Bedouin livelihood is an expectation that in a given year rain will fall, and pasture for livestock will grow, in a few places within their vast territory. Families migrate with their sheep, goats and camels to take advantage of annual plant fodder that grows only when and where there has been rainwater: that is the essential strategy of pastoral nomadism. The Bedouin anticipate that drought may, however, render this strategy useless, requiring temporary alternatives such as hunting and gathering, growing crops in small favourable areas or working for wages in towns and villages. Formerly they sometimes raided settled communities, caravans or other nomads’ camps, and smuggled goods. These diverse, temporary occupations may best be understood as tactics in a ‘risk minimisation’ strategy enabling the nomads to persist in a risky, hazard-prone environment.

Human life in this wilderness requires a rich knowledge of places. Functionally, places are among the resources that sustain Bedouin life in the desert (water sources are the best example) and they serve as landmarks leading to resources. Where landmarks are missing or are misread, tragedy may result: many places are named after people who died of thirst. ‘Places have names so that people do not get lost’, a Khushmaan man told me. ‘They can learn where water and other things are by using place names.’ Knowledge of place minimises risk.


I used participant observation methods to collect the place name information discussed here. Except where noted the information draws from my fieldwork on Maʿaza perceptions and uses of natural resources during the years 1982–86, complemented by numerous shorter periods of fieldwork as recently as 2010. I am sufficiently fluent in spoken Bedouin Arabic so as not to need an interpreter. With a microcassette or digital recorder running, I routinely asked ‘How did this place get its name?’ Daily conversation among the Bedouin is rich with places, so that I sometimes gathered unsolicited accounts of name origins that were embedded in other contexts. Unexplained place names are so rare that I have kept a list of them too. These people comfortably admit when they do not know something, and I never sensed that someone invented an answer to satisfy me. Due to social conventions restricting access to women, most of my sources have been Khushmaan men. I collected almost all of the information in the desert interior from active pastoralists, rather than from people living in towns and no longer keeping livestock. With a few exceptions I discuss only names that people explained, and avoid speculation; for example, Wadi Abu Kalb is named after a dog but I do not discuss it because I have no more information.

The reader interested in learning more about the context of this paper is encouraged to read both my monograph about the Maʿaza (Hobbs 1989) and the beautifully-written books of Leo Tregenza (1955 and 1958) that depict Khushmaan life (and many of the same places and personalities) four decades earlier. At the time of this writing there is apparently only one other paper about Bedouin place names: Clinton Bailey’s ‘Bedouin Place-Names in Sinai’ (1984). Methodologically this is unlike the present paper. Bailey uses historical and secondary sources to identify many place name origins, and conjectures how the Bedouin of Sinai’s numerous tribes may have created names in the course of everyday life. He avoids consulting Bedouin as primary sources: ‘in many cases the Bedouin themselves can offer little help in solving the mystery of a name, the meaning of which may have been lost to memory generations back. Hence, any attempt on their part to explain such a meaning may result in confusion and contradiction.’ (Bailey 1984: 50) The stories behind place names certainly can be lost, but, as I learned through fieldwork with several South Sinai tribes for another study (Hobbs 1995), there is still a wealth of Bedouin lore on origins of places in Sinai. Many of these are sacred places for followers of the Abrahamic faiths.

