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The Camel - the critical Pillar of Bedouin Life

“To the Bedouin, grazing for his camel is life and soul; he will, and daily does, risk death to secure it.”               Glubb Pasha


“The world was full of camels, the great herds of the Anazeh. After we had crossed the Hauran valley and were out again on the huge levels, they drifted across our path in thousands, grazing. It was like some immense slow river, hours wide. I love to see them. From time to time their herdsmen walked or rode by us for half an hour, and heard our news.“                         Gertrude Bell, 20 April 1914

The camel, exactly the dromedary, is called a miracle of nature by Wernery, a veterinarian specialized on camel. They have various adaptations for existence in a desert habitat. Bushy eyebrows and two rows of long eyelashes protect their eyes, and they can close their nostrils to face sandstorms. Their ears are also lined with protective hair. A camel can last a week or more without water. It can drink up to 46 liters of water at one time. When deprived from water they can fluctuate their body temperature by 6 degrees C, changing from morning minimum of 34 to a maximum of 40 in the afternoon. Thereby heat flow and water loss through perspiration is minimized. Their kidneys are specialized to tolerate water loss of more than 30 % of their body mass compared to a fatal loss of 15 % in most other mammals. It stores fat in the hump and this can be metabolized for energy allowing it to live several months without food. The feet of camels are wide and huge, allowing it to walk on sand more easily. The lips are thick and it can therefore eat thorny or prickly desert plants. The camel is a ruminant, enabling it to live on a meager diet. It can make use of the little water it can proceed from the plants it eats. Its dung is almost completely dry, and was therefore also used as burning material. Today about 13 million domesticated dromedaries live in the Middle East, Horn of Africa, North Africa, South Asia, and also in Australia, where it was imported.


In his book „The Bedouin and the Desert“, Jabbur calls the camel one of the three pillars of Bedouin life critical to nomadism in the Arabian peninsula. There were many names for the camel depending on sex, age and use. The Arabic generic word is ibl/ibil. One camel is jimal / gemal, but also ba´ir and bel. Naqa/naga/naka (pl. nijag/ nijak) is an adult she-camel that foals in winter, dhalul /dulul /delul is a riding camel. Asil camels were called horr, others `azi. A stud camel is called hedude / hadud. A she-camel during her suckling time is called halfa. A young calf is named hwar (pl. hiran) (Musil, Jabbur). It is born after a pregnancy of over twelve months to 15 months in late winter, i.e. February or March and is nurtured for about two years. Mating usually is done in winter, overlapping the rainy season. Camels make many different sounds to communicate to each other



When and where domestication of the camel occurred was a question not agreed upon by scientists for a long time, but as of today scholars give as the likely site of domestication the coastal settlements along the southern Arabian peninsula somewhere between 3,000 and 2,500 BC. Grigson reported in 1989 of the oldest known camelid bone direct-dated to ca 7,100-7,200 BC from Sihi, a Neolythic coastal site in the oldest known camelid bone direct-dated to ca 7,100-7,200 BC from Sihi, a Neolythic coastal site in Yemen, and the bone is probably a wild dromedary, as it is about 4,000 years earlier than the site itself. Dromedaries have also been identified at sites in southeastern Arabia beginning between 5,000-6,000 years ago (Kirst). Oppenheim discovered a picture of a ridden camel at Tell Halaf in Iraq, which he dated back to 3,000 to 2,900 BC, but that is no more agreed by scientists of today. On the other hand camels are never mentioned in the Assyrian texts, amounting to tens of thousands of letters and economic narratives dating from 1,000 and 1,200 BC. Liverani in a timetable of technological progress in the Ancient Near East gives 1,500 to 1,000 BC for the first use of dromedaries, about 500 years later as the introduction of horses, referring only to the northern parts of Arabia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Levant area.


The oldest written report is found in the Old Testament in the story on Abraham (Genesis 12:16), but also in the stories on Isaac and Jacob, and Joseph (around 2,000 BC), as has already been discussed in the history section. Later it appears in Old Testament war narratives about the Midianites, Amalekites, and the people of the East, who attacked the Israelites in such great numbers that their camels were beyond counting. Also the camel is mentioned with the queen of Sheba and Salomon, as well in the book of Job, who owned 3,000 of them before and 6,000 after the catastrophe of his life. More on this was discussed in the above section Bedouin History. Around 1,000 BC a method of saddling had been developed to transport large loads. With the camel the Arabs could now benefit from some of the trade that had previously circumvented Arabia. Increased trans-Arabian trade had important results: The rise of cities that could service the trains of camels marching across the desert. The most prosperous of these - Petra in Jordan and Palmyra in Syria, were relatively close to markets in the Mediterranean region, but smaller caravan cities developed within the Arab peninsula as well. The most important of these was Mecca, which also owed its prosperity to certain shrines in the area visited by Arabs from all over the peninsula (Library of Congress Country Study, 1992).


Bedouin life was also greatly influenced by camel domestication. Jabbur claims that “the camel became inseparable from the Bedouin Arab, or, more appropriately, we should say that from remote antiquity the Bedouin was inseparable from the camel. The barren deserts of Arabia are like a sea, which cannot be crossed without a vessel, the camel, and long ago the Arab poet Dhu l-Rumma called his she-camel safinat al-barr, the land-ship. Without camel the Bedouin society of Arabia would not have been possible. It carried the Bedouin, his family, his tent,” and whatever he possessed. “The camel can tolerate thirst for a long time, and is content with tough thorny shrubs as food, that it easily endures life in the desert. It is satisfied with little water compared with other animals of similar size. Its wide padded feet and slim long legs make it an easy traveler on the soft sandy or calcic soil. Its lips covered with tough stiff hair, permits it to nose through thorny plants and root them out or break them off, while its mouth is specially adapted to chewing and ruminating them.The camel was the progenitor of the genuine pure nomadism and the reason for its continued survival. Deprived of it, Bedouin life would have faded into oblivion. The Bedouin had become a parasite of the camel: he lived on the milk, and indeed, sometimes did not find anything to live on except for this milk” (Jabbur).


„The undulating flint covered country was scattered over with the naga herds of the Jebbur and the Sukhur - I love to see them. The nagas are just beginning to calve and every herd has a few of the preposterous baby camels, all leg and neck and nothing else.” Gertrude Bell


The camel was the heart of Bedouin economy, it was the essential source of wealth for the Arab nomads. Until the 1920´s the monetary worth of everything in the desert was established in terms of this unit - the value of a camel. The diya, the wergild or restitution paid for someone who had been killed or wounded, was paid in numbers of camels, as it had already been in pre-Islamic times. Also the mahr, the dowry given to the bride, was paid in a fixed number of camels, depending on the social status of the bride and her family. The camel-raising tribes assessed their fortune and wealth by how many camels (halal, literally “lawful possessions”) someone owned (Jabbur). Camels were marked by wasm, signs of ownership, which were burnt into the skin. They could be found on many different locations on the camels, according to the tribe: on the jaw, between ear and eye, on the neck, on the thigh or shoulder (Oppenheim). When frontiers were established and the annual migrations were thus limited, two serious problems aroused for the large camel herds: In the colder and rainy winters in Syria or Iraq (with degrees below Bedouin society freezing point and strong winds from the north) the loss of the newborn camels from the naga increased significantly compared to the times of the winter wanderings south into warmer regions. And secondly at the same time pasturage became a limiting factor. The tribes first stuck to the camel, as Bedouins like them and don´t much like sheep. And also because camels were regarded as a factor of independence and as an insurance policy, as they can live on a meager diet and withstand the dry season. Furthermore by owning camels the Bedouins hoped to maintain their identity (Lancaster). But the time of the economic importance of the camel had come to an end, enhanced by serious draughts in the 1950´s. At the same time the Bedouin had lost their interest in breeding horses for two reasons: the cessation of raiding and the high costs of grain that is necessary to feed them in addition to pasturage (Jabbur). 

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There are two types of the Arab camel, the common camel raised for meat and to carry loads (´azi ), and the pure-blooded thoroughbred camel (horr). The predominant color of both types is amber brown, but there are also many white camels (called maghatir by the Rwala,and in high esteem although not useful for raids as the white can be seen from afar). It was common practice among Bedouins to call their camels according to their color: black (malha´), light brown (hamra´), gray (shaba´), pure white (wadha´), white with black hairs (zarqa´), smoke-colored (dakhna´), dark (ghabsha´), white (bayda´), and white with pinkish tinge (shaqa´). Or they named their camels according to their qualities, thus saying ´ajla (the fast one), ´awja (the curving one), tayyaha (the wanderer), sharha (the voracious one), ´alya (the tall one), jarida (the bald one), etc. (Jabbur). Lawrence of Arabia described in his “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” a thoroughbred she-camel, Ghazala, that was presented to him by Sherif Nasir, cousin of Emir Faisal. It had been Nasir´s personal mount. " Nasir led us, riding his Ghazala - a camel vaulted and huge-ribbed as an antique ship; towering a good foot above the next of our animals, and yet perfectly proportioned, with a stride like an ostrich´s - a lyrical beast, noblest and best bred of the Howeitat camels, a female of nine remembered dams." Ghazala was famous in the whole desert and although she was in foal did better cope with the murderous conditions of desert war than most other camels. She gave later birth to a foal that died a short time after foaling. The thoroughbred camels distinguished itself from the common camel by its noble pedigree and its descent from well-known distinguished blood lines and from well-known regions. Such camels were bred simultaneously by most of the Bedouin tribes. These she-camels were often called hujun and mahari, and in the singular one was also called dhalul. The most famous camel were the ´umaniya (from Oman), the qatariya (from Qatar) and the mahriya (from Mahra in southern Arabia, the mahari thoroughbreds, from which the French took the term meharistes, in the sense troops mounted on camels). Other thoroughbred strains were called the sharariya, htaymiya and tihiya (referring to the tribes of al-Shararat, Htaym and Tiyaha) (Jabbur, Musil). 

