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The Arabian Camel

posted on: Feb 22, 2022


By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

For untold centuries, life itself in the Arabian Peninsula was almost unthinkable without the camel. The Bedouin’s passion for this animal is unparalleled in the love between beast and man. He valued it both materially and aesthetically. An immense source of prestige and status, it was his vehicle of transportation, tank in war, medium of exchange, nourisher, and water drawer from the oases’ wells. The dowry of the bride, the price of blood and the wealth of everyone in the tribe were all computed in terms of camels. Every part of the Bedouins’ lives was affected by this most important of the domesticated animals in the Arabian Peninsula.  From its hair they made their tents and clothing, its meat and milk were the main source of food, the skin was utilized to make their shields, its sinews were used for bowstrings, and the dung formed the basis of their fires. Even its urine was not wasted.  It was utilized to wash the hair, cleanse wounds, and as a purgative and antidote for insect bites. It is no wonder then that to the Arabs of the desert, this lordly beast with an expression of sublime haughtiness on his face was a special gift of God.

The Bedouins delight in referring to themselves as the ‘people of the camel’.  It was so important in their daily lives that today we have in the Arabic language over 1000 words related to this desert masterpiece.  Camels formed the basis of a large part of their proverbs and poetry.  Often, they call them metaphorically ‘ships of the desert’ or compared them to beautiful women, precious jewels and the most valued of weapons.  To the poets, their cheeks were as soft as silk, necks as slender as minarets, ears well-formed as two falcons and their gentle dreamy-long lashed eyes as clear as mirrors.  Tarafa ibn al- ‘Abed, one of the authors of the famous seven mu’allaqat (odes) – the fountainhead of Arabic poetry – describes a racing camel, saying, “Her cheek is smooth as Syrian parchment…Her eyes are a pair of mirrors…Her ears are true, clearly detecting on the night journey the fearful rustle of a whisper…”.  Labid ibn Rabi’a, another one of the mu’allaqat poets, when talking about his camel declares, “She stands as a castle built by a master builder”.  A number of historians even claim that the rhythmic sway of these desert beasts as they walk influenced the mere of Arabic music and poetry.

It is believed that a type of camel roamed the Nort American plains some 40 million years ago.  From there, it spread to South America ad evolved into the llama, and to Asia at the time when this continent was connected to the Western Hemisphere.  Most historian agree that the present-day one humped animal was domesticated, chiefly for food, in South Arabia about 2000 B.C.

In subsequent centuries, carrying the precious cargoes of frankincense and myrrh across the Arabian desert became one of the camel’s main functions.  Their first documented use on a large scale was by the Midianites invading Syria during the 11th century B.C.  In the Bible, they are mentioned as one of the bribes received by Abraham from the Pharaoh of Egypt.  Later, the Queen of Sheba is said to have brought her luggage on camels when, in about 955 B.C., she visited King Solomon.  However, their greatest social impact came after the advent of Islam.  In the first golden years of the Muslim era, thousands of men from the Arabian desert rode on camels, carrying high their gleaming lances and silken banners across inhospitable deserts, in pursuit of conquest and spread of religion.  Soon, they became the main beast of burden, eastward to the heart of Asia and westward to the Iberian Peninsula.

In the ensuing centuries, camels became synonymous with travel and transport through some of the most formidable deserts on earth.  Trade routes crossing trackless waste became the camel’s highway.  Where these desert beasts were present in large numbers, roads and wheeled vehicles became unimportant.  The greater economy of camels drove man’s proud invention, the wheel, out of existence in vast areas from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan in the east.  For hundreds of years many historical events were linked with the rise to dominance of this ‘ship of the desert’.

With camels, empires were created and caravans carrying all types of products made merchants wealthy. They remained very important in the world economy until near our time.  Their ability to go where no other beast of burden could travel made them very useful until the late 19th century. During the early 1800s a number were brought to the USA and put to work on western mail and express routes, but by the turn of the century they had faded out of the transport business. Also, in the 1860s they were imported into Australia. However, in a few decades, they were replaced by modern transport.  Today, their descendants still roam in wild herds throughout the Outback. 

In the world of our times there are two main species of camels; the Arabian or one humped animal (Camelus dromedarius), also called dromedary, thriving in hot dry climates like the Arabian and Sahara deserts; and the Bactrian (Camelus bactrianus), native to the old dry climate of central Asia.  The Arabian is far superior to the Bactrian and forms about 90% of the camels found in the world – 80% in Africa, principally in Somalia and the Sudan.

The one humped animal is found in two main types throughout the Arabian Peninsula.  One is the light riding dromedary, and the other the heavier transport beast.  For centuries, the finest riding camels were, and are still being, bred by the Mahra Bedouin in southern Arabia below the Empty Quarter.

