A few weeks ago, or perhaps a few months ago, or at least recently enough that it has stayed in my head, one of the Marginalia asked me about camels.
The short answer is simple: read Richard W. Bulliet’s The Camel and the Wheel. It’s a charming and well-illustrated book that explores the question of why the wheel virtually disappeared in the Middle East sometime between ancient Assyria, when chariots were the hottest military technology around, and the rise of Islam in the seventh century CE. He attributes it to the domestication of the camel, which he argues was a superior mode of transport in desert conditions.
Written long before micro-history became trendy, The Camel and the Wheel is an example of micro-history at its best: using a specific object to illuminate a broad swathe of the human past. Bulliet considers not only the relationship (rivalry?) between pack camels and wheeled vehicles drawn by oxen or horses, but also the complex relationships between the nomadic tribes that historically bred camels and the sedentary peoples with whom they interacted. He discusses the history of camel domestication, the broader question of the process of domesticating a species, the nature of roads and the cultures who build them, trade routes and import duties, the use of camels as draft animals, and the technology of saddles and harnesses. Perhaps my favorite chapter is that one that deals with European and American attempts to use camels in other parts of the world.*
Bulliet sums up the camel as “900 pounds of muscle, hauteur, and, for those who can appreciate it, grace.” He leaves out the nasty habit of spitting.
*As I’ve said many times, I’m interested in the times and places where two cultures meet and change each other.