Bedouin Star Lore

I spend a lot of time in the desert, including the Sahara, Rub’ al Khali and less exotically the Colorado Plateau (ok, not a desert, but semi-arid (Köppen BSk) and mostly empty of people so it’s close enough for me), and the people and the places fascinate me. As a traveler, I have an interest in navigation, in fact I used to teach Navigation a long time ago…


Bedouin sitting by a small campfire in the Desert at sunset

I came across an article via Tristan Gooley’s blog (Tristan runs the Natural Navigation school in the UK) , which mentioned the 1974 article by Clinton Bailey, ”Bedouin Star-Lore in Sinai and the Negev” (PDF link). 

It’s a wonderful article, clearly a precursor to his book ”A Culture of Desert Survival”, and full of navigation and climatic information in the poetry of the Bedouin.

My favorite is

In tila’ Suhayl-Id tdmin is-sarjllaw kdn ‘aqdb il-layl

Or in English

If Canopus rises, don’t trust the flood

And finally the practical application:

Don’t camp in the wadi!


Canopus was frequently used as a Southern Pole Star by those in the Northern Hemisphere until it fell out of usage when the magnetic compass became popular. The Bedouin also saw Canopus as a coward, as it would dip seasonally below the horizon - unlike Polaris, the steadfast. 

It’s particularly moving to remember that these traditions have persisted until the 21st century through an oral history that pre-dates Islam.