Return to the Ancestral Cave

A winding mountain gorge, immense temples and edifices carved into its narrow rock walls; a vast and complex water collection and storage system to wring an artificial oasis out of the desert: Petra can seem more like a fantasy than a real place. But this Jordanian valley, once the center of a desert empire, remained until the 1980s an inhabited town, its inhabitants living in homes carved into the rock among the two thousand year-old temples. And now they are coming back.

The people of Um Sayhun village in the Petra region have plenty of the same grievances of other underdeveloped villages in Jordan; you will not find a single resident who thinks the public services and infrastructure are adequate here. But their story goes beyond the details of demanding steady electricity, running water and paved roads.

The residents of this region are the Bedoul clan: a sedentary Bedouin tribe that had inhabited the ancient city of Petra for many generations until it was relocated to the government-built settlement of Um Sahyun in the 1980s. A growing population with no room for expansion in the confined settlement, the Bedouls today describe their living conditions as “birds in a cage” or “inmates in an overcrowded prison.”

The Bedoul saga—which many compare to the Palestinian plight—began in 1985 when Petra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The local inhabitants were consequently relocated away from their historical dwellings in the caves of the ancient city. Petra’s Bedouins had been living in its caves for many generations, until the Jordanian government housed them in a settlement outside the ancient city.

According to the latest census in 2015, the two square kilometer settlement of Um Sayhun has a population of 2117 individuals: a dense population. According to the website of the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority’s (PDTRA), Um Sayhun is in fact the most densely populated region in Jordan.

Nawaf al-Faqir, born in 1969 in one of Petra’s caves, stated that the Bedouls had “voluntarily left the caves”: on the condition that they would be given adequate housing elsewhere, and land to farm. “Before we left, people had their plots of land, knew where they would farm, and where they might expand to in the future when their children grow up. To people’s surprise, there was nothing of the sort [after the relocation].”

According to Faqir, those who had to leave their dwellings in the caves, with its ample space for children and cattle herding, discovered they were resettled in 80 square meter concrete blocks. To build bigger houses when families grew, they would tear them down and rebuild; at least when the government still allowed that.

Nowadays, expansion (either up or outwards) in Um Sayhun is prohibited. The areas surrounding the settlement are either state land (owned by the State Treasury), or belong to other settlements in the region. After all, Um Sayhun borders Petra’s heritage site, where construction is strictly prohibited. This situation has led many of the residents to feel that they are living “under siege”, and that their only refuge is the family caves that they had inherited from their fathers and grandfathers.

After crossing the ‘second desert highway’ into the ancient rose city of Petra, families will gather to show you their dwellings. Those who have returned to the caves are aware that they are violating the law, for the ancient city is now a heritage site. Yet, fining the cave dwellers has not proven to be effective deterrence.

Said* tells me that when an officer from the protectorate visited his cave, he told him that instead of fining him, he would do better to ask him about his wellbeing as a human being who is, in this day and age, living in a cave. “If you tell a passerby that people are still living in caves, they would never believe you,” he says.

Said lived in Um Sahyun until sixth grade, when he left the two-story house occupied by his 36 family members. “In the summer, you can sleep on the roof top, but what do you do in the winter?” he asks. “Give me an alternative, and I will take it,” Said told me. “But there is none.”

Said is 33 years old today and he seldom had a steady job. He spoke to me about the housing rights of Petra’s local population. “We were here before the Jordanian government and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID),” he said.

After getting accustomed to living in harsh conditions with no hope for a better life, Said expressed his concern about the children of the caves who walk long distances to reach their schools in Um Sahyun. “After walking all that way under the sun, how can a child understand anything from the teacher!?”

Said is not the only one who left his family house due to the lack of space. Omar left when he was 18 years old. Omar’s 12 family members lived in a two-bedroom house. “And I could not sleep next to my sisters,” he said.

Now, Omar lives in a Petra cave with his wife and two children. After the government fined him, Omar lost his chance of getting a good character clearance certificate. Despite his economic hardship, Omar said he would be perfectly willing to pay 200 dollars a month to rent an apartment in Um Sayhun. “But there is just no land to build new apartment buildings that we might rent in,” he said.

Um Samira has six children; her eldest is 11 years old. She considers herself and her family to be “happy in the caves.” “But our children want to learn to read and they cry from the cold when they can not find a ride and have to walk to the nearest village school.”

According to a study by a researcher at Al Hussein Bin Talal University, Um Sayhun’s schools have a very high dropout rate. The alternative is clear: in the peak tourism season, 550 children work in tourism, compared to 250 in the low season.

In addition, the study states that 40 percent of the parents of Um Sayhun’s school children are illiterate, and concludes that there is a lack of a familial environment conducive to studying. Visiting the region today one can sense how Um Sayhun’s adult population are regretting having dropped out of school to work in tourism.

Many of the residents have expressed their optimism after a military school opened last September. They praised its ability to “discipline” the children, even if it does so through “physical punishment”–which many considered an appropriate method to keep the children in school.

Petra’s locals have many memories of official visits and promises to solve their problem, but one bloody incident stands out and is voiced to legitimize their plight.
Salman narrates that a conflict erupted between residents and the police in 2000. “They wanted to build a house without a license. The police were called in. They wanted to demolish the house by force, not by the law. A conflict erupted. Three residents were killed. We don’t know who killed them. The king came. We told him that we sacrifice our children for him. He ordered that our demands be met, on paper.”

Over the last few years, the government has proposed the construction of new housing units in another settlement in Wadi Moussa. The residents have rejected this proposal, however, because of the proposed settlement’s distance, expressing their desire to expand around their current location.

In our interview with the PDTRA’s Chief Commissioner, Mohamed Nawafleh, he spoke of the right to adequate housing. “Petra is a World Heritage Site and people can not be living in its caves or the vicinity of the heritage site. But we are patient until we find a solution,” he said.

Nawfleh added that he has clearly communicated the situation on the ground to the government. “It is a densely populated region. Where should people go? The houses are too small. You have 10-15 people living in the same house.” He ended by saying that we should expect a solution to this highly complicated case soon—but without going into details.

Many remain skeptical about the ability of any official to find a solution, including Saliha, an elderly woman who complained about the overcrowding of houses. She told us that her grandchildren who reside with her in the same house are unable to get married because of overcrowding.

The elderly woman has a store in Um Sayhun and another in Petra. According to her, “neither of them profit a penny.” “What can the region do? The state is over its head. And our elders are gone. We are like the sheep that has lost its shepherd. Whether we eat or starve, no one cares!”

Lena Shanak Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard