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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Strange but Useful Beast

Entry into Aqaba during the Arab Revolt, 1917. T.E. Lawrence [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

I first rode a camel exactly fifty years ago this July. The last time I rode a camel was… exactly fifty years ago this July. I found the experience interesting, but my desire to undergo it ended the minute I dismounted. The experience did however resolve for me the question of where the phrase "ship of the desert" originated. If I am going to be seasick I might as well be so at sea. But I do admit that the camel is undeniably a remarkable creature, and is often unfairly maligned, probably mainly because it is one of God's less elegant creations. But for those living in or on the edge of the desert, its usefulness far outweighs whatever shortcomings it might have in the department of comeliness.

As they acclimatised to life in the Levant, Western settlers in the crusader states came to recognise and value this creature. The dromedary or Arabian camel (Camelus dromedarius) is the variety that typically inhabits the Levant, but the two-humped Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) appears to have been present as well. It appears illustrated as a beast of burden in different versions of Matthew Paris' map of Acre. transporting barrels or perhaps sugar canes outside the city, and in the chronicle recording Richard I's crusade there is reference to a caravan captured by the army which included a vast number of dromedaries and camels (presumably Bactrian camels).*

The camel had multiple uses. It was a valuable beast of burden, a source of energy (turning wheels in the flour and sugar mills and the antiliyah wheels that raised water out of wells). It was a means of transport, but was chiefly used as a pack animal, employed extensively in transporting the goods that arrived from Egypt and Syria, and, in the reverse direction those commodities that having arrived by ship in the ports of Acre and Tyre were then carried into the interior of the kingdom and the northern crusader states, or across the borders, north to Damascus and south through the Sinai desert to Cairo, Damietta and Alexandria. The camel`s usefulness as a pack animal is reflected in use of "camel load" as a term of measure. Purchases were made and recorded and taxes were rendered per camel load.

The Templars made great use of camels. In Jerusalem they were housed in their stables under the Temple Mount (Stabula Salomonis). According to the pilgrim John of Würzburg, there were some fifteen hundred of them along with two thousand horses.** These were almost certainly used mainly as pack animals, and as a military mount the camel was not suited to the Western knight. If it was at all employed as a military mount in the Frankish army it would have been only for occasional use by turcopoles (troops in the army that employed Muslim fighting techniques). The camel driver was an important profession, and his title, camelarius is a not uncommon surname, appearing in the lists of witnesses on various documents. However, in the military orders the camel driver's task was regarded as one of the most menial, and appears among the basest activities designated to new members.***

On occasion we hear of camels used in sport; the chronicle of Richard's crusade mentions racing camels.**** If they were in plentiful supply, young camels might even serve as a source of food. The large caravan captured by King Richard included 4,700 camels and dromedaries, the younger ones of which were eaten: "The troops happily ate the meat of the younger camels fried in lard; the flesh was white and quite palatable."***** A popular dish in parts of the Arab world, camel meat is said to taste somewhere between beef and lamb. But it is an acquired taste, as a former Somali chef discovered when he tried to get the residents of Minneapolis to show an interest in it. It took him four years and the realisation that it had to be served in Eastern style, as a kebab rather than as a hamburger (a camel dressed in cow's clothing) in order to catch on.******

* Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, trans. Helen J. Nicholson, Aldershot and Burlington, 1997, p. 343, 6.5.

** John of Würzburg, Description of the Holy Land, trans. Aubrey Stewart, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society vol 5, London, 1896, p. 21.

*** J.M. Upton-Ward (trans.), The Rule of the Templars, Woodbridge, 1992, p. 169, statute 662. **** Itinerarium Peregrinorum, p. 344, 6.5.

***** Ibid., p. 344, 6.6.


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My feelings about camel riding exactly! I've ridden horses since I was a child and have owned several over my lifetime. I'm an ardent (if not particularly accomplished) jumper, and love riding cross-country. Riding a camel -- perched precariously high above the beast's head -- was quite disorienting and did not give me a feeling of confidence and control as I am used to on horses. I got more used to it by the end of the hour's ride, but I had no desire to repeat it. It did make me appreciate camels a bit more, and, as you so rightly point out, they were important in the crusader kingdoms in the 12th and 13th centuries.

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