by Nicolas Seth Reeves
The former capital of the ancient Nabataean Empire, the city of Petra serves today as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’s most popular tourist destination. Tourism constitutes the lifeblood of three tribal communities that live in and around Petra Archaeological Park: the Bidul of Umm Sayhoun, the Layathna of Wadi Musa, and the Ammarin of Bayda. Most members of these communities rely on tourism-sector revenues to make a living (Reeves 2023). Spanning formal and informal economies, local involvement in Petra’s tourism industry includes selling souvenirs and rides on horses, donkeys, and camels to visitors, owning and staffing hotels and restaurants in Wadi Musa, and working for the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority (PDTRA), which governs the archaeological park and its surrounding communities.
The powerful revenue-generating opportunities associated with visitor flows to Petra have unleashed considerable competition among local groups seeking to secure greater access to the city’s tourism economy. This competition manifests, for example, in conflicting narratives propagated by local tribespeople who seek to legitimize their own participation in the tourism sector while calling into question the work of rival tribes. Both the Bidul and the Layathna leverage their history in the Petra region for this purpose. The Bidul, for example, rely on oral histories that convey the tribe’s physical connection to the city as former inhabitants of its caves (Reeves 2020). On the other hand, the Layathna point to their role in helping to drive Ottoman forces out of the Petra region during the 1916–1918 Great Arab Revolt as evidence of their importance as the city’s protectors (Reeves 2022). These narratives demonstrate the importance of the past as a legitimizing force undergirding present-day claims to Petra’s tourism revenues.
In this essay, I demonstrate that the relationship between the past and present is bidirectional. Factors related to tribal geographies in Petra today impact stories about the Bidul’s and Layathna’s past to the same extent that the oral histories of the two groups exercise a (de)legitimating effect on their present-day tourism-related work. I reveal the effect present realities exercise on the past through examining the efforts of Bidul and Layathna tribespeople to cast doubt on each other’s historical connection to the region by propagating narratives about contemporary places in Petra. These narratives reveal that Bidul and Layathna efforts to prove that they are indigenous to the Petra region involve not only historical arguments but also claims based on the two tribes’ current positions in the city’s political economy.
Places and the Past
Places, connected by nature to present-day realities on the ground, become instruments in local stories that serve to connect some of the region’s current residents to Petra’s past while erasing others from it. The Layathna propagate this dynamic by leveraging the intertribal distribution of territory in Petra today to legitimize their presence in the region while delegitimizing that of the Bidul. The following narrative articulated by Abu Saif al-Nasrat accomplishes this dual purpose:
“After 1900, some individuals from the Bidul came and settled in the caves. They deny this reality through different claims, such as that they have origins [here]. They do this in order to give some type of legitimacy to their presence. Their presence is very recent. It does not exceed 120 years. To the contrary, the Layathna were mentioned in the year 1300. There are historical sources, not just talk…. The Bidul say that they belong to the Howeitat [a large tribe in southern Jordan], but the Howeitat refuse them completely. The Bidul are different from them. Every once in a while, they spread a new narrative. However, you have to look at it logically. In any place, if you have lived there for a long time — in the tribal system, this is reflected in the tribe’s power and property. You see? Your strength as a tribe is measured in power and property. Where is your land? They have none. The land that they reside on now, the village that they have settled in — all of that land belongs originally to the Layathna.”
Abu Saif’s rhetorical inquiry into the location of the Bidul’s territory today succinctly casts doubt on the tribe’s historical presence in Petra. At first glance, this line of argumentation is convincing. After all, the Bidul do not own territory within Petra today. The areas the tribe claims as its historical domain are located within the state-owned confines of Petra Archaeological Park (Reeves 2023). Furthermore, Umm Sayhoun — the village adjacent to Petra that the government built for the Bidul after removing the group from the ancient city’s caves in the 1980s — sits on land taken from the Layathna via eminent domain (Reeves 2022).
Yet, these details constitute precisely the nuances that place-based argumentation covers up. Abu Saif’s narration projects the present into the past without alteration, painting a static picture of Petra’s tribal history in the process. For this reason, there is no space in Abu Saif’s narrative for the tremendous changes the region witnessed with respect to the intertribal balance of power over the past 150 years alone. For instance, the Bidul’s deletion from Petra’s history by virtue of their lack of territory today neglects the tribe’s tremendous power in the 19th century, when Sheikh Imgaibel Abu Zaitoun al-Bidul’s dominance over the Petra region was entrenched to the degree that he imposed a tax on travelers wishing to enter the rose-red city (Reeves 2021). Moreover, the projection of the present into the past presents a misleading image of the historical role of land in southern Jordan. To the degree that fixed, territory-based identities existed before the extension of state sovereignty to the area in the final decades of Ottoman rule, they were associated predominantly with small farming villages — such as Wadi Musa — that dotted the ranges of large nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, such as the Howeitat.
