They look like flattened igloos—mysterious ancient round burial tombs, called nawamis ,. To Canadian archaeologist Charles Currelly, who studied them in 1904 as part of British archaeologist Flinders Petrie's expedition to Sinai, these 6-foot-high sandstone structures resembled beehives scattered across the desert floor.
Their name, nawamis , Comes from Namus meaning mosquitos in Arabic. According to Bedouin legend, the nawamis were built as protection against mosquitoes by the Israelites of the Exodus during their wanderings in Sinai. The Bedouin also give the more likely explanation that the term namusiyeh (plural, nawamis ) refers to any separate or freestanding structure.
We simply use the word nawamis to refer to one or many of these unusual structures.
From the burial goods and human remains found in the nawamis , we know that they were built around 4,500 BCE as tombs by nomadic herders. These remarkably preserved stone buildings are thus the world's oldest remains of a pastoral nomadic society.
The bones in the nawamis were disarticulated (that is, separate from one another), which suggests that the tombs were used for secondary burials. Nomadic peoples did not always conveniently die near their burial grounds, and it would have been dangerous and unpleasant to transport decaying corpses over long distances. So the deceased would have been buried at the site of death and disinterred some time later for transport to the nawamis. The bones may well have been deliberately disarticulated for ease of transport.
Nine groups of nawamis have been discovered in southern Sinai, creating a kind of ring around Jebel Musa (Mt. Moses).
The people who built the nawamis would move seasonally with their herds of goats. In the heat of summer, they would climb high into the mountains to find pasture. During the bitterly cold winters, they would make their camps at lower altitudes. Most of the nawamis clusters are 2,400 to 3,000 feet above sea level.
Of the 42 nawamis near Ain Hudra, 30 are clustered on a low, flat hill. The others are scattered about the sandstone plateau. Each building is circular, about 12 feet in diameter (from outer wall to outer wall) and 6 feet high, with a small entrance facing thesetting sun in the west and a slightly concave roof.
All structures are well-built cylinders made from carefully selected, but not dressed, sandstone. The outer wall of each nawamis is built perpendicular to the ground. When the wall reached about 2 feet in height, the interior space was filled with gravel, and sometimes a floor of flat stone slabs was laid over the gravel. From this floor level, the outer wall was then continued straight up to the full height of the nawamis. An inner wall of stone slabs, abutting the outer wall, was built up from the gravel floor. This inner wall was constructed with a corbeling technique—so that each successive course of stone slabs jutted slightly more toward the center of the nawamis, eventually forming a partial interior dome. The opening at the top of this dome was then capped with a 3-foot-square slab of stone.
The outer wall of the nawamis rose 4 to 8 inches above the level of the capstone. The tomb builders then filled in any spaces between outer and inner walls with rubble, strengthening the structure and creating a shallow basin-shaped roof. The finished tomb—with its solid, finely constructed outer wall, its lovely circular shape and its spare desert surroundings—is an impressive monument for the dead.
This corbeling technique is well known from later periods. The founder of Egypt's 4th Dynasty, Sneferu (2575-2551 B.C.), built the first Egyptian corbeled chamber in his North Pyramid at Dahshur, at the southern end of the Memphis necropolis. The nawamis are at least 500 years older than the North Pyramid; they thus provide some of the world's earliest known examples of the use of corbeling, along with the roughly contemporaneous megalithic temples on the island of Malta. No doubt the lack of wood in the desert motivated the nomads of Sinai to develop this elegant roofing solution.
Each nawamis has a small rectangular entrance, about 2 feet high and 1 foot wide, always facing west towards the setting sun which suggests an Egyptian origin for these ancient nomads. The entrances were probably sealed with a blocking stone, though no sealed nawamis were found. These stones were likely removed in later times, either by grave robbers or by Bedouin who simply wanted to use the nawamis as tombs (one nawamis contained a skeleton that was less than 100 years old).
