Camels: carrier to companion

From trade to warfare, the humble camel – the ship of the desert – has played a crucial role in the history of the Arab world. Far from being a simple beast of burden, it has sustained desert peoples from the Stone Age onwards. Vision traces why these miraculous animals have become known as ‘God’s gift’

No other animal has had such an impact on the development of the Arab world than the dromedary camel. Alec Issigonis, designer of that humble car the Mini, is alleged to have said that “a camel is a horse designed by committee” – a disparaging comment, entirely without foundation. In fact, had such a committee been drawn from the Bedouin, it would have received global accolades for designing a creature perfectly adapted to the hostile desert environment in which it actually thrived.

Even in the most extreme conditions, a camel can carry more than 500 pounds, travelling 20 to 30 miles per day. Sustaining itself on little more than sun-burned grasses, thorns and shrubs, it can go for several days without water but can drink up to 20 litres in a single minute. Contrary to common belief, the fatty hump holds no water, serving as a food reserve when fodder is scarce and as insulation against the sun’s rays. Although two of its three stomachs hold a little water, the camel has a unique ability to conserve moisture and perspires less than other animals. It can alter its body temperature to accommodate the extremes of the desert temperatures. The broad fibrous feet provide safety across flinty terrain and stability on shifting sands. When the wind blows, two rows of long eyelashes protect the eyes and the nostrils close to prevent the ingress of sand.

Desert life

Camels were inextricably woven into the very fabric of Bedouin life. The bedu drank their camels’ milk, a wonderful source of raw materials, and ate their meat, used their fur for ropes and weaving, their hides for leather and their dung for fires. A symbol of wealth, camels often constituted a major part of a bride’s dowry but were themselves regarded as being beautiful. Whether laden with silks and pearls or simply a family’s goods, camels shared the nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouin, an interdependent relationship in which the camel was often a friend and a lifelong companion.

“Ata Allah or ‘God’s gift’, they call her, and it is her patience that wins the Arab’s heart,” Wilfred Thesiger wrote in his travelogue Arabian Sands. “It is not only that the bedu’s existence depends upon the welfare of his animals but that he has a real affection for them.”

The origin of the word comes from the Hebrew gamel, derived from the parent root gam, which means gather to water, and the root gamal, meaning to wean or ripen. Thus, once weaned from its mother, the camel is “one that gathers at the water to drink”.

Ironically, the camel’s first diminutive prototype originated in North America more than 40 million years ago, gradually increasing in size and evolving during the succeeding millennia. Procamelus, the modern camel’s first true ancestors, appeared around 20 million years ago. Some moved south through the Americas where they evolved into alpacas and llamas, while others migrated across the Bering Strait to Asia. As they moved slowly southwest, the species divided to produce the two-humped Bactrian now found in the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts of Mongolia and China, and the predominant one-humped dromedary.

Domesticated beast

Prehistory is blurred as to when camels were first domesticated, but there are indications that their relationship with man could date back to the late Stone Age. Two drawings of a dromedary were found at Kilwah in Jordan, which date back to the period. A ninth-century BC bas-relief found at Tell Halaf in Syria clearly shows a man riding a camel. The discovery of bones at the Bronze Age site on Umm an-Nar island near Abu Dhabi show signs of domestication dating back 4,000 years. But it is in recorded history that the importance of the interrelationship between the Arabs and camels becomes clear.

Occasionally, they had their military uses. In 853BCE, the Arab king Gindibu allegedly deployed 1,000 camels at the Battle of Qarqar against the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. In 547BCE, Cyrus the Great fielded the first camel cavalry troop at the Battle of Thymbra, defeating the overwhelming horse-mounted forces of Croesus. According to an account by Herodotus: “Horses are afraid of dromedaries and cannot endure to see or smell them.” Subsequent armies, from the Romans in the days of the empire to the British in the 20th century, have employed camel-mounted auxiliary troops in desert campaigns. But the camel’s true value lay in its unique capabilities as a beast of burden.

Camels were also indispensable to the merchants who used the vast network of interlinking trade routes that stretched from China and India to the Mediterranean and beyond. Along the tracks of the Silk Road and across the trackless deserts of the incense and spice routes, camel caravans carried a vast array of valuable commodities to satisfy the demands of the West. Frankincense and myrrh, only obtainable from South Arabia, Ethiopia and Somalia, travelled north on the backs of camels. The southwestern ports of the Arabian Peninsula were trans-shipment points, receiving cargoes from India and Ceylon, Africa and the Far East. Spices such as cardamom and pepper, silk and dyed textiles, gold, lapis lazuli and other precious stones all made their way across deserts that would have been impassable save for the camel.

But the cost of transporting goods by land was high. The great merchant caravans disappeared, leaving the Arabian deserts to the Bedouin and their camels for a few hundred years. Time and technology force change, and although the nomadic way of life has largely been consigned to history, the camel still holds a high place in Arab affections.