Only a few of the Bedouin tribes now found in Sinai were there before the Islamic conquest of the 7th Century. Most seem to have arrived much later.
The oldest tribes in Sinai seem to be the Bili and Bayyadhiyin who were reported as early as the 10th Century in a geographical treatise by al-Hamdani to be living along the north coast of Sinai where they still reside. Their story is developed in later texts from the 14th Century which describe how the Bili helped Heraclius, the Byzantine general, in resisting the invading Arabs, while the Bayyadhiyin joined the army of Amr al-As in his conquest of Egypt, giving these tribes a lineage that stretches back to before the Islamic period.
We know nothing of other tribes in the rest of Sinai until the 14th Century when two writers, al-Qalqashandi and a-Maqrizi, both quote from the writings (now lost) of a 13th Century Syrian official who noted the presence of several tribes which are now very small or assimilated into larger tribal confederations: the Akharsah and Ugayli tribes, once part of a large confederation known as the Thalabah Tayy but now reduced to a few families in north west Sinai; the Amarin, Habaniyin and Ghuyuth, now part of the Suwarkah confederation of north east Sinai; the Jubarat, now in Gaza; the Badarah in central Sinai; and the Bani Wasil who still occupy parts of South Sinai.
None of the large tribes that now dominate Sinai such as the Tiyaha, Tarabin, Muzeinah, Huwaytat or Ulaygat were mentioned. At the time of the crusades, the largest confederation seems to have been the Thalabah Tayy in northern Sinai and the Aidh in central Sinai.
But the balance of power seems to have changed in the 16th Century after the defeat of the Mamlukes in Egypt by the Ottomans. In a contemporary text by al-Jaziri who was passing on information about the Hajj routes we hear for the first time of the Tarabin who provided “protection” for those on the Hajj across central Sinai as far as the pass down to Aqaba which was protected by the Wuhaydat and Rutaymat from the southern Negev. The former tribes of central Sinai, the Aidh seem to have retreated to the Delta.
It was around the same time that an epic war took place between the Sawalhah and the Ulaygat which determined the present tribal boundaries in south Sinai. In this the Ulaygat were aided by the Muzaynah who were regarded at the time as new arrivals. These alliances and rivalries are still in place.
Claims of seniority, important in tribal confederations and in judicial appeals, also confirm the epic history. It relates that the Muzaynah, upon arrival, were received as allies by the Ulaygat who had occupied land formerly held by the Sawalhah who had taken land from the Hamadhah and the Bani Wasil. Hence the oral tradition in southern Sinai ranks the tribes in order of seniority as first the Hamadhah and Bani Wasil followed by the Sawalhah, the Ulaygat, and lastly the Muzaynah.
The Sawalhah are named after the area of Saliheyah in the Eastern Delta, founded in the 13th Century by the dynasty of Saladin. Their arrival in Sinai must therefore be dated to some time after that when they subdued the Bani Wasil and the Hamadah in South Sinai.
Al-Jaziri is also the first to mention the Huweytat and the Suwarkah but only to say that they occupy northern Hijaz and southern Jordan.
Documents from the Monastery of St Katherine, however, make it clear that by 1623, the Suwarkah, Rutaymat and Wuhaydat were being paid off to prevent them from obstructing the monastery’s supply routes through Gaza, and by 1662, the Huwaytat were on the payroll as well.
Oral history of land claims, which the Bedouin never seem to forget, extends the story to the 18th Century when the Tarabin moved out of their arid lands in central Sinai to take land in the north from the Bili and Suwarkah, in the west from the Ayadah, in the south from the Muzeinah and in the east from the Wuhaydat. They, in turn, seem to have abandoned central Sinai to the Ahaywat.
The Jabaleya have a unique history and may lay claim to being the oldest of all the tribes in south Sinai. Records in the monastery make it clear that they are the descendants of serfs and soldiers from Wallachia and Alexandria who were sent to protect the monastery in the 6th Century by the Roman Emperor, Justinian. As late as the 16th Century, the Jabaleya were still Christian for they wrote to Selim the Grim, who had just conquered Egypt, pledging themselves to convert to Islam if he could remove them from their obligations to the monks. Selim accepted their conversion but with reference to their obligations imposed by Justinian declared that “the edicts of kings cannot be revoked by kings” and punished them for their insolence by insisting they convey 100 camel loads of grain to Mecca.
From the writings of Richard Pococke, the first European traveller to record the names of tribes in South Sinai, we can confirm that the Ayaydah, Aleygat, Owled Said, Muzaynah and Sawalhah were all resident by 1738.
From the Description de l’Egypte, prepared for Napoleon in 1798, we learn of the Huwaytat, Tarabin and Suwarkah tribes in northern and central Sinai, and the Qararshah and Jabaleya tribes to the south.
All the above information on the Bedouin tribes of Sinai comes from the invaluable research done by Clifton Bailey.