Camel Caravan, Morocco

Camel Caravan, Morocco

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Jemaa el-Fna is the most popular square in Morocco, and a great mixture of all things Moroccan. There are snake charmers, monkeys, henna tattooists, food stalls with delicious food, hundreds of people, live music and the entrance to the souk and its countless traditional shops. You really have to experience it for yourself to get the buzzing feel of this exciting place, and it’s totally worth it.

The Caravan Routes of Morocco

There is a much-photographed sign in Zagora, in the spectacular Draa Valley in Morocco. Beside the image of a blue-swaddled desert nomad is written: “TOMBOUCTOU 52 JOURS.” The journey is considerably quicker today, but if you go by camel, it probably still takes 52 days. Zagora is a popular starting point for trips on camel back into the Sahara Desert and this famous sign gives some indication of the significance of this area back in the mists of history.

Camel caravans (or – more accurately – dromedary caravans, as it is the one-humped version that is used in the Sahara) have existed since the 3rd century the last caravans were officially closed down during the French and Spanish Protectorates in 1933.

For centuries the camel trains were the main means of transportation of goods and people between North African ports and economic hubs (such as Marrakech and Fes), across the Sahara to sub-Saharan Africa and eventually the Levant. For example, the camels travelled from as far West as the Moroccan Atlantic Coast right across to Ethiopia and Sudan in East Africa. An important north-south trade was salt (from Morocco) with gold (from the then Ghana Empire). One of the key caravan routes connected Tifilalt in Morocco, one of the largest oases in the world Sijilmassa, an important salt mine Tindouf in the deep south of Algeria, and Timbuktu in Mali.

Map of Caravan Routes of Morocco

Cloth, manufactured items and paper were brought in from Europe. On the return leg, they carried gold, slaves, ivory and ostrich feathers as well as beads and shells for currency. On the way, the traders may have picked up silver, salt, dates or handicrafts for exchanging on route. Slaves flowed in both directions, but particularly northwards. It has been estimated that from the 10th- 19th century, as many as 7,000 slaves were transported northwards into Morocco.

The procession of the camel train was a carefully planned affair. In previous times, the Sahara fringes and the Sahel were greener than today and the camels would be fattened for a number of months on the plains before being rounded into a caravan. The famous 14th century Moroccan explorer, Ibn Battuta, describes the size of the camel trains: 1,000 camels but occasionally as large as 12,000.

The leaders of this solemn procession were well-paid Berbers and Touareg tribesmen who literally knew the desert like the back of their hands. Along with their camel herds, this knowledge was a valuable commodity. Furthermore, they had invested time in building the relationships and connections necessary to ensure safe passage of the valuable cargo. The routes changed according to these allegiances, the rise and fall of economic might of different towns and cities and – importantly – the existence of rivers and oases, many of which in the desert are ephemeral and unpredictable. Runners would sometimes be sent ahead to oases to bring water back to the caravan because of the difficulty of transporting the water necessary between sources. It was not unusual for them to travel 3-4 days in each direction to provide this service.

The peak of the caravan trade coincided with the boom in the fortunes of the Islamic rulers of the greater Maghreb and Al-Andalus region, from the 8th century until the late 16th century. These routes were even responsible for the spreading of Islam from North Africa into West Africa. The decline was caused by improvements in maritime transport by the European powers and the discovery of gold in the Americas. However, the link between, for example, the port of Mogador (modern day Essaouira) and Timbuktu was significant as late as the 19th century, when Jewish traders in both cities exchanged goods and slaves from sub-Saharan Africa with produce imported from Europe and further afield, such as gunpowder tea from China.

Today, some sections of the routes are passable. In fact, many of the unmade trails used today by all-terrain vehicles to traverse the desert are actually the remnant of the old camel routes. Modern political tensions have made many Saharan borders impassable to tourists and travellers. However, the local tribesmen still know the routes and still use ancient navigation techniques passed down through the generations. It’s unlikely they would let a modern construct such as a line on a map hinder their passage!


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Morocco, mountainous country of western North Africa that lies directly across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain.

The traditional domain of indigenous peoples now collectively known as Berbers (self-name Imazighen singular, Amazigh), Morocco has been subject to extensive migration and has long been the location of urban communities that were originally settled by peoples from outside the region. Controlled by Carthage from an early date, the region was later the westernmost province of the Roman Empire. Following the Arab conquest of the late 7th century ce , the broader area of North Africa came to be known as the Maghrib (Arabic: “the West”), and the majority of its people accepted Islam. Subsequent Moroccan kingdoms enjoyed political influence that extended beyond the coastal regions, and in the 11th century the first native Amazigh dynasty of North Africa, the Almoravids, gained control of an empire stretching from Andalusian (southern) Spain to parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Attempts by Europeans to establish permanent footholds in Morocco beginning in the late 15th century were largely repulsed, but the country later became the subject of Great Power politics in the 19th century. Morocco was made a French protectorate in 1912 but regained independence in 1956. Today it is the only monarchy in North Africa.

Although the country is rapidly modernizing and enjoys a rising standard of living, it retains much of its ancient architecture and even more of its traditional customs. Morocco’s largest city and major Atlantic Ocean port is Casablanca, an industrial and commercial centre. The capital, Rabat, lies a short distance to the north on the Atlantic coast. Other port cities include Tangier, on the Strait of Gibraltar, Agadir, on the Atlantic, and Al-Hoceïma, on the Mediterranean Sea. The city of Fès is said to have some of the finest souks, or open-air markets, in all of North Africa. Scenic and fertile, Morocco well merits the praise of a native son, the medieval traveler Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, who wrote that “it is the best of countries, for in it fruits are plentiful, and running water and nourishing food are never exhausted.”

Trip at a Glance:

per person (based on 2 people)

Premium 3 star accommodations in traditional riads and kasbahs

Day 1: Arrival to Marrakech

Day 2: Marrakech – Telouet – Ait Ben Haddou

Day 3: Ait Ben Haddou – Ouarzazate – Agdz

Day 4: Agdz – Rissani – Merzouga (Camel Trek)

Day 5: Merzouga – Tinghir – Dades

Day 6: Dades – Rose Valley – Marrakech

Day 7: Departure from Marrakech

  • Private 4×4 Transportation
  • English Speaking Driver/Guide
  • Guided Tour of Telouet
  • Guided Tour of Tinghir Palmeraie
  • All Entrance Fees
  • 6 Nights of Accommodation
  • 6 Breakfasts
  • 4 Dinners
  • Camel Trek
  • Overnight in Berber Tents

Optional guided tour of Marrakech available upon request.

Immerse yourself in the history and culture of Morocco as you follow the trail of the Old Salt Caravan from Marrakech through the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs to the great sand seas of the Sahara Desert. We won’t take you all the way to Timbuctu, but we will take you off the beaten tourist path in this tour.

NOTE: The itinerary below is a sample. As with all of our tours, this one is fully customizable based on your interests and arrival/departure city and extra days to explore can be added to the tour.

Day 1: Marrakech

Upon your arrival at the airport, your personal driver will greet you and transfer you to your riad in Marrakech for the night where you will have an opportunity to rest and recuperate from your travels. Depending on your time of arrival, you may wish to explore a little and your driver will be at your disposal should you need him. A local city guide can also be arranged.

Day 2: Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou
(Approximate Travel Time: 5 hours)
Meals included: Breakfast, Dinner

You and your driver will depart from your riad in Marrakech after breakfast to travel over the High Atlas Mountains via the Tizi n’Tichka path, reaching an altitude of nearly 7500 feet above sea level. There will be plenty of stops for tea and photographs as you take in the breathtaking vistas before turning off the main road onto the Old Salt Caravan Road to the salt mines and the former palace of the Glaoui family that owned them: Kasbah Telouet. After a guided tour of the area, you will continue on to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ait Ben Haddou. If this impressive ksar looks familiar, it is because it has starred (or at least made an appearance) in many movies and TV shows including Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, and Game of Thrones. But before it was discovered by Hollywood, this was one of the stops for the Caravan. You’ll have plenty of time to explore and climb to the “bank” at the top, since this is also your resting stop for the night.

Day 3: Ait Ben Haddou to Agdz
(Approximate travel time: 2 hours)
Meals included: Breakfast, Dinner

After breakfast, you will head towards Ouarzazate, a quiet city called the Door to the Desert and known for its film studios, before once again turning off the main tourist drag. Be on the lookout for a strange American looking gas station as you travel in the hills and see if you can guess in which horror movie you may have laid eyes on it (The words “Eyes” and “Hills” are a hint). You’ll continue on to the lush Draa Valley, also known as the valley of a million palm trees, and to the town of Agdz. Here, you can explore the local palmeraie and have a guided tour of of the ancient local Kasbah. The name Agdz means “resting place” and, as the name implies, this oasis was an important stopping point of the old salt caravans. Relax and enjoy a delicious dinner at your kasbah for the night.

Day 4: Agdz to Merzouga
(Approximate travel time: 6 hours)
Meals included: Breakfast, Dinner

After breakfast, you will follow the route again, making your way alongside the Draa Valley towards the sand sea of the Sahara. It may seem like a long day of driving, but it would be even longer if you were on a camel! Don’t worry, there will be plenty of stops along the way to stretch your legs and take photographs. In Rissani, the last town of significant size before you reach the dunes of Merzouga, you will have a chance to search for fossils. Long before the salt caravans, the Sahara was under the ocean and this is evident from the abundance of squid and snail fossils that really aren’t too hard to find. Afterwards, you will continue on the final stretch of today’s journey to Merzouga on the edge of Erg Chebbi, where you will get a real taste of what it was like on the Old Salt Caravan by transferring to your next mode of transportation — a camel. You will trek into the dunes to your Berber camp for the night. While on your camel, contemplate the fact that the caravans traveled just like that… for 52 more days! Once at your camp, climb a dune to watch the sunset and relax as the stars come out. Dinner will be served and traditional music will be played, before retiring to your tent for the night.

Day 5: Merzouga to Dades
(Approximate travel time: 4 hours)
Meals included: Breakfast, Dinner

Today your camel guide will wake you early so that you can watch the sunrise over the dunes. Afterwards, you will once again take to your ship of the desert (i.e. your camel) and trek back to the kasbah on the edge of the sand sea where breakfast will be served and you will have an opportunity to shower and prepare for the day. After breakfast and showers, you will travel to the oasis of Tinghir where you will go on a guided walk through the palmeraie and the old Mellah (Jewish neighborhood). After you’ve explored Tinghir, you will continue to Dades gorge where you will stop for the night.

Day 6: Dades to Marrakech
(Approximate travel time: 4 hours)
Meals included: Breakfast

Following breakfast you will depart from your hotel you will continue on through the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, each of which served as stops for the salt caravans, as you make your way back to Marrakech. You’ll take a slightly different route this tim and visit the city of Ouarzazate. Here you will visit another former Glaoui palace — although this one was used by the Glaoui dynasty’s second tier of command — Kasbah Taourirt. After exploring this Kasbah, you will travel once again over the breathtaking High Atlas Mountains and back to your riad in Marrakech.

Day 7: Marrakech
Meals included: Breakfast

Departure day. If you didn’t have an opportunity to explore Marrakech on your arrival day and depending on your departure time, a local city guide can be arranged. Otherwise, your driver will take you to the airport and see you off wishing you bon voyage and au revoir until you next visit!

Morocco has several excellent surfing spots, but for something a little different, head to Essaouira for incredible kitesurfing. The reliable winds and waves provide a fantastic playground for water-loving adventurers. Harness the power of nature and ride the waves like a boss. Alternatively, sit back on the sands and watch the colourful kites fly through the sky as talented riders seem to effortlessly skim the waves.

The first camels to arrive in Australia

In 1840 Phillip Brothers purchased six camels (Dromedary) from Canary Isles and loaded aboard the ship, S.S. Appoline. Only one camel survived, named harry landed in Port Adelaide in 1840. Harry was purchased by John Horrocks of Pentwortham in exchange of six cows valued at £90. Harry was more of an object of wonder than a working animal.

In 1840, two more camels were imported to Melbourne and exhibited to public. Later they were overlanded to Sydney and with an offspring bought by the New South Wales Government for 225 pounds and were exhibited to public.

In 1860, The Victorian Government imported 24 camels from India for use by the explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills. The intention of the exploration was to cross Australia from Melbourne in the south, to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a distance of around 3,250 kilometres. The Victorian Government appointed George James Landells to purchase the camels from India. The animals arrived in Melbourne in June 1860 and the Exploration Committee purchased an additional six from George Coppin’s Cremorne Gardens. Twenty-six camels were taken for the exploration. Six camels were left in Royal Park.

In 1862, Thomas Elder (Elder & Co) sent Samuel Stuckey to India to look for camels to import. In 1866 Stuckey had bought 124 camels in India and brought them out to Port Augusta with 31 Afghan cameleers. In Beltana ( South Australia) they started a successful breeding programme. The Camels were exported to Queensland, New South Wales, Northern Territory and Western Australia. At first the camels were used on local stations but within a short time they were also used as pack and wagon animals.

In 1886, around 260 camels were brought from India to South Australia, which were used for carrying supplies to the Western Australian Gold fields. From then onwards, camels were widely used for carrying goods especially in the outback. By 1900, there were around 6000 camels in Australia. The main advantage of using Camel was being a desert animal, it could travel days without water.

In 1908 for the survey of trans- Australian Railway, camels transported water, and building materials for distances up to 500km into the desert.

Below is a Newspaper extract from The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.: 1848 – 1957), Thursday 4 June 1908

Camel Caravan, Morocco - History

Camel caravan going through the sand dunes in the Sahara Desert, Morocco.

By John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer

My first encounter with that famous beast of burden, the camel, was not in the desert. Rather, it was in the movies. Specifically, it was a scene from the film, Lawrence of Arabia. Towards the beginning of this epic film, we see a far away mysterious figure loping into the lens and onto the screen on camelback, seeming to float on the Desert. Of course, it was none other than Lawrence himself, a military officer of the British Empire. That scene depicted one of the more important roles of the camel in Arab history—namely that of military defense or expansion.

From the film, Lawrence of Arabia–The march to Damascus on camelback during World War I

Even more importantly, in the 7 th century AD, the camel was pivotal in the campaign to spread Islam across large stretches of Asia, Africa, and Europe. The camel not only served as the mount used by the Arab Bedouin to launch their campaign, but it was also their main herd animal and a major source of wealth and nourishment. Without the almighty camel, the story of the Arab world might have turned out quite differently.

Romanticizing the ‘Beast of Burden’ of the Desert

Desert and Bedouin life, based on the camel, have been romanticized by Western writers. This follows a pattern of what is called ‘Orientalism.’ This is an attitude that is seen as representing the Middle East in a patronizing, condescending manner that embodies a colonialist attitude. Lawrence of Arabia, the film, is guilty of this practice. The film shows dramatic, sweeping views of the desert and staged movements of a huge army of camel-riding Arabs led by Lawrence himself across that vista. Then, it adds exotic rhythms of heavy drumming accompanied by a majestic score with a hint of Arab musical tonality. With no small irony, Lawrence was credited with calling the camel, a “splendid beast.” Ironically, it is purported that he did not much like camels at all.

Dromedary or Arabian Camel–the “Splendid Beast”

How were camels used?

When the camel arrived on the stage of history is not certain. It is alluded to in the Hebrew Bible in the Book of Job and there is evidence of its presence in Pharaonic Egypt. Even in pre-Islamic times, the Arabs had domesticated the camel, allowing them to explore and control trade networks across Arabia to the Mediterranean. Eventually, with the help of the camel, the Arabs dominated vast expanses of the Middle East and North Africa. It offered them the opportunity also to reach China and southern Europe. The camel allowed large Arab armies to move across difficult terrain at great speed.