Pasturing of Camels (in the example of the Rwala as recorded by Musil)

The camels pastured in either small or large herds. Those herds are called hesle (pl. hsel) if less than ten heads, and ra´ijje (pl. ra´aja) or katia (pl. kat´an) if larger. Seventy or eighty camels were known as zowd. A little herd owned by a small family was called dwejd (Musil). Each herd had its own herdsman, ra´i al-bel, who was hired for ten months and was paid according to the seize of the herd. It was also his duty to help with loading and unloading and bring all the needed water. The herdsman addressed his employer as his host, mu´azzeb. Many herdsmen enjoyed great esteem, and the hosts undertook nothing without asking their advice. The daily routine of the herds and their herdsmen: While the ra´i al-bel got a warm breakfast, the herd grazed near by, watched by the host himself, or by his son(s) or daughter(s). Having breakfasted, the herdsman stuck a piece of bread or a handful of boiled wheat into his clothing, threw a pouch filled with water over his shoulder, took a heavy staff, madrub, mounts the leading she-camel, ka´ada, and begins to praise the pasture in short sentences, which he intoned in a drawling manner. On hearing his voice, the animals ceased grazing and followed his lead. Having thus all the animals of his herd before him, the herdsman drove them to the pasture, jesrah (or jefalli) bel-ba´rin jamm al-mafla`. The animals usually formed a single line (mgowdalat), keeping the path trodden by camels for centuries. Only very seldom in a level plain with grass in fresh, they moved side by side (mufarsat). On the pasture grounds the she-camels grazed together. The herdsman sat down in some higher places the better to overlook his herd. He sings, carves something, or seeks edible plants and bulbs. About noon, when the heat is at its highest, the camels left off grazing and knelt down to chew their cuds till two or three o´clock. Then they rose again to graze until supper time. The herdsman turned them in the direction of the camp and drives them back, reaching the tent at sunset. At that time all the youths and slaves rode out from the camp, on horseback and in small groups, zerfat, to protect the returning herds from a possible attack. 


The satiated she-camels moved very slowly, stopping every little while. The herdsman mounted the leading camel, ka´ada, and rode at the head of his herd, urging it to greater speed with a short drawling song, jesaje`. The ditty sung to keep the returning herd together was called mesja. Every herdsman had a song of his own, which differed from others in the words as well as in the cadences and the length of the syllables. Were it not for this singing, the camels of the same herd would not keep together, but would have been lost among the thousands of animals returning home after sunset. On arriving at the tent, the herdsman remained sitting on his she she-camel, which he halted and kept on singing the mesja while he waited for the whole herd to come in. Then he dismounted and fettered the animals by binding the left front leg above the knee. After eating his supper, he laid down among his herd, so as to watch it at night also. Next morning, before sunrise, he untied the cords of the camels, counted them and gave them back to his host. The milking of the she-camels was done by the owner and his family , or a slave or a servant. After the milking they were driven a short distance from the tent, where they grazed till the dew had evaporated and the herdsman would take them out again.


The watering of the camels depended on several factors of the pasturing ground and plants and also on the season of the year. When grazing on the salt hamz plants exclusively they had to be given water after four or five days. If their food consisted of dry plants, tenn, they could endure from six to fifteen days. In the time of rabi, when they ate nothing but fresh, juicy grasses, they would not touch water for even as long as thirty days. In the hot season, al-kez, when the Bedouins encamped in the settled territories, the herds were driven to the watering places every day (Musil). The watering was done either at the wells or at rain pools. Watering could cause the herdsmen much labor, as some wells were very deep or had to be cleaned from mud and sand or even dug anew. As the camels generally drop their excrements while drinking, the places of watering or the rain pools itself became soon defiled beyond measure. Musil records a wealth of little songs that were sung when watering the camels. 

