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Volume 24, Number 3May/June 1973

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Why They Lost The Wheel

For a while there, the ox and the camel were eyeball to eyeball—but the ox didn't stand a chance.

Written by Richard W. Bulliet
Illustrated by Ed Davis

When the first motor car chugged defiantly off the road and into the desert an entire epoch in world history began to pass away, the epoch of the camel. After centuries of supremacy as a transport animal, centuries that had seen it become for millions of people the romantic symbol of the entire Middle East, the stalwart camel was at last facing unbeatable competition.

Yet once before this homely drama of competition between the camel and the wheel had been played out in nearly identical fashion, only in reverse. Once, in ancient times, the Middle East teemed with carts and wagons and chariots, but they were totally driven out by the coming of the camel.

For all the discussion there has been among archeologists about why advanced societies such as those in pre-Colombian Central and South America never invented wheeled transport, there has been little notice taken of the amazing fact that Middle

Eastern society wilfully abandoned the use of the wheel, one of mankind's greatest inventions.

It did not, of course, abandon the wheel in all of its many forms. The potter's wheel remained, and so did the huge, picturesque norias, or waterwheels of Syria. But gradually over the course of the first four or five centuries of the Christian era, and perhaps even earlier, all wheeled transport in the area, from the grandest chariot to the humblest farm wagon, passed out of existence.

As late as the 1780's the French traveler Volney could still note, "It is remarkable that in all of Syria one does not see a single cart or wagon." Moreover, in the Arabic and Persian languages one is hard pressed to find any vocabulary proper to either the use or construction of carts and wagons.

The most common explanation of this phenomenon is lack of, or deterioration of, roads in the Middle East, and to be sure the old Royal Road of the Persians and the whole network of Roman roads at some time fell out of repair and then passed out of use. However, roads are built for wheels and not vice versa. Their decline paralleled that of the wheel; it did not cause it.

Actually, the dry Middle Eastern climate was much better suited to vehicular traffic than were the forests of pre-modern Europe, where rain could be regularly counted upon to turn even the best unpaved road into mud. Even today high speeds can easily be maintained over long stretches of desert track.

Furthermore, the Turks in early times used carts without roads on the Central Asian steppe, as did the unknown ancient inhabitants of the Sahara Desert. And in the United States the pioneers crossed the continent in wagon trains without benefit of asphalt. No, roads are not the answer to the riddle.

Instead it was the long, slow pace of the camel, two and a half miles an hour, 20 miles a day, for weeks on end, that spelled the demise of the wheel. Because of the primitive state of harnessing technology in the ancient East, where even a horse could not be harnessed effectively to pull a heavy load, the camel could not be hitched to a wagon.

There is one Roman relief showing a camel chariot race, but it is hard to believe that it was not intended as comic relief. Good harnesses for camels were designed in Central Asia and, in the 19th century, in the Australian desert, but these did not affect the Middle East.

The only way to make use of this immensely strong beast for transport was to throw the load, averaging anywhere from 300 to 500 pounds, on its back. Thus the pack camel came to compete directly with the ox cart for heavy transport.

The ox cart was equally slow, and in the competition the camel had certain positive advantages. It ate otherwise unusable desert plants, which made its upkeep inexpensive. Little wood, a valuable commodity in the largely deforested Middle East, was required by ancient saddling technology. And its care and breeding could be left to the nomads and thus not be a burden upon the farmer or merchant.

These advantages meant that camel transport was about 20 percent cheaper than wagon transport, according to the edict on prices issued by the Roman emperor Diocletian in the third century A.D. Therefore, simple economic efficiency caused the camel to supplant the wheel, not some mysterious reversion to primitive life.

Before there can be a competition, however, there must be the competitors. The advent of the wagon in the Middle East affords no problem, since the area appears to have been the cradle of wheeled transport as it was of so many other things. It is the camel that poses the problem.

If camels had existed for centuries on the Arabian and Syrian Deserts, why had they not replaced the wagon long before the Christian era? Or if they had not been on the scene, when did they come and why?

In North Africa and the Sahara Desert it is quite certain that camels were unknown in very ancient times and were introduced from the Middle East only a century or two before Christ. However, the history of the camel in the Middle East is very poorly known and difficult to reconstruct.

The camel was probably domesticated in southern Arabia in the fourth millennium B.C., but the spread of its utility was very gradual since for a very long time it was used primarily for milk rather than for transport. Only under the Assyrians in the 7th-9th centuries B.C. did camel warriors and large tribes of camel breeders become significant in Mesopotamia and Syria.

Stone reