Meet the Man Living in a Lost City Carved in Stone
Mofleh Bdoul grew up in the ancient city of Petra, scrambling up the rocky slopes along with herds of goats amid the ruins of tombs and temples.
The 73-year-old still lives in a cave a stone’s throw from the one where he was born. But over the years, he has seen his home transform from remote hinterland into a tourist attraction that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
Now Mofleh is one of just a handful of Bedouins from the Bdoul tribe still living inside the historic site.
Although his cave on the back side of Jebal Habis, or Prison Mountain, is just a five-minute climb from the main tourist drag, it feels far removed. Outside the cave–more spacious than the apartments of many city-dwellers and with windows drilled into the stone for light–Mofleh constructed a walled terrace with a garden of flowering shrubs where he welcomes visitors for tea. In the winter, the rain waters the plants; in the summer, he hauls water up from a restaurant in the tourist area. A Jordanian flag stands sentinel over the canyon below.
“The most beautiful place,” Mofleh says of his home. “Here, it’s medicine. If you have problems, you forget them quickly.”
Petra, a city carved into the sandstone cliffs in Jordan’s desert, was capital of the Nabataean empire between 400 B.C. and 106 A.D. It’s not known exactly when the Bdoul tribe took up residence in the ruins, but nomadic tribes have been living in the area at least as far back as the 1500s, says Steven Simms, a retired anthropology professor at Utah State University who studied the site and the Bdoul in the 1980s and 90s.
Traditionally, the Bedouins lived off goat herding and small-scale farming. Many, including Mofleh, also found work on archeological digs and in the tourism industry.
The site began to draw a trickle of Western tourists after it was “discovered” by the Swiss explorer John Lewis Burckhardt in 1812.
“When I was young, some people would come and sleep with the Bedouins for one month,” Mofleh said. He gestured at a hillside across the canyon. “One Canadian lady stayed in this cave alone for one month.”
Sometimes the meeting of cultures led to romance, as it did for Mofleh. He married a Swiss woman, had a daughter, and for a while split his time between Switzerland and Petra. But the marriage didn’t work out, and he returned to his cave. It wasn’t his last venture into matrimony–when first asked, he said he had been married four times. Upon further thought and counting on his fingers, the number rose to eight.
After Petra was designated a World Heritage site in 1985, UNESCO and the Jordanian government began efforts to relocate the Bdoul from Petra to the newly constructed village of Um Sayhoun nearby.
Reactions to the resettlement were mixed. Many, especially families with children, liked being closer to schools and hospitals. But others, like Mofleh, didn’t want to give up their traditional lifestyle, and in any case, the supply of housing in the village could not keep up with the growing families, said Allison Mickel, an assistant professor of anthropology at Lehigh University
“[The resettlement] was meant to be across the board, but now because Um Sayhoun is only so big … the people who did not have housing guaranteed to them stayed in the park,” she says.
According to Mofleh, before the construction of Um Sayhoun, there were about 150 families living inside Petra; now there are around 10, and he is the only one left in the center of the park. UNESCO tried to convince him to take a house in the village, he says, but he refused.
“I like it here–it’s better,” he says. “If you live in the city, maybe you don’t walk all day.”
Nada Al Hassan, chief of UNESCO s Arab States Unit, said in a statement that they are working with Jordanian authorities and local communities to define a management plan for Petra that will balance “the conservation imperatives of the site; local community needs, their sense of ownership and belonging; local communities’ livelihoods; [and] sustainable tourism practices that do not hinder the site’s integrity and authenticity.”
Like most of the Bdoul, Mofleh relies on the tourist economy. The number of visitors to Petra grew gradually after the World Heritage designation, but skyrocketed after 1994 with the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. From 1994 to 1995 the number of visitors to the site more than doubled from 138,577 to 337,221 and continued to grow, hitting a high of 918,136 in 2010. But the following year, with the outbreak of war in neighboring Syria, tourism plummeted. Over the next five years, the number of visitors dropped by half.
Many Bdoul sell souvenirs and donkey rides in the main tourist drag. Mofleh offers tea, conversation and sometimes lunch to the visitors who venture off the main road and stumble across his dwelling. He collects a few dinars from the tea, and makes small stone carvings to sell. Sometimes he offers tours.
But as much as he relies on the cash that visitors bring, he also offers hospitality for its own sake.
Shannon Mouillesseaux of upstate New York stumbled upon Mofleh’s cave during a trip to Petra in the spring. After striking up a conversation, Mofleh spent two hours showing Mouillesseaux and her friend his favorite sights on the back trails of Petra. He refused to take money or even lunch in return, she said.
“Once he started talking, you realized he was someone who had so much to share and really wants people to appreciate Petra and the culture and the history,” she said. “It’s amazing that he’s remained and it’s to their benefit if you ask me.”