In the beginning, it was difficult to discern the shape – even the existence – of the structures on the top of the hills. Our eyes were tired, for we had been walking against the sun after the lunch break, and the several Bedouin women and kids who emerged in the silent desert as if by magic out of thin air were buzzing around us, displaying their handmade trinkets and distracting our attention from what was unfolding before us.
The initial rock formations that we had vaguely noticed somewhere in the background of Wadi Rum’s imposing vastness turned into a cluster of round, sandstone constructions that looked like an abandoned, prehistoric village. They were the Nawamis: an archaeological site whose history is mixed with myths, legends, and speculations.
The origins of the Nawamis remain mysterious, as it is not clear who built them and why. Research indicates that they are 6000 years old – hence, the most ancient site on the Sinai Peninsula – and, most probably, they served as tombs – their west-facing doors implying the connection with the setting sun and the end of life, or with the dawning moon and the mysteries of the afterlife. Their name comes from the Arabic word for “mosquitos” and, we were told, it translates into “mosquito nets.” According to one legend, it was Moses and the wandering Israelites who built the structures to get protected from a mosquito plague, at a time when the area was much lusher, and the abundant water of the wadi was frequently a nesting ground for biting insects and malaria outbursts. Others say that Moses found the buildings on his way to Jerusalem and was assisted by the people living nearby, while there are versions of the story that indicate the buildings were erected by the Nabateans around 3000 years ago. The connection of the specific cluster with Moses seems to be exceptionally strong, as – according to the Bedouins – the constructions are on the same line with the Ein Hudera Oasis (where it is believed, Moses stayed for a few nights) and Mt Moses where the ten commandments were downloaded to serve as guidelines for a more respectful and reverent way of living.
It seems that one can find nawamis in several areas of the Sinai Peninsula, always outside the traditional trade routes; with its 32 buildings, though, the specific cluster is the largest and the most impressive one. All structures are of a similar size (2-2.5 m high, 3-6 m in diameter), with flat, stone roofs (that, we were told, remain stable due to an internal dome design), no windows, and a single, small entrance facing to the west. They stand on top of the low hills on either side of the ancient (dry, now) river bed, their view unhindered by any other hill or natural formation. During the Roman Empire, they were used as shelters; later, in the Byzantine era, they were turned into tombs again. Finally, the Bedouins cleared away the bones and, once more, started using them either as lodging or storage places. Today, they have been classified as an archaeological site on the way to Mt. Katherine, with several tourists visiting on cars, camels, or on foot (as we did) and the Bedouin women from the nearby Nawami village unfolding their itinerant, impromptu shops in the shadows cast by the ancient walls.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou