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The Importance of that “Splendid Beast”--the Camel--to the Arab World

posted on: May 2, 2018

The Importance of that “Splendid Beast”--the Camel--to the Arab World
Camel caravan going through the sand dunes in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

By John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer

My first encounter with that famous beast of burden, the camel, was not in the desert. Rather, it was in the movies. Specifically, it was a scene from the film, Lawrence of Arabia. Towards the beginning of this epic film, we see a far away mysterious figure loping into the lens and onto the screen on camelback, seeming to float on the Desert. Of course, it was none other than Lawrence himself, a military officer of the British Empire. That scene depicted one of the more important roles of the camel in Arab history—namely that of military defense or expansion.

The Importance of that “Splendid Beast”--the Camel--to the Arab World

From the film, Lawrence of Arabia–The march to Damascus on camelback during World War I

Even more importantly, in the 7th century AD, the camel was pivotal in the campaign to spread Islam across large stretches of Asia, Africa, and Europe. The camel not only served as the mount used by the Arab Bedouin to launch their campaign, but it was also their main herd animal and a major source of wealth and nourishment. Without the almighty camel, the story of the Arab world might have turned out quite differently.

Romanticizing the ‘Beast of Burden’ of the Desert

Desert and Bedouin life, based on the camel, have been romanticized by Western writers. This follows a pattern of what is called ‘Orientalism.’ This is an attitude that is seen as representing the Middle East in a patronizing, condescending manner that embodies a colonialist attitude. Lawrence of Arabia, the film, is guilty of this practice. The film shows dramatic, sweeping views of the desert and staged movements of a huge army of camel-riding Arabs led by Lawrence himself across that vista. Then, it adds exotic rhythms of heavy drumming accompanied by a majestic score with a hint of Arab musical tonality. With no small irony, Lawrence was credited with calling the camel, a “splendid beast.” Ironically, it is purported that he did not much like camels at all.

The Importance of that “Splendid Beast”--the Camel--to the Arab World

Dromedary or Arabian Camel–the “Splendid Beast”

How were camels used?

When the camel arrived on the stage of history is not certain. It is alluded to in the Hebrew Bible in the Book of Job and there is evidence of its presence in Pharaonic Egypt. Even in pre-Islamic times, the Arabs had domesticated the camel, allowing them to explore and control trade networks across Arabia to the Mediterranean. Eventually, with the help of the camel, the Arabs dominated vast expanses of the Middle East and North Africa. It offered them the opportunity also to reach China and southern Europe. The camel allowed large Arab armies to move across difficult terrain at great speed.

Two basic types of camel prevail. One, the dromedary or Arabian camel has one hump. The other, the Bactrian or Asian camel has two. Reflecting on the importance of the camel to Arabs, it has as many names for its stages of growth as we humans have for ours, from infancy to old age. In addition to the role of the camel in building the Arab Empire, it played an important part in the lives of the Arab Bedouin. Besides transport of warriors across large swaths of land in spreading Islam, the camel was critical in the daily lives of the Bedouin. Primarily it was a “beast of burden,” used as a pack animal to carry hundreds of pounds or kilos over many miles, sometimes going without water for several days. The camel provided many resources to its keepers: transport; meat and milk; skin for water buckets, sandals, and bags; sinew for making rope; wool for tent and rug-making; and dung for fueling campfires. It even provided some folk medicines.

Camels today are still raised for food, namely meat, and milk, though they are less important for transport in the face of more competitive cars and trucks. They are also used in tourism and for racing.

The Importance of that “Splendid Beast”--the Camel--to the Arab World

An Arab Bedouin camp–without the camel–would be impossible 

Nevertheless, the camel is still vaunted in Arab culture, by the hundreds of Arabic words referring to it. The camel was traditionally used in the Arab marriages, in which the groom gives the bride a gift—in this case, one or more camels—which goes to the bride to keep for herself. Different is the bride-price, also perhaps a camel, which would be given to the family of the bride. Perhaps more romantic is the wedding ceremony itself, in which the bride often arrives at the groom’s house mounted on a camel, both fancily decorated to reflect the joy of the occasion. Not a great favor to the poor beast of burden is that it is often slaughtered for sacrifice on ceremonial occasions. (I once had camel liver for lunch in the Sahara Desert, which, I wasn’t sure I’d ever say, but it was “very savory.”)