Considering the Bidul’s own status as a formerly semi-nomadic tribe, the salience of place-based claims in their own legitimacy-contesting narratives is anachronistic as well. Abu Muhammad al-Bidul articulated one such argument:
“If you go to our graves in Petra, inside Petra, beyond the Snake Monument, there is nobody from Wadi Musa buried there. What does that demonstrate? That demonstrates that not one of them was an inhabitant of that area. That’s the biggest piece of evidence. If you asked someone [from Wadi Musa], ‘your grandfather, where is he buried in Petra?’ He’ll go like this: [shrugs]. Because he was not buried in Petra!”
Beyond the graves of their ancestors, other place-based arguments that Bidul tribespeople employ involve their intimate knowledge of Petra’s geography and the presence of human remains in some of the city’s caves — bones that the Bidul allege belong to tribal ancestors who died in a 19th-century cholera epidemic. As was the case with Abu Saif’s observations about Bidul land ownership, Abu Muhammad’s point concerning the lack of Layathna remains within Petra Archaeological Park once again instrumentalizes present realities to cast doubt upon another tribe’s history in the ancient city.
Outside the immediate context of competition over tourism revenues in Petra, Bidul and Layathna narratives that place the present in the past indicate that history itself changes as the circumstances in which stories about the past are narrated evolve. Elsewhere in Jordan, anthropologist Andrew Shryock (1997) observed a related transformation in the Balga region, where educated Abbadi tribesmen had begun using the written word as a means to “formalize” contentious, theretofore orally transmitted aspects of their ancestors’ fraught relationship with the powerful Adwan tribe. While the often harmful employment of placed-based narratives is a contemporary cause for concern in Petra, their use also points to a possible step to address the destructive effects of intertribal competition in the city’s tourism economy. Given the importance of the past to Petra’s contemporary political-economic landscape, providing a venue — such as a museum dedicated to oral history — for the region’s tribes to propagate stories about their forefathers in a non-contentious manner would enhance the legitimacy of all of the local communities that call Petra home today.
Reeves, N. 2020. “Shaykhs and Tribal Entrepreneurs: Tribal Hierarchies, Government Development Policies, and the Struggle over Representation in Petra’s Tourism Economy.” Oxford Middle East Review 4.1: https://omerjournal.com/2020/07/03/shaykhs-and-tribal-entrepreneurs-tribal-hierarchies-governmental-development-policies-and-the-struggle-over-representation-in-petras-tourism-economy/.
Reeves, N. 2021. “Erasing History: Rival Tribal Narratives, Official Regime Discourse, and the Exclusionary Debate over Indigeneity in Petra, Jordan.” ESIA Dean’s Scholars Journal, 28 September 2021. https://blogs.gwu.edu/esiadeansscholarsjournal/2022/08/01/erasing-history-rival-tribal-narratives-official-regime-discourse-and-the-exclusionary-debate-over-indigeneity-in-petra-jordan/.
Reeves, N. 2022. “Bayn al-Māḍī wa-l-Ḥāḍir: Hikāyāt Abnāʾ Qabīlatay al-Bidūl wa-l-Layāthna al-Tārīkhiyya wa-Ahmiyatuhā al-Mustamira fī-l-ʿAṣr al-Rāhin” [“Between Past and Present: The Oral Histories of the Bidul and Layathna Tribes and Their Ongoing Importance in the Present Day”]. Abhath Al-Yarmouk: Humanities and Social Sciences Series 31.1: 1–23. https://journals.yu.edu.jo/ayhss/Issues/Vol31No12022.pdf.
Reeves, N. 2023. “Bringing Order to Petra’s Tourism Economy.” Tourism Cases. https://doi.org/10.1079/tourism.2023.0010.
Shyrock, A. 1997. Nationalism and the Genealogical Imagination: Oral History and Textual Authority in Tribal Jordan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
 My research in Petra was generously funded through an ACOR-CAORC Predoctoral Fellowship.
 Abu Saif al-Nasrat is a pseudonym, as are all of the names of people quoted in this article.
Nicolas Seth Reeves is pursuing a dual master’s degree in international development and political science from Sciences Po Paris and Freie Universität Berlin. His bachelor’s thesis (George Washington University) on the impact of state-led tourism development on tribal communities in Petra resulted in publications in the Oxford Middle East Review (2020), Columbia Journal of Politics and Society (2020), and Abhath al-Yarmouk: Humanities and Social Sciences (Arabic, 2022). Reeves spent a year in Egypt as a 2019–2020 Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) Fellow at the American University in Cairo, where he completed native-level language courses in Modern Standard Arabic, Arabic literature, and Egyptian dialect. With the generous support of an ACOR-CAORC Fellowship, his research examines how pandemic-induced decreases in international visitors to Jordan impacted tourism-reliant communities living in the vicinity of Petra, Wadi Rum, and Umm Qais and how local, national, and international stakeholders influence strategies as these communities pursue and defend their political and economic interests.