Arabians, famous for their great endurance, sight and smell are marvelously suited to fit into desert life.  Due to their peculiar physiology, they can tolerate hot and dry climates and have a great ability to conserve water, going without drinking longer than any other domesticated animal.  However, they can take up to 136 litres (30 gallons) in a single watering, but in the cool winter months they rarely drink, obtaining enough moisture from the plants they eat.  It is said that camels are the nomad’s purification plants.  Water too blackish to drink by man is drunk and then offered in refreshing milk.

Under exceptional conditions, camels have been known to survive without water for up to 34 days. As it becomes hotter their body temperature can go up to 11 degrees and the water, they would need to cool their bodies, is saved. Also, camels produce only modest amounts of urine and feces, and their thick blanket of hair holds the cooling moisture produced by their small amount of sweat. The rate of water evaporation is only a third that of the average mammal.

Well adapted to desert life, their eyes are protected by a double row of eyelashes and their normally large nostrils can be flattened to mere slits, enabling them to endure the most violent of sandstorms. Their broad and thick-soled two-toed feet form cushions, spreading the weight on the sand and their humps serve as a reservoir of energy needed for long journeys. Most of the fatty tissues are stored in the hump rather than diffused throughout the body. When the animal is healthy, it is tall and firm; if in poor condition, it becomes soft and flabby. These attributes and the ability to convert thorny wasteland plants into products useful to man makes them irreplaceable in true desert travel.

In the past, the Bedouin raised dromedaries mainly for transportation – during long journeys, camels which weigh on the average 680 kg (1500 LB), can carry up to 272 kg (600 LB) and travel from 32 to 40 MI) a day.  They were also employed for riding and in war.  Most forays of tribes on each other were inspired by the greed for camels.  Poets eulogized successful raids and praised in glowing terms the capture of camels by their tribe.

The rights over one’s dromedaries were looked upon as more sacred than life itself.  The well-being of camels was always considered before that of their owners.  When arriving at a well, they were watered first, even before their riders.  On a journey, they were given the last drop in the water skins and hand-fed on dates when no other food was available.

On the other hand, these desert beasts did not always return the kindness shown by their masters.  Docile when properly trained, they can in the rutting season become liable to fits of rage, biting and kicking dangerously.  If ill-treated, they will spit their foul-smelling cud directly in the tormenter’s face.

Camels often stood between the nomad tribesmen and extinction.  They and their products were usually the only items the Bedouin had to sell if they wanted to buy the necessities of life.  The nomads use of their products was endless.  Its hide and wool were utilized for blankets, belts, clothing, rope, rugs, saddles, tents, waterbags, and numerous other products.  The meat, generally of young males not employed in breeding, was the only animal flesh the Bedouin usually ate throughout their lifetime.  With its higher protein content and less fat than beef, it was a very nourishing part of their diet.  In addition, the camel was the nomad’s healthy dairy.  Its milk contains more fat, protein, minerals, and has a higher content of vitamin C than cow’s milk.

The Bedouin believed that the dromedary’s meat and milk had great curative powers.  According to the 11th century physician Ibn Bakhtishu in his Manafi al-Hayawan (The Benefits of Animals), the camel’s hump can cure dysentery, its marrow diphtheria, and its brain epilepsy.  Others have claimed that its milk is a mild purgative and can cure tuberculosis.

Today, life for the desert Arab has changed dramatically. Camels which were once the mainspring of tribal economy are now only romantic and picturesque adjuncts to palaces. Raised mostly for racing stables, they are, when on display, often decked in bright cords, tassels and embroidered leather harnesses. Now the playthings of the wealthy, they are only bred for sentimental reasons- as a source of pride and pleasure.

Gone are the days when vast herds of some 100 thousand could be found moving from one grazing area to the next.  No more are the 20 to 50 thousand camels carrying pilgrims, provisions, tents and merchants with their merchandise, seen in caravans making the pilgrimage to Mecca. Oil and the Japanese pickup trucks have brought on the eclipse of these marvelous beasts of burden.

Almost the only desert transport for thousands of years, they are now fast fading away in their original homeland. Due to the fact that they are ridiculed in the West, camels are today looked upon by the Arabs as a symbol of backwardness. The degrading of these much-maligned animals has done much to produce a negative image of the Arabs in western media.

Nevertheless, despite its labeling as an obstinate and ludicrous beast or as one of God’s clumsiest inventions, the camel’s future is not altogether bleak.  Worldwide, there are still to be found some 15 million. In countries such as Somalia and the Sudan where millions are still being raised, they can again become a primary source of food- the original purpose for which they were domesticated. In spite of the fact that their low fertility is somewhat of a drawback, they can live where no other beast can exist and are a nourishing source of food. Their milk does not spoil quickly, and their meat is one of the healthiest known to man. During years of drought, they could be the main hope for affording a healthy diet to the people in the arid African lands. The immense possibility camels hold for the well-being of desert dwellers makes certain that these creatures, which in the past the Bedouin could not have survived without, will be with us for generations to come.

Habeeb Salloum M.S.M.


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