We are even able to suggest, from the apparent motion of the sun, the months when the nomads built their burial structures The sun travels about 23 degrees north to south along the western horizon during the year—being farthest north at the summer solstice and farthest south at the winter solstice. In 80 percent of the nawamis , the entrances were oriented toward the setting sun of July or August.
How do we date these enigmatic structures? The answer lies in the objects buried with the disarticulated bones in the nawamis. The task is made difficult by the fact that each of the 24 structures which were examinied had been disturbed in antiquity. This means that our dates for the nawamis remain somewhat speculative. To fix the dates of the tombs with certainty, we would need to find an undisturbed, sealed nawamis . Nonetheless, by sieving the sand and rubble inside the structures, evidence was found to date them to the 4 th millennium B.C.
The most numerous artifacts were necklace beads made from marine shells, fish teeth, carnelian, bone, ostrich shells and faience—the latter made from glazed pottery, probably acquired from mainland Egypt by the nawamis builders. The most common bead by far was made from dentalium, a mollusk with a tapering tubular shell (often called a tooth shell), found in the Red Sea.
In a third of the nawamis , shell bracelets were found that had been cut from the mollusk Lambis truncata. This Red Sea mollusk, also known as the Giant Spider Conch, grows to as large as 16 inches long and 8 inches wide. Lambis bracelets are known from the Chalcolithic period (c. 4500-3500 B.C.) site of Tell Abu Matar, near Beer-Sheva, Israel, and from the Chalcolithic/Early Bronze sites (late fourth millennium B.C.) of Bab edh-Dhra in Jordan and Tell el-Farah (North) on the West Bank of Palestine Thus our Lambis bracelets provide a rough chronological indicator for dating the nawamis to the fourth millennium B.C.
Support for this date also comes from about 100 flint transverse arrowheads found in most of the nawamis that were studied. Unlike the more familiar arrowhead whose point forms the end of the projectile, transverse arrowheads are “backward”—with the point of the triangular arrowhead attached to the arrow's shaft and the wide edge of the arrowhead forming the end of the projectile. These arrowheads are quite common at sites in the Egyptian Delta, the Mediterranean coast of Egypt, Sinai and southern Palestine—and they all date to the fourth millennium B.C. Transverse arrowheads are also depicted in early Egyptian art, such as on the Hunter's Palette (also called the Lion Hunt Palette) from the late pre-dynastic period (c. 3000 B.C.). Today transverse arrowheads are sometimes used to hunt small birds, in order to disable but not kill the creatures.
To test the fourth-millennium B.C. date provided by the Lambis bracelets and transverse arrowheads, radiocarbon tests were performed on the scant organic finds. Charcoal found in the nawamis gave a carbon date of the fourth millennium B.C.
Life was harsh and relentlessly demanding for these herders, who moved from place to place constantly searching for grazing land for their goats. Why did they bury hard-to-come-by goods—even valuable copper arrowheads—with the dead rather than pass them on to the living? Clearly they believed that the dead needed their beads, bracelets and arrowheads in the afterlife, further proof of an Egyptian origin for these people
We would later see this belief in an afterlife fully developed in pharaonic Egypt. Egyptian burial practices resembled those of the nawamis , especially in their orientation toward the setting sun. The west, in Egyptian belief, was the land of the dead, where every evening the sun “died,” only to be “reborn” in the morning in the east. Even in pre-dynastic Egypt (last centuries of the fourth millennium B.C.), bodies were laid to rest in burial pits with their heads facing west.
.The nawamis culture was a flash in historical time, lasting only about 300 years. When the Egyptians began to build the great pyramids in the mid-third millennium B.C., the nomads who buried their dead in strange stone desert huts had already lived out their history—or at least what we know of it. The pyramids, with all their grandeur and majesty, seem built for eternity. What is astonishing is that the small, modest stone structures in Sinai also still stand strong in the battle against leveling time.