Westerners like the camel, too

Once the camel had proven its worth in the Middle East, westerners began to find value in this beast of burden. More innocuously, in the days of stagecoach delivery of the U.S. mail, the U.S. Congress appropriated funds to purchase camels from abroad to be dedicated to carry the mail across arid and mountainous lands to the West Coast. Less innocuously was the adoption of this beast of burden by the French in their attempt to control their colonial possessions in North Africa. Called the mehariste or camel corps, this section of the ‘Army of Africa’ was used especially to control the Berber Tuareg pastoral nomads who had dominated commercial and military activities in the Sahara for several centuries. During World War II, the Free French Camel Corps fought against German forces in North Africa.

 The Importance of that “Splendid Beast”--the Camel--to the Arab World

 Tuareg nomads of the Sahara once controlled much of that desert with the indispensable aid of the camel

The U.S. Army, for a short period, used the beast of burden in its Camel Corps in California in maintaining peace with American Indians in the period before the Civil War. This experiment didn’t last long, however, once the Civil War began. It was reported that the camels were left to just wander off into the desert to their apparent freedom.

The British mounted its own ‘Imperial Camel Corps’ for fighting in the Middle East during World War I. Mounted by infantrymen, the camels would charge across the desert. The infantry would then dismount and fight on foot. The Arabs had mastered the ability to fight while atop the camel, once an effective saddle had been designed, though it was nowhere as efficient as fighting on horseback. The British effort, except for that of Lawrence, was disbanded.

The Importance of that “Splendid Beast”--the Camel--to the Arab World

British Camel Corps in the Arab Middle East

 Some peculiarities of the camel

Camels are incredibly well-adapted to the desert. Its hump, its lips, and its eyes are precisely adjusted to the extreme heat, sandstorms and the scarcity of water. Because of these perfections, it is expected by some that the camel is designed by nature to be an all-around perfect specimen. That may indeed be the case, except when it comes to its interactions with humans. The camel is often described as bad-tempered, ornery, and dangerous and it can spit significant amounts of saliva. Its bite is ferocious and sometimes infectious. It is believed to carry grudges towards someone who’s angered it. I’ve ridden camels in Egypt (or they’ve ridden me) and found that I’d have to do a lot more training to feel comfortable with them.

Today, in wealthy Arab countries, this “ship of the desert” has become the object of racing. In the Gulf countries, camels are bred specifically to race competitively. often costing a few-several million dollars.

The Importance of that “Splendid Beast”--the Camel--to the Arab World

 Camel racing in the Gulf has become popular

There, camels race in winter and are selected from a breed of non-milk producing types. Often children were used as jockeys, which has now been outlawed.

The “dear” camel in the Gulf has come so far and now may be in a downward spiral, given that it is now served in restaurants as a prime burger. Especially with young camels, the cut comes from its hump, whose greater amount of fat provides more flavor for this Emirati burger. On the high end, camel milk is mixed with oils in making a popular soap and lip balm. Fresh camel milk is also sold in upscale markets in the Gulf.

So, we see the camel has had a glorious past, given its place in the expansion of Arab culture and Islam across a significant swath of the eastern hemisphere. Biologically adapted to one of the harshest climates on earth, the desert, the camel for centuries allowed humans to exploit the large deserts of Africa and Asia for all kinds of purposes. For better or worse, developments in those spaces couldn’t have been possible without the camel. How it’s fared in present times is not so glorious. Nevertheless, the camel continues to support desert and other dryland populations. If you happen to see one, thank her or him. Just don’t get within “spitting distance.“ Stay dry.



John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and society, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.