Two basic types of camel prevail. One, the dromedary or Arabian camel has one hump. The other, the Bactrian or Asian camel has two. Reflecting on the importance of the camel to Arabs, it has as many names for its stages of growth as we humans have for ours, from infancy to old age. In addition to the role of the camel in building the Arab Empire, it played an important part in the lives of the Arab Bedouin. Besides transport of warriors across large swaths of land in spreading Islam, the camel was critical in the daily lives of the Bedouin. Primarily it was a “beast of burden,” used as a pack animal to carry hundreds of pounds or kilos over many miles, sometimes going without water for several days. The camel provided many resources to its keepers: transport meat and milk skin for water buckets, sandals, and bags sinew for making rope wool for tent and rug-making and dung for fueling campfires. It even provided some folk medicines.

Camels today are still raised for food, namely meat, and milk, though they are less important for transport in the face of more competitive cars and trucks. They are also used in tourism and for racing.

An Arab Bedouin camp–without the camel–would be impossible

Nevertheless, the camel is still vaunted in Arab culture, by the hundreds of Arabic words referring to it. The camel was traditionally used in the Arab marriages, in which the groom gives the bride a gift—in this case, one or more camels—which goes to the bride to keep for herself. Different is the bride-price, also perhaps a camel, which would be given to the family of the bride. Perhaps more romantic is the wedding ceremony itself, in which the bride often arrives at the groom’s house mounted on a camel, both fancily decorated to reflect the joy of the occasion. Not a great favor to the poor beast of burden is that it is often slaughtered for sacrifice on ceremonial occasions. (I once had camel liver for lunch in the Sahara Desert, which, I wasn’t sure I’d ever say, but it was “very savory.”)

Westerners like the camel, too

Once the camel had proven its worth in the Middle East, westerners began to find value in this beast of burden. More innocuously, in the days of stagecoach delivery of the U.S. mail, the U.S. Congress appropriated funds to purchase camels from abroad to be dedicated to carry the mail across arid and mountainous lands to the West Coast. Less innocuously was the adoption of this beast of burden by the French in their attempt to control their colonial possessions in North Africa. Called the mehariste or camel corps, this section of the ‘Army of Africa’ was used especially to control the Berber Tuareg pastoral nomads who had dominated commercial and military activities in the Sahara for several centuries. During World War II, the Free French Camel Corps fought against German forces in North Africa.

Tuareg nomads of the Sahara once controlled much of that desert with the indispensable aid of the camel

The U.S. Army, for a short period, used the beast of burden in its Camel Corps in California in maintaining peace with American Indians in the period before the Civil War. This experiment didn’t last long, however, once the Civil War began. It was reported that the camels were left to just wander off into the desert to their apparent freedom.

The British mounted its own ‘Imperial Camel Corps’ for fighting in the Middle East during World War I. Mounted by infantrymen, the camels would charge across the desert. The infantry would then dismount and fight on foot. The Arabs had mastered the ability to fight while atop the camel, once an effective saddle had been designed, though it was nowhere as efficient as fighting on horseback. The British effort, except for that of Lawrence, was disbanded.

British Camel Corps in the Arab Middle East

Some peculiarities of the camel

Camels are incredibly well-adapted to the desert. Its hump, its lips, and its eyes are precisely adjusted to the extreme heat, sandstorms and the scarcity of water. Because of these perfections, it is expected by some that the camel is designed by nature to be an all-around perfect specimen. That may indeed be the case, except when it comes to its interactions with humans. The camel is often described as bad-tempered, ornery, and dangerous and it can spit significant amounts of saliva. Its bite is ferocious and sometimes infectious. It is believed to carry grudges towards someone who’s angered it. I’ve ridden camels in Egypt (or they’ve ridden me) and found that I’d have to do a lot more training to feel comfortable with them.

Today, in wealthy Arab countries, this “ship of the desert” has become the object of racing. In the Gulf countries, camels are bred specifically to race competitively. often costing a few-several million dollars.

Camel racing in the Gulf has become popular

There, camels race in winter and are selected from a breed of non-milk producing types. Often children were used as jockeys, which has now been outlawed.

The “dear” camel in the Gulf has come so far and now may be in a downward spiral, given that it is now served in restaurants as a prime burger. Especially with young camels, the cut comes from its hump, whose greater amount of fat provides more flavor for this Emirati burger. On the high end, camel milk is mixed with oils in making a popular soap and lip balm. Fresh camel milk is also sold in upscale markets in the Gulf.

