Nawamis: The Prehistoric Pearls of Sinai

It was a few months ago that I finally went on my second trip to this Prehistoric wonder. At the heart of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, a cluster of circular stone buildings that date back from the Chalcolithic Age (Copper Age) and the Early Bronze Age are believed to be the oldest freestanding stone structures on earth. Dating back to the fourth millennium BCE, they are practically 5,000 to 6,000 years old, which means they are over 1,500 to 2,500 years older than the Great Pyramids of Giza, and that they are –at least- as old as the Megalithic Temples of Malta and the Cairns of Scotland.

The people of Sinai call these circular structures ‘Nawamis’, a word of three possible origins: a place for sleep (as in, eternal sleep), a place to hide from mosquitos (inspired by the Biblical Plagues of Egypt and the Jewish Exodus), and body/resting place of the body, meaning namoos in Bedouin tongue. Different groups of Nawamis exist in Sinai, including the Gebel Gunna field, the ‘Ain Umm Ahmad field and, most impressively, the Ein Hudra field between Saint Katherine and Dahab.

First explored by the Bedouins, these Nawamis were later explored by Edward Henry Palmer in his book ‘The Desert of the Exodus’, then documented by Flinders Petrie in his book ‘Researchers in Sinai’. They were also studied thoroughly in the 20th century by Israeli archaeologists who concluded -as already forwarded by earlier explorers- that these structures were conceived as family tombs. This claim is supported by the objects found inside the Nawamis, including bones, beads, and alleged funerary offerings. The fact that the Nawamis were reused by successive groups and cultures in later periods makes it difficult to determine with certainty their original use. We are told that in the early 1980s, Sinai had over 1,000 nawamis.

The Nawamis share a well-defined set of characteristics. They are typically circular in shape with a small entrance in the form of a trilithon oriented towards the west/west-south and an inner slanting wall forming a corbelled roof. Local sandstone is the building material of choice, even though metamorphic rocks were also used. The flakes of sandstone are arranged painstakingly to form a compact structure that, obviously, withstood the elements and the sands of time for millennia, even though the Nawamis might have been reinforced by locals throughout their history. The average height of these structures is two meters, and they are almost always located at a place that commands sweeping views of the surrounding desert.

Inspiring awe and wonder, the best time to visit the Nawamis is in the late afternoon when the sun illuminates their entrance and creates a magical effect of interplay between light and shadow. Mystery still shrouds the Nawamis and the exact group that built them. Were they local Bedouins? Pastoral/nomadic tribes? Were they really just tombs? Go find out for yourself next time you’re in Sinai, and please remember: Take nothing with you, leave nothing behind!


 

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