The Digital Journalist
The Bedouin Tribes of Petra
Photographs: 1986-2003

July 2006

by Vivian Ronay

“I can’t tell you what a wonderful sight it was; as if one were suddenly in the very morning of the world among the people of Abraham...”

1927 Freya Stark

When Vivian Ronay first visited Petra in 1986 as a tourist, the city was deserted. She saw it almost as it must have looked to Swiss explorer J.L. Burckhardt, who rediscovered it for the Western world in 1812: an empty, ancient city cut into the high desert cliffs of southern Jordan. She has been returning to Petra for almost 20 years to continue the documentation of Bedouin life as they transition from their pastoral pre-market economy to their modern life in the government-subsidized village of Umm Sayhun, with electricity and indoor plumbing.

The Nabataeans, builders of Petra, were traders, a tribe of Arabs who dominated the region beginning around 300 B.C. Their group extended from northwestern Saudi Arabia to Damascus in Syria. Distinctive facades carved into sandstone cliffs and boulders marked Nabataean cities along the ancient trade routes in the region. Petra was one of the major crossroads of the east (from Asia)-to-west (ultimately Greece and Rome through the port city of Gaza) route for silk and the primarily south-to-north and west frankincense route, and its inhabitants lived on tolls and taxes. According to the Old Testament, a battle took place from the heights of the tallest mountain in Petra, Umm al Biyara. Another cliff top, said to be the burial site of Aaron (Haroun in Arabic), the brother of Moses, has been a holy place for Christian monks and now Moslems. Crusaders in the Middle Ages built a fort on the eastern edge of Petra as well.

In 1988, Ronay got an assignment from The World and I magazine and spent a month with the Bedul Bedouin of Petra. Bedouin culture is the root and origin of all the countries of the Arabian Peninsula (with the exception of Israel) and pre-dates Islam. The five tribes of Bedouin in Petra are named the Bedul. This word signifies 'change' and is quite appropriate under current developments. Ronay photographed and took notes regularly as she joined the Bedouin in their daily activities. She returned almost every year between 1988 until 1992; however, other assignments prevented her return until 2001. During the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, she made another trip to a rather deserted Petra for final images and research for her current show.

During the 1988 visit, her friendship with Ali Mutlak, a son of one of the five sheiks of Petra, gave her the equivalent of an "all-access pass" to be honored by any Bedouin while hiking on her own. Granted access to most facets of life in Petra, Ronay has photographed Petra during the day and night, in tents and the Nabataean caves in which only a few families remain, as well as in the Bedouin village. She's grown close to many people in the community. Her evocative photographs provide a sense of the individual lives of the Bedouin, their culture, and the spectacular desert environment.

In the mid-1980s, the Bedouin agreed to move out of the caves and into a small village, Umm Sayhun, set on the edge of what is now designated as Petra National Park where they live today. In her more recent trips, Ronay has been dismayed to see the traditional ways of life eroding now that these tribes are living in built structures with modern conveniences. Their old agrarian community has been replaced with a market-based economy based on tourism. (Petra is arguably among the top tourist destinations in the Middle East and achieved a "World Heritage" status by UNESCO in 1985.)

T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) wrote: " you will never know what Petra is like, unless you come out here. Only be assured that till you have seen it you have not had the glimmering of an idea how beautiful a place can be."

"Because of tourism," Ronay observes, "some of the people of Petra have gotten wealthy by tribal standards, and this has created economic disparity and a lack of trust. When I visited in 2001, everyone came to me to talk about these new troubles. Western anxiety just hadn't existed there before, and now it seems it has seeped into every nook and cranny," she says. "I was stunned."

Ronay hopes these Bedul will solve their newfound problems of modern life and enjoy their prosperity. Tensions with some government bureaucracies, however, are yet to be resolved particularly about village expansion and housing issues.

Ronay's exhibit, "The Bedouin Tribes of Petra," is currently on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa until January 2007. The 50-image exhibit has traveled to four previous venues, in conjunction with the archeological show, "Petra: Lost City of Stone." To see more photographs or get details on the exhibit, visit Ronay's Web site at: .

Vivian Ronay started life with a Brownie Kodak camera and a photography badge earned in the Girl Scouts. She began photography in earnest in the 1980s, landing a staff job at the Washington Times while freelancing for Washingtonian magazine and, occasionally, Vanity Fair, Vogue, GQ, etc. Her 20-year photographic love affair with Petra, Jordan, began in 1986. Ronay won the Sam Abell Scholarship at the Santa Fe Photo Workshops and the WHNPA Project grant of 2003. Based in Washington, D.C., Ronay now freelances, doing corporate (and editorial) portraits and the very occasional news event.

View The Bedouin Tribes of Petra Photo Gallery

© Vivian Ronay

Ronay's exhibit, "The Bedouin Tribes of Petra", is currently on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa until January 2007. The 50 image exhibit has traveled to 4 previous venues, in conjunction with the archeological show, 'Petra, Lost City of Stone.' Ronay won the Sam Abell scholarship and the Santa Fe Photo Workshops and the WHNPA Project grant of 2003 To see more photographs or get details on the exhibit, visit Ronay’s web site at:

Please contact her directly for information about her photos of Petra, as well as many other Mideast locations, at:, or c/o P.O. Box 9627, Washington, D.C. 20016. Telephones: (202) 362-1460; mobile (202) 460-1460.