Photo Matson Collection

Many camels got lost. Musil tells us, that those did not find their way back, as they were only accustomed to follow the leading she-camel. Often the lost camel joined another herd, followed it back to the camp, moaned when it did not hear the familiar voice of the herdsman and moved towards him as soon as his ditty caught its ear. Lost camels were hunted by the owner and his friends on horseback the same evening. If it was not found, they returned the next day before noon and saddled their camels to search again. A stray or lost camel was called daheba, the man who lost her, medheb. Young camels were constantly in danger from many beasts of prey, mainly wolves. The camel was ridden by the Bedouins on lengthy marches. Indeed such marches were always made on camels, never on horses. The she-camel was more enduring than the male, persisting longer without abundant pasture and water and not weakening even in the rutting time, whereas the males in the month of February were exhausted to such a degree that some could not rise from the ground. The most highly valued were those riding she-camels which could eat their fill while on the march without stopping or deviating from their course. Such an animal was called hanic. Hedijje was the term for a she-camel which grazed near his resting rider and would not go far enough to lose sight of him. On the other hand Musil also gives three bad habits, called dumijje (guilty of death), because the camel might cause her riders´s death: ´atuk, refusing to be guided by either heel, stick or rein; `agla´, when on the march running form plant to plant smelling but not eating any; and finally the habit of kneeling suddenly and throwing off her rider (hallaja). The purchaser of such a female riding camel in which one of these habits was found within twenty days, could return her, and his money had to be repaid in full. It would lead too far to name all the words connected with the camel and its use in the desert. But some sentences should be added on the camel´s character, as there is widespread prejudice.

Palgrave for example wrote a paragraph on the dromedary in his travel accounts of 1862-63: “I have, while in England, heard and read more than once of the “docile camel”. If “docile” means stupid, well and good; in such a chase the camel is the very model of docility. But if the epithet is intended to designate an animal that takes an interest in its rider so far as a beast can, that in some ways understands his intentions or shares them in an subordinate fashion, that obeys from a sort of submissive or half fellow-feeling with his master, like the horse or the elephant, then I say that the camel is by no means docile, very much the contrary; he takes no heed of his rider, pays no attention whether he be on his back or not, walks straight on when once set a going, merely because he is too stupid to turn aside; and then, should some tempting thorn or green branch allure him out of the path, continues to walk on in this new direction simply because he is too dull to turn back into the right road. His only care is to cross as much pasture as he conveniently can while pacing mechanically onwards; and for effecting this his long flexible neck sets him at great advantage, and a hard blow or a downright kick alone has any influence on him wether to direct or impel. He will never attempt to throw you off his back, such a trick being far beyond his limited comprehension; but if you fall off, he will never dream of stopping for you, and walks on just  the same, grazing while he goes, without knowing or caring an atom what has become of you. If turned loose, it is a thousand to one that he will ever find his way back to his accustomed home or pasture, and the first comer who picks him up will have no particular shyness to get over; Jack and Tom are all the same to him, and the loss of his old master and of his own kith and kin gives him no regret and occasions no endeavour to find them again. One only symptom will he give that he is aware of his rider, and that is when the latter is about to mount him, for on such occasion, instead of addressing him in the style of Balaam´s more intelligent beast, “Am not I thy camel upon which you have ridden ever since I was thine, unto this day?” He will bend back his long snaky neck towards his master, open his enormous jaws to bite if he dared, and roar out a tremendous sort of groan, as if to complain of some entirely new and unparalleled injustice about to be done him. In a word, he is from first to last an undomesticated and savage animal, rendered serviceable by stupidity alone, without much skill on his master´s part or any co-operation on his own, save that of an extreme passiveness…. .”


Who ever had the chance to see a well-trained riding camel, will disapprove this above statement. The author could watch a camel in the height of Akaba`s traffic on a holiday evening being guided by his Arabic rider with no more than using his weight and his stick in a most sophisticated and subtle way, so that one could only admire. Thesiger observed the close attachment of a camel to her master and compared it with a dog: “At intervals throughout the night she came over, moaning softly, to sniff at him where he lay, before going back to graze.” Barker (cited from Irving), author of the book “Camels and the Outback,” states: “They are the most intelligent creatures I know except for dogs and I would give them an IQ rating roughly equivalent to eight-year-old children. They are affectionate, cheeky, playful, witty, yes witty, well possessed, patient, hard-working and endlessly interesting and charming. They are also very difficult to train, being of an essentially un-domestic turn of mind as well as extremely bright and perceptive. This is why they have such a bad reputation. If handled badly they can be quite dangerous and recalcitrant.”

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