By: Hasan Ali

Translation: Yousef Awad

The Bedouins who inhabited the Palmyra desert, like other Bedouin communities in the Arab region, practiced the traditional Hima system (Hima is a traditional grazing management system through which lands and main resources are allocated aside to enable communities to preserve and regulate their use). This system protected pastures from deterioration. Additionally, all tribes adhered to customary law or traditional oral law governing grazing and water rights. 

Following the political events in the region, especially the independence of the Syrian state in 1946, the movement of Bedouins with their livestock gradually became limited to Syrian territories only. During the 20th century and until the present time, Palmyra and its desert have generally thrived in raising Awassi sheep, in addition to other livestock such as camels, goats, and cows. Raising Awassi sheep and other livestock remained prosperous in Palmyra and its desert until the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, where most herds began to diminish with the escape of large numbers of breeders and their refuge to other countries. After the displacement of the people of Palmyra following the invasion of ISIS to the city, the sheep moved from the surroundings of Palmyra to other Syrian provinces such as Hasakah and Raqqa, some of which were smuggled to neighboring countries like Jordan and Turkey.

The shepherd’s journey through the Palmyra desert had its own rituals, as described by Mr. Khaled Al-Saleh, one of the shepherds from the city of Palmyra, about the grazing journey. He says: 

We used to move for grazing throughout the Syrian desert, searching for grasslands in well-known places such as Sateeh, Jebel Al-Amour, Wadi Al-Ahmar, Abu Al-Fawaris, Al-Talilah, and Al-Hamad, until reaching the Iraqi border… The most famous livestock we used to herd were Awassi sheep and camels. Our herd reached 400 sheep and 90 camels. Camel herding was separate from sheep herding and more exhausting. I often accompanied the sheep herd. To start the sheep herding journey, I prepared the Khurboosh (a tent made of sackcloth), the Cheek or siege (a metal fence to protect the herd at night), and the water tank transported by car to a location close to the pasture. I also prepared the donkey’s saddle, where I put food supplies such as oven bread, cheese, olives, dates, and raisins… I brought the rababa (a traditional string instrument), the shababa (a flute-like instrument), and a blanket. Usually, one of my brothers or my son accompanied me on the herding journey, in addition to the donkey and the shepherd dogs. We set off early in the morning to the wilderness, and wherever I found grass, I stopped for a break, let the livestock graze, and rested while drinking tea and having food. Sometimes, I entertained myself by playing the rababa or spinning wool from the sheep’s back immediately, making threads of wool, which I used to make headbands for the donkey or belts for myself. The idea of the headband worn by the Bedouins came from here, as the Bedouin wears the headband to control his riding. I also made a bracelet to tie on the hand to help heal injured tendons and nerves. At noon, I had to lead the livestock to the water source. The process of gathering the livestock was easy, done by riding the donkey. When the sheep saw the donkey moving instinctively, they walked behind it, and when the Moorea (the leader of the sheep) walked, the bells hung around his neck rang, and the rest of the herd began to walk behind the Moorea. When we walked and one of the sheep wandered off, the dogs would run after it and bring it back to the herd. Before sunset, the sheep were lined up in interwoven rows by tying them with a long rope for milking. If the animals were not satisfied with the grass, they were given a meal of fodder, then collected inside the Cheek to sleep before dark. I usually laid out the blanket and the fur to sleep, either inside the Khurboosh on cold nights or among the sheep on warm nights, near the donkey and the shepherd dogs guarding us outside. The dogs would start barking if they saw any wild animals to warn me of the impending danger. I would then bring my weapon, which is a dagger in one hand and a wooden stick in the other hand. Sometimes I would have a hunting rifle. “

One of the most famous traditions associated with livestock farming in Palmyra and its surroundings is the concept of the “ Moorea” as described by Mr. Mohammed Fahd, one of the sheep breeders from the city of Palmyra. He says: “The process of creating the Moorea involves taking a newborn lamb and separating it from its mother. A nursing bottle is placed under the donkey’s udder so that the lamb can suckle from it. This leads the lamb to believe that the donkey is its mother, and instinctively, it follows the donkey wherever it goes. Its wool is left unshorn to give it a large and majestic appearance compared to other sheep. If it’s a male, it’s castrated to prevent thoughts of mating and to keep it close to the donkey. Bells are hung around its neck that ring when it walks, allowing the rest of the herd to hear the Moorea’s bells and follow it.

In conclusion, the journey of shepherding Awassi sheep in the desert of Palmyra is deeply intertwined with rich traditions and rituals that have been passed down through generations. Despite the challenges posed by political events and conflicts in the region, the practice of livestock farming, particularly raising Awassi sheep, has remained resilient. The unique customs associated with herding, such as the establishment of the Moorea and the careful tending to the sheep’s needs, reflect the deep connection between the Bedouin communities and their animals. As the region continues to undergo changes, preserving these traditions becomes not only a means of livelihood but also a testament to the enduring cultural heritage of the people of Palmyra.

 Herd of sheep during grazing. Credit by: Ahmad AlKhanee, Hasan Ali 2023

The Shepheard has food supplies. Credit by: Ahmad AlKhanee, Hasan Ali 2023

The shepherd and his donkey. Credit by: Ahmad AlKhanee, Hasan Ali 2023

The Moorea (the leader of the sheep). Credit by: Ahmad AlKhanee, Hasan Ali 2023