Named objects

About 250 years ago Maʿaza tribespeople began immigrating to the Eastern Desert from northwestern Arabia, where there were known as Bani ʿAtiyya. Fighting against the resident ʿAbabda, an Arabicised Beja group with ancient roots in this territory, the Maʿaza gradually prevailed (Weschenfelder 2012: 346). Before the Maʿaza moved in, most place names were presumably spoken in the Tu-Bedawie and Arabic tongues of the ʿAbabda and their southern neighbours, the Bisharin (a Beja group with fewer Arabic language influences). The Maʿaza relate that a handful of place names were coined by ancient outsiders: the mountains of Qattar, Umm Diisa, Abul Hassan, Abu Harba and Abu Dukhaan were among those named by ‘the Romans’, their catch-all for ancient occupants of the Eastern Desert. Romans were, in fact, active in this region quarrying imperial porphyry and other stone used throughout their Mediterranean empire. These five are, however, Arabic names. Abu Harba, ‘Father of the Spear’, is a special place on Earth, as God touched it; a Khushmaan man told me what another had told Leo Tregenza: that He lanced the granite here, creating a cylindrical hole about a metre deep to provide drinking water to people and animals (Hobbs 1986: 79; Tregenza 1955: 159). Although tribal Maʿaza, Howaytaat and Tiyaaha raiders forced the ʿAbabda southward to a smaller territory in the Eastern Desert, ʿAbabda tribespeople did not forget all the names in their lost lands. As recently as 1947, when the Scottish surveyor George Murray climbed Jebel Shaayib al-Banaat (in Khushmaan territory), his ʿAbabda guides pointed out a number of places with ʿAbabda names. Murray published these on his map of the climb (Murray 1967: 169). One drainage is Umm Samyuuk, in ʿAbabda usage meaning the ‘Mother of the Wild Fig’. The Ma’aza call that drainage Abu Tiin, in their tongue also meaning (Father of the) ‘Wild Fig’. There are other place names that appear to be directly-translated Maʿaza equivalents of names these newcomers learned from the displaced ʿAbabda. It is, however, possible that, knowing that Murray would inscribe whatever they said on the map he was making, his ʿAbabda guides ‘ʿAbadified’ local Maʿaza names, or even that the two groups came up with these names independently. Emerging victorious from their skirmishes with the ʿAbabda, the Ma’aza kept some ʿAbabda names, but essentially had a tabula rasa on which to selfrepresent their evolving geographic identity. The Maʿaza fanned out over the landscape, creating places as they experienced them. Their toponymic autobiography is made up both of the place names and their explanations, depicting a rich cultural landscape woven of physical environment, subsistence activities, political history, personal events, worldviews and more. Analysis of the field notes reveals, through frequency and number of citations, a hierarchy of places. The primary objects of Maʿaza place-naming are valleys and other drainages and flatlands (especially wadis), followed by mountains (jebels) and other kinds of rocky promontories and elevations, water sources, perennial trees and shrubs, and routes and trails. A list of the most often-used indigenous types is in Table 1. South Sinai Bedouin also use many of these terms (see Bailey 1984). Many of the following and other local landscape names do not appear in Bailey’s paper or in Groom’s Arabic topographic dictionary (Groom 1983). Watercourses are the most numerous named places. Their abundance reflects a pastoral livelihood based on plant foods, which are restricted almost entirely to valley floors. The Maʿaza have about 25 distinct names for types of drainages, based on aspect, slope, length, elevation and soils. The most prevalent drainage type is the wadi or (dry) riverbed, often interchangeable with other drainage terms. Many large drainages have tributaries with descriptive sub-names: for example one branch of Wadi Qattar is called Wadi Qattar atTarfa (‘the Wadi Qattar with the Tamarisk Tree in It’). Especially long or high valleys are often divided into higher and lower sections (al-ʿala and al-asfal), or ‘easy’ (sahal) versus ‘difficult’ (waʿr) tributaries (e.g. Wadi Faalig as-Sahal and Wadi Faalig al-Waʿr). Adjacent drainages sometimes have descriptors to distinguish and help readily identify them: Wadi Abu Haadh al-Imshaash is the Wadi Abu Haadh with an imshaash-type water source in it, while nearby Wadi Abu Haadh ili Fiih Tuur al-ʿArd is the Wadi Abu Haadh ‘In which is the Rockshade of the Male Gazelle’. The tangle of drainages in the much-visited region of al-Malaaha is easier to navigate using the four subnames of Wadi Malaaha: al-Baramiil (The One with the Barrels), ath-Thamiila (of the Gravel-Seep), al-Jamuusiyya (the Mosquito-Infested One) and an-Nakhl (with the Palms).

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