Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Arab Camel |
Ill-tempered and indispensable

Arab Camel is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 28, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The camel provides the desert nomad with wealth, transport, food, fuel, and clothing, all in an irascible package that can go as long as seventeen days without water

Arab Camel - Ill-tempered and indispensable

Arab Camel - Ill-tempered and indispensable
Notoriously ill-tempered and unsociable (above), the camel became the key to trade and transportation across the deserts of Arabia–and a source of wealth, food, drink, and even hair tonic for the peninsula’s inhabitants. It was the humble camel, not the highly prized Arabian horse, that provided the basic mobility of the Muslim armies at the time of Muhammad–as in this rare depiction of a camel-mounted Islamic warrior (above) from the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Among the modern Bedouin the unlovable beast continues to play its traditional, central role in everyday life.

The Bedouin conquest of the desert, and for that matter much of the adjacent world, was made possible by the arrival on the Arabian Peninsula about 1100 b.c. of one of nature’s most amazing creatures: the camel. Two hundred years later, when the Arabs were already making formidable military use of this creature against the Assyrians, the camel had also enabled them to launch themselves in the trans-desert cartage business, and they had become zealous camel breeders.

Small wonder. The camel’s back provided the Arab with his means of transport. Its milk quenched his thirst, and its flesh his appetite. Its droppings fueled his cook fire, and its skin clothed his back. Its urine made, it was widely agreed, an excellent hair tonic, and had other medicinal qualities. Finally, it gave him a medium of exchange. Estates, dowries, gambling debts, fines and compensations were usually calculated in camels, and the number of his camels expressed a man’s worth. The noted nineteenth-century desert traveler Charles Montagu Doughty, apparently an early nutritional theorist, concluded it was camel milk that gave the Bedouin his vigorous spirit. What his first drink of it gave Doughty himself was a stomach cramp.

A camel caravan moved at two-and-a-third to three miles an hour, and made twenty-five to thirty miles in a night. The average load was three hundred pounds per animal, though four hundred was common and six hundred was known. Express camels, working in relays and carrying only mail early in the twentieth century, regularly covered the four hundred miles between Basra, Iraq, and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia in three days.

The Encyclopedia of Islam notes that a camel can go seventeen days without water in hundred-degree heat, then drink thirty gallons at a time. It can tolerate eleven Fahrenheit degrees above its body temperature without sweating. The female will persist longer than the male without pasture or water; in fact, during the mating season, the males are easily exhausted.

After long, tiring journeys, camels need several months rest, the Bedouin found. On spring pasture, they will go two months without water, deriving moisture from vegetation, and in winter, they can pass a full week waterless without discomfort, even shunning water when they’ve been without it for four days. When on a long pasture, the Arabs sometimes bind a camel’s jaws so it can’t overeat, because excessive fat causes the hump to break down, resulting in the animal’s death. (Arabian camels are one-humped; the two-humped animal, known as the Bactrian, is found in central Asia.)

On the road, the camel will eat shrubs and bushes that even goats won’t touch, and its diet is enriched with crushed date stones. Lady Anne Blunt speaks of camels at Damascus being fed something called aliek, a compound of peas and lentils mixed with flour and water and kneaded into egg-shaped balls, six of which constitutes its daily ration. Camels, she noticed, were also especially fond of garbage, which in the city was everywhere abundant.

The camel’s bridle consists of a single woollen rope attached by a short chain to a ring in its headstall, which in turn consists of two leather thongs, one around its nose, another passing behind its ears. A rope running from the neck to the leg is used to hobble the animal during stops. Each Bedouin herdsman develops his own song to call his camels when they have joined others at a waterhole, because they tend to become lost in crowds.

They can nevertheless prove highly individualistic, and Lady Anne recalls one as especially single-minded: “He is an artful old wretch, and chose his moment for wandering off whenever we were looking the other way, and wherever a bit of uneven ground favored his escape. Once or twice, he very nearly gave us the slip. He wants to get back to his family, for we bought him out of a herd where he was lord and master, a sultan among camels.”

Gradually, the Arabs developed individual breeds of camels. There were heavy transport animals for the desert caravans, which were changed for sure-footed mountain camels when the caravans passed through the high country. There were fast racing camels used in warfare that could travel 120 miles a day carrying a soldier. The camels of Mecca were smaller and faster. Oman developed a midget camel. South Arabia tended to favor black camels, much despised in the north as ill-behaved and sometimes downright vicious. The northern camels were usually dun-colored. But all prized the occasional pure white she-camel, ridden by the clan chief, perhaps dangerously, since it was highly conspicuous in a raid.

Some six centuries after the camel, another animal appeared in the peninsula that would one day give the Arabs greater international renown than the camel. That was the horse, which the Arabs skillfully bred into the small, fast, intelligent, durable and devoted companion of its owner, which became the world’s first recognized breed and bears the proud name Arabian.1 When the transportation capability of the camel was combined with the speed of the Arabian horse, the Bedouin became a fearsome enemy and a powerful ally.

But the horse was a luxury, and unlike the camel, it played no decisive part in the Arab onslaught that was about to descend upon the world. The Arabs, gratefully aware that they owed their very existence to the desert-crossing animal with the hump, rejoiced to call themselves “the People of the Camel.” n

1. All thoroughbreds are descended from three Arabian stallions: the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian, or the Godolphin Barb. They were all imported to England between 1689 and 1729. A son of the Darley Arabian, Bulle Rock, was brought to Virginia in 1730, the first thoroughbred in America.

This is the end of the Arab Camel category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 28, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Arab Camel from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at