Surprisingly few studies have focused on the technologies that harness the labor potential of the camel from Asia to the Arabian Peninsula to West Africa. Not surprisingly, surveys of this kind are not always of much interest to many camel herders and drivers themselves.
“This is the way my father and grandfather did it,” says Adel Hamza, 55, who has offered camel rides to tourists at Egypt’s pyramids since he was a boy.
“We’re too busy working to study why something is the way it is,” says Mohammed Abd Elhay, a veterinarian in Cairo who has worked with camels.
Richard Bulliet, in his 1975 book, The Camel and the Wheel, points out that the first camel saddle was likely a blanket or an arrangement of mats, across which the weight of an equalized load on left and right could be placed.
The dromedary (one-humped) camel allows a rider to sit in front of, on top of, or behind the hump; the Bactrian (two-humped) camel is saddled between humps. It is not surprising, then, that camel saddles vary as much as the cultures that make them and the work the camels do, as well as the resources available for fabrication. Generally, in regions where wood is plentiful, one finds larger contraptions; in less resource-rich areas, designs tend to be minimalist.
One such wood-scarce region is the Horn of Africa, where the simplicity of saddlery hints at its beginnings: Here saddles are for carrying, not riding. Two pairs of poles, made from tree branches and placed over blankets, hides or grass mats, cross over and rest upon the camel’s hips and shoulders and meet on either side along the lower abdomen. According to former herdsman Abdulkarim Adhan, “Nomads have no time for decorating those sticks! Most important is that it can serve its purpose.”
East across the Red Sea, the South Arabian camel saddle evolved with the overland incense trade, and it still finds utility throughout parts of the Arabian Peninsula. This saddle places the rider behind the hump. It employs a U-shaped pad, called mahawi
in Arabic, that provides cushion, back support and a restraint to prevent the rider from sliding off. Often decorated with geometric patterns, the mahawi is secured around the camel’s flank by a woven strip of goat hair called a kfal
. This in turn is tied at the front to a single- or double-arched harness often made from acacia trees. According to Hamood al-Wahiba, a Bedouin camel herder from Oman, this allows for both riding and heavy packing using woolen bags hung on each side.
It was probably in Babylonia and Assyria that camel cultures first came into contact with horse cultures, and the horse’s superiority in warfare likely gave rise to the North Arabian saddle, which is situated on top of the hump—the best position from which to fight with spear and sword. This saddle is supported by a pair of wool or canvas pads, one on each side of the hump, stuffed with grass, palm fiber or straw that level the contours of the camel’s back. Centered and closer to the camel’s head, the rider gains control.
The frame for the North Arabian saddle is two upside-down, Y-shaped pieces made of tamarisk wood, tarfa
in Arabic—one in front of the hump and one behind—joined by two pieces on each side. The front and back poles of this saddle can extend up high enough to hang the rider’s belongings, in one or more handwoven and often beautifully dyed saddlebags called horj
Tassels on these bags hang below the belly of the camel and sway with the camel’s gait—a decorative motif that also deflects flies. A fringed leather leg-rest pad, or meerika
, stuffed with camel hair or wool, hangs from the front.
Fully bedecked, a camel carrying a Bedouin can be quite a sight. On a trek a few years ago, my Bedouin travel companion Saleh, 55, and I met a young man riding high on a camel fitted with tassels hanging from every possible place. The halter had an ornate knot of goat hair over the bridge of the nose, and the meerika was shiny and new. I asked Saleh why our camel lacked such accoutrement. He replied, “I am old and married. He’s still young and looking for a wife!”
In central North Africa, the Tuareg tirik
is one of only a couple of camel saddle styles that utilize the camel’s shoulder. Its origins are a response to the need for maximum rider control, and it seats the rider forward of the hump, as near as possible to the camel’s head.
“Specialized craftsmen take three to four months combining wood and leather to create each saddle,” says Tuareg nomad Sidi Amar Taoua. Sometimes small copper bells hang from the saddle, and the varied artistic expressions give clues to region and tribe, he adds.
Looking eastward from Arabia, resources are comparatively plentiful in northwest India’s Rajasthan. Here the pilarn
is an ornate apparatus of wood and brass with three grass-filled leather pads, one on either side of the shoulders and one behind the hump. On either side of the body, high along the rib cages, sit twin wooden runners, connected by three wooden arches over the front, middle and rear of the camel’s back. Where each piece meets is brass joinery, and the wood can be inlaid with brass, silver or stainless steel. Colorful fabric, embroidered with floral or animal motifs, is often laid over the entire saddle. This saddle can thus accommodate two passengers, one in front of the hump and the other behind. (The Indian romantic tale of Mahendra and Mumal is often accompanied by images of the couple thus seated.)
In Central Asia the two-humped Bactrian camel offers its own logic. Most commonly, a piece of fabric sits between the humps, over a pad or blanket, with two connected “fenders” hanging down each side, complete with stirrups. Ornamentation is mostly embroidery in traditional motifs.
For packing on Bactrians, gear is tied to wooden poles, one on each side that rests on rectangular wool pads stuffed with straw.
These technologies are far from all. As the roles of camel cultures diminish worldwide, the art and engineering of camel saddlery offers windows into the history of cultures that bear a deeper gaze.