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The nomadic cave dwellers of Petra

From Rima Maktabi, CNN
December 22, 2011 -- Updated 1446 GMT (2246 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Petra in southern Jordan is visited by over one million tourists annually
  • The ancient city is carved directly into rock and was established around the 6th century B.C.
  • Bedouin tribes or "desert dwellers" still walk these lands and have done for centuries

(CNN) -- Over a million visitors travel to the rock-cut architectural wonders of Petra, Jordan each year.

The magnificent rose-red city was first established sometime in the 6th century B.C. by an ancient nomadic tribe called the Nabataeans.

At the crossroads between Arabia, Egypt, and Syria-Phonecia, it became one of the most vibrant trading hubs in the region -- a caravan center for the silks of China, the spices of India and the incense of Arabia.

Today, tourists must make the two kilometer walk down a narrow gorge known as "The Siq" before being rewarded with the awe-inspiring sight of the dusky-pink face of Al-Khazneh or the "Treasury."

It is the first of an array of magnificent sights, including elaborate rock-cut tombs, sacrificial altars, a roman amphitheater and the Al-Deir monastery, housed in the 264,000 square meters of Petra Archeological Park.

Few realize that among these relics of an ancient people there are still those living in the area that maintain the traditional nomadic way of life.

"(The Bedouins) are here as controller for these caves, for all Petra. Because Petra is very important to them," said Jehad Hamadeen of the Petra Archaeological Park.

I walk around in these lands, these open lands. No one tells me what to do, (I) am by myself.
Um Mohammed, a Petra resident and Bedouin native

The Bedouin community has been drifting across the sand since long before Jordan existed. The name in their native tongue of Arabic literally means "desert dwellers," and for centuries they have carved a life in this harsh landscape.

Despite often being isolated, the Bedouin people are known for their hospitality to travelers and are often happy to share a meal with visitors they come across.

"My happiness is here. I love this place," said Um Mohammed, a Petra resident and Bedouin native. "I walk around in these lands, these open lands. No one tells me what to do, (I) am by myself."

Abu Ismail is another Bedouin living in the deserts of Jordan. His family lives in two rooms in cavern carved out of a mountain rock face and consider protecting Petra a duty of the Bedouin people.

"Yes it is our duty, and the duty of the government," he said. "It is an archaeological site. This is the most important thing."

But Ismail also points out that the Bedouin way of life needs to be protected and old traditions need to be upheld.

He says: "The best things about it (are) the fresh air, no traffic and street hassle. It is the Bedouin life, it's great.

Ismail admits to knowing nothing about the internet and, while his family continues to live amongst Jordan's ancient heritage, life is good enough for him.

Lauren Said-Moorhouse contributed to this story.

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