So, we see the camel has had a glorious past, given its place in the expansion of Arab culture and Islam across a significant swath of the eastern hemisphere. Biologically adapted to one of the harshest climates on earth, the desert, the camel for centuries allowed humans to exploit the large deserts of Africa and Asia for all kinds of purposes. For better or worse, developments in those spaces couldn’t have been possible without the camel. How it’s fared in present times is not so glorious. Nevertheless, the camel continues to support desert and other dryland populations. If you happen to see one, thank her or him. Just don’t get within “spitting distance.“ Stay dry.

John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and society, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.

Special Operations Outlook 2019 Digital Edition is here!

Lance Cpl. Steven Finlayson, a team leader with Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, pauses before returning to Forward Operating Base Geronimo after providing security in Nawa, Afghanistan Nov. 17, 2010. Finlayson and his squad provided security while Afghan National Army Soldiers and U.S. Army personnel gave out supplies as a goodwill gesture during the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Mark Fayloga

Superbly adapted to the desert, the single-humped Arabian camel was domesticated around 4000 B.C. for its meat, milk, and wool, as a beast of burden, and finally as a riding animal. The double-humped Bactrian camel was domesticated later wild herds may still roam remote parts of central Asia.

German camel cavalry in German Southwest Africa during the conflicts with the Herero and Nama in 1904. Bundesarchive photo

A double row of long eyelashes, and nostrils that close tightly, protect camels from wind-blown dust, while broad padded feet allow walking on soft sand. Wooly hair insulates against burning sun and cold desert nights. But the camel’s physiology is its most remarkable adaptation: super-efficient kidneys and a digestive system that conserve every drop of precious water. The camel’s hump stores fat (not water!), but the stomach can hold up to 25 gallons at one long drink.

Despite the iconic cigarette label, there is no evidence of camels in ancient Egypt some arrived with Persian invaders in 525 B.C. and with Alexander the Great’s army in 332 B.C., but they only became common after the Arab conquest in 642 A.D.

It was easy to sit on a camel’s back without falling off, but very difficult to understand and get the best out of her so as to do long journeys without fatiguing either rider or beast.

But the culture of Semitic nomads centered on camel breeding, camel caravans, and camel raiding. The Midianites and Amalekites, who fought the Hebrews under Gideon (circa 1191-1144 B.C.), had … “camels without number, as the sand which is upon the seashore for multitude” (Judges 7:12). A glimpse of how these warriors fought is shown on an Assyrian wall carving (circa 645 BC) in the British Museum: Two nomads ride a camel, pursued by an Assyrian bowman on horseback. Modern racing camels can sprint up to 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour), and sustain 25 miles per hour for up to an hour.

Ottoman Camel Corps at Beersheba during the First Suez Offensive of World War I, ca. 1915. Library of Congress photo

A strange story of camels at war is reported by Ctesias of Cnidus, a 5th century B.C. Greek. Legendary Assyrian queen Semiramis (ruled 824 B.C. to 811 B.C.) sought to conquer India. Knowing that Indian rajahs fielded powerful war elephants (not available in Assyria) she ordered the secret construction of hundreds of dummy elephants made of stuffed ox hide. Inside each was a man to work the artificial trunk, and a camel to move it. Indian cavalry horses, familiar with elephants, charged them boldly, but were spooked by the unfamiliar camel scent. When real Indian elephants advanced, they tore the dummy elephants apart. The army of Semiramis was crushed and she fled in disgrace.

In 546 B.C., Cyrus the Great of Persia fought King Croesus of Lydia at Thymbra, a plain near Sardis (in southwestern Turkey). The Lydians, with a strong force of elite javelin-armed cavalry, outnumbered the Persians. Knowing that the Lydian horses were unfamiliar with camels, Cyrus mounted 300 Arab servants on baggage camels and posted them along his front. The camels spooked the Lydian horses, forcing the riders to dismount. Under heavy fire from Persian archers, the Lydians retreated.

