History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 3: Geography and Inequality (part 2)


The following are my notes from the lecture that was given by Prof. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University on January 17, 2009.    In this section of the lecture, he talks about the domesticated animals of the Middle East–camels, donkeys, and horses.   I have noted those sections of the lecture, which is available on iTunes, where the class laughed at some remark of Prof. Bulliet.

3. Domesticated animals of the Middle East—camels, donkeys, horses

I’m sure this physical description of the deserts may not be of much help in visualizing it.   What may be of more significance to you than the geography is the demography of the desert, who lives there and why.

The deserts are areas with low population density and the populations that do exist there are for the most part pastoral nomads. The type of pastoralism that they follow varies according to where the desert is, particularly in terms of latitude. People who are living in northern deserts live differently and herd different animals than people who are living in southern deserts.

In southern deserts–the Sahara and Arabian deserts, and up into Syria and Iraq–you have hot-weather animals because we are dealing with an area between 15 and 30 degrees North latitude. This is a very hot region. Hot-weather animals are primarily camels and donkeys. One-hump camels are native to the Arabian Desert. In prehistoric times there were camels also in the Sahara but they seem to have become extinct long before the modern camel population arrived. Donkeys are native to the Sahara with a related species of donkey that is native to the Arabian desert called an onager which has largely died out. It is known technically as a half-ass (laughter), as opposed to the Nubian wild ass which is a full-fledged ass (laughter), which is the one from the Sahara. As you go north, and you get up to where it is much colder, you again have a couple of species of half-ass that are larger and more durable to the cold than the asses of the Sahara or the half-asses from the Arabian desert.

These are animals that are adapted to life in extremely torrid conditions and Prof. Bulliet says that at the drop of a hat he can a three-hour lecture on the physical adaptations of camels to torrid conditions. He has also written about that for a book called The Camel and the Wheel summarizing the fascinating research that has been done on the subject.

He says he will exercise restraint and not give that three-hour lecture at this time (laughter).

Principally, you have two-humped camels that are the native species of the Gobi desert in Mongolia. What is the difference between the one-humped camel and the two-humped camel? Yes, it’s the number of humps (laughter), but more than that, the one-humped camel is adapted to torrid, extraordinarily dry conditions. The two-humped camel is adapted to extremely sparse vegetation and to extremely cold temperatures, so it has very, very long and thick hair.

In the old caravan days across central Asia, the caravans moved primarily during the winter months when you had snow cover everywhere. The two-humped camel was an ideal animal because you had no problem with water, because you had snow that it could eat. And you had no problem with food, because the camel simply starved for three or four months, and utilized the fat that was stored in their two humps. By the end of the winter, their two humps were like empty bags and they had a floppy hump which was an extremely physically unappealing condition. It’s less noticeable in the winter because the hump is covered with long hair. In the spring, all the hair fell off, and they looked like scalded pigs (laughter).

The caravans, as they came to the end of their season in the spring, would have one man following them with a huge sack, and he would be picking up great clumps of camel hair as they fell off or got snagged on bushes and putting them in the sack. At the end of the caravan, then, that camel hair would be sold in the international market. So camel hair came primarily from two-humped camels, because one-humped camels don’t really have all that much hair. Camel hair in the twentieth century became extremely important because it had elastic properties that made it the ideal hair for making industrial belting or transmission belts.

Not in the deserts, but north of them, you have a zone that runs from Mongolia north of the Aral Sea, north of the Caspian Sea, north of the Black Sea, as far as Hungary. That is the known as the steppeland of Central Asia. The steppe is grassland that is pretty much continuous in this northern belt, say 50 degrees North latitude. It’s a little bit like prairie, although the American prairie is long-grass prairie, where the grass would be five feet high. Steppe land is short-grass prairie, where the native grass species were somewhat shorter, and easier to move about among. Short-grass prairie would be closer to what you have in eastern Colorado, whereas long-grass prairie would be closer to what you have in Iowa and Illinois.

The access to vegetation in deserts is obviously a great problem because there isn’t much vegetation. Therefore you either graze where the vegetation is or you use animals that can cover a lot of distance on very sparse vegetation. That makes the camel an ideal desert animal. It can live for months without eating; it can live for weeks without drinking or in the spring season indefinitely without drinking. It can cover large areas. It’s very distinctive: if you look at a one-hump camel compared with a two-hump camel, the one-hump camel has much longer legs and thus covers more territory. The longer the leg, the more territory you cover in a given stride. You have denser vegetation in the two-hump camel area than you have in the one-hump camel area. To make this possible, you have to make sure that when you move your hind foot forward you don’t kick yourself in the ankle. The camel becomes like the giraffe the only species that moves both feet on the side at the same time. When you ride a horse, you tend to go forward and back, but when you ride a camel you tend to go from left side to right side.

When it picks up the two feet on the one side, if it doesn’t put them down again, it tips over (laughter). Prof. Bulliet pointed this out to the class once, and someone asked, “if they picked them up, why don’t they fall over?” He felt constrained to point out to the student that humans have this same problem.  If we pick one up one of our feet and we don’t put it down again, we may fall over as well (laughter).

In the next part of the lecture, Prof. Bulliet talks about theories relating the impact that these domesticated animals have on the organization of society in the Middle East.

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