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Portraits Of Bedouins: Photographed By The American Colony Photo Department in 1898

At the very end of the 19th century the American Colony Photo Department, (later the Matson Photo Service), took these pictures of Bedouins in Egypt, the Sinai, Palestine and Jerusalem.

In 1898, American Colony Photo Department, (later the Matson Photo Service, named after G. Eric Matson), took these pictures of Bedouins in Egypt, the Sinai, Palestine and Jerusalem. The American Colony (AC) 1881-1934 and its photographers were on a mission. Members of this independent, Christian sect emigrated to Jerusalem from the United States and Sweden, led by the Overcomers“, the first wave of immigrants who left Chicago, Illinois in 1881.

All wanted to be in Jerusalem for the Second Coming of Christ.

The colony of about one hundred people at first lived communally. Devoting themselves to the people of Jerusalem–regardless of religion or nationality they cared for the sick and set up schools and soup kitchens, among other endeavors. They hoped to ensure their redemption through their charitable work. After the turn of the century, the Colonists became involved in the tourist trade. They produced souvenirs and opened a store and a hostel for travelers. (The hostel, later called the “American Colony Hotel,” is still in existence.) Another lucrative enterprise was their operation of a photo service.

The American Colony Photo Department began in 1898, under the eye of its founder Elijah Meyers, a Jewish convert to Christianity who emigrated from India.

It would not last.

Inner tensions within the American Colony led to the final demise of this utopian Christian community in the 1950s. Since then the second home of the American Colony, outside the city’s walls, has functioned as a hotel named American Colony Hotel.

The American Colony Hotel adds:

The rich history of the American Colony dates back to the late nineteenth century, following a series of tragic events that led Horatio and Anna Spafford, a devoutly Christian family, to leave their home town of Chicago in 1881 in order to find peace in the holy city of Jerusalem and to offer aid to families in distress. Drawing strength through their faith and comfort from the words of the hymn “It is Well with my Soul,” written by Horatio Spafford following the loss of his four young daughters in a shipwreck, the Spaffords, together with sixteen other members of their church, calling themselves “The Overcomers”, journeyed to Jerusalem and settled together in a small house in the Old City. They were never missionaries, but aimed at living, as the early Christians did, a simple life with everything in common. With their charitable door open at all times to their Arab and Jewish neighbours as well as Bedouin from around the city and from across the Jordan River, they soon established good relations with the local population and became well known for their acts of benevolence and assistance to the community. People referred to them simply as ‘the Americans.’ Seventy Swedes living in the United States joined ‘the Americans’ in 1894, followed by another fifty five from Nas in Sweden two years later, and the now much larger group required bigger premises. The home they bought was initially built as a palace for a pasha and his four wives. That palace would soon become The American Colony Hotel. The seeds of the American Colony Hotel were sown in 1902, when Baron Ustinov (grandfather of actor Sir Peter Ustinov), finding the Turkish inns of the time unacceptable, needed suitable accommodation in Jerusalem to house his visitors from Europe and America. Before long, the American Colony became a lodging for Western travelers and pilgrims whose expectations were not met by the establishments then existing in Jerusalem.

It's worth highlighting here a bit about how the Bedouins (“desert dwellers” in Arabic) lived. Bedouins are animal herders who migrate into the desert during the rainy winter season and move back toward the cultivated land in the dry summer months.

Bedouin tribes have traditionally been classified according to the animal species that are the basis of their livelihood. Camel nomads occupy huge territories and are organized into large tribes in the Sahara, Syrian, and Arabian deserts.

Bedouin society is tribal and patriarchal, typically composed of extended families that are patrilineal, endogamous, and polygynous. The head of the family, as well as of each successively larger social unit making up the tribal structure, is called sheikh; the sheikh is assisted by an informal tribal council of male elders.

In the second half of the 20th century, Bedouins faced new pressures to abandon nomadism. Middle Eastern governments nationalized Bedouin rangelands, imposing new limits on Bedouins’ movements and grazing, and many also implemented settlement programs that compelled Bedouin communities to adopt sedentary or semisedentary lifestyles.

Some other Bedouin groups settled voluntarily in response to changing political and economic conditions. Advancing technology also left its mark as many of the remaining nomadic groups exchanged their traditional modes of animal transportation for motor vehicles.

Bedouins in Egypt mostly reside in the Sinai peninsula, Matruh, Red Sea governate, eastern parts of Sharqia governate, Suez, Ismailia and in the suburbs of the Egyptian capital of Cairo. The past few decades have been difficult for traditional Bedouin culture due to changing surroundings and the establishment of new resort towns on the Red Sea coast, such as Sharm el-Sheikh. Bedouins in Egypt are facing a number of challenges: the erosion of traditional values, unemployment, and various land issues. With urbanization and new education opportunities, Bedouins started to marry outside their tribe, a practice that once was completely inappropriate.

Bedouins living in the Sinai peninsula did not benefit much from employment in the initial construction boom due to low wages offered. Sudanese and Egyptian workers were brought there as construction labourers instead. When the tourist industry started to bloom, local Bedouins increasingly moved into new service positions such as cab drivers, tour guides, campgrounds or cafe managers. However, the competition is very high, and many Sinai Bedouins are unemployed. Since there are not enough employment opportunities, Tarabin Bedouins, as well as other Bedouin tribes living along the border between Egypt and Israel, are involved in inter-border smuggling of drugs and weapons, as well as infiltration of prostitutes and African labour workers.

In most countries in the Middle East, the Bedouin have no land rights, only users' privileges, and it is especially true for Egypt. Since the mid-1980s, the Bedouins who held desirable coastal property have lost control of much of their land as it was sold by the Egyptian government to hotel operators. The Egyptian government did not see the land as belonging to Bedouin tribes, but rather as state property.

In the summer of 1999, the latest dispossession of the land took place when the army bulldozed Bedouin-run tourist campgrounds north of Nuweiba as part of the final phase of hotel development in the sector, overseen by the Tourist Development Agency (TDA). The director of the Tourist Development Agency dismissed Bedouin rights to most of the land, saying that they had not lived on the coast prior to 1982. Their traditional semi-nomadic culture has left Bedouins vulnerable to such claims.

The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 brought more freedom to the Sinai Bedouin, but since it was deeply involved in drug smuggling into Gaza after a number of terror attacks on the Egypt-Israel border a new Egyptian government has started a military operation in Sinai in the summer-fall of 2012. The Egyptian army has demolished over 120 tunnels leading from Egypt to Gaza that were used as smuggling channels and gave profit to the Bedouin families on the Egyptian side, as well as the Palestinian clans on the other side of the border. Thus the army has delivered a threatening message to local Bedouin, compelling them to cooperate with state troops and officials. After negotiations, the military campaign ended up with a new agreement between the Bedouin and Egyptian authorities


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