A camel at Drum Barracks, San Pedro, Calif. The only known surviving photo of the U.S. Camel Corps. Library of Congress photo

The Romans first encountered camels in battle in their war with Antiochus III of Syria. At Magnesia (190 B.C.), Antiochus deployed Arab bowmen mounted on camels along with his scythe chariots. The legions outfought them, but Romans soon appreciated the value of these foul-smelling beasts and formed units of dromedarii (camel riders) to patrol their desert frontiers. When the emperor Claudius invaded Britain in 43 A.D. he brought elephants to terrify the Britons, and camels to spook their chariot horses.

Fast thoroughbred riding camels may win glory in desert warfare, but plodding pack camels often provide the key logistics that ensure victory. In 53 B.C., Roman general M. Licinius Crassus invaded the Parthian empire, which ruled much of the Near East. At Carrhae, on the desert border of Syria and Turkey, an army of 9,000 Parthian horse archers surrounded and annihilated Crassus’ 35,000 veteran legionaries, thanks to relays of hundreds of pack camels loaded with arrows. Camels are known for their ability to carry large loads that can range from 250 pounds to as much as 400 pounds (180 kilograms).

The armies of Genghis Khan (1162-1227) are famed for their use of Mongolian ponies for mobility, but they also used convoys of two-humped Bactrian camels for supply. Their naccara kettle drums that signaled commands in battle were also borne on camel-back. Later, the ruthless Mongol conqueror Timur (1336-1405) found a novel use for pack camels at the Battle of Delhi (Dec. 17, 1398). Sultan Mahmud Khan fielded 120 armored war elephants. Timur had pack camels loaded with bundles of oil-soaked brushwood and straw. This was ignited, and the terrified beasts were driven toward the Indian lines. War elephants are brave, but sensible. When they see flaming camels charging at them, they get out of the way. The Indian army was slaughtered and Delhi was sacked.

United Nations soldiers on camelback, part of the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), monitoring the Eritrea-Ethiopia boundary. Photo by Dawit Rezene

The U.S. Army Camel Corps was an experimental unit promoted by Jefferson Davis in 1855 when he was Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. The desert of the American Southwest, so hard on horses and mules, was ideal camel country. A Navy ship was dispatched to the Turkish camel market at Izmir, returning to Texas with 21 animals and five camel wranglers, led by Hadji Ali (1828-1902), a Jordanian Beduin whose name was quickly Americanized as “Hi Jolly.” The camels proved successful in surveying expeditions, but they tended to spook Army horses and mules. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Army lost interest in camels as pack animals. Surviving animals were released in the desert, where their descendants were spotted as late as the 1940s.

In 1916, the Imperial Camel Corps was formed in Egypt, with 4150 British, Australian, Indian, and New Zealand troopers, and 4,800 camels. It fought in Libya and Palestine as mounted infantry, and provided troops to support T.E. Lawrence’s Arab irregulars.

Today, many armies in the Islamic world maintain camel cavalry units for parades and ceremonies.

Motorized Threat

For centuries, camel caravans and the trackers that lead them have traversed the Sahara desert in search of the salt of Taudenni. The journey for salt for most who brave the magnitude of Sahara's isolation represents far more than a quest for economic gain. It becomes a journey into the soul, a journey of renewal for a follower of Islam, a chance to step closer to his God.

In recent years, the camel caravan salt trade has been threatened by the arrival of 4x4 trucks that make the arduous journey in a matter of days. With the introduction of this new technology, the price of salt has dropped, threatening the livelihood of those who lead the camel caravans.

With the threat of the loss of the ancient tradition of the salt caravans would come the loss of the sacred journey, a necessary pilgrimage across the desert for a Tamashek boy. And without this sacred pilgrimage comes a loss of identity, a powerful loss of culture for the camel workers of Timbuktu.

As University of Timbuktu professor Salem Uld Elhagg said: "With the loss of the salt caravans comes the loss of our culture and our spiritual well being. The only difference between a human and an animal is culture. We must not lose our sacred culture."

Watch the video: Sahara white desert camel caravan 5 (June 2022).


  1. Taishi

    Today, I signed up to a specific forum to participate in the discussion of this issue.

  2. Tedmund

    What words ... great, the idea excellent

  3. Cinnard

    I think this is the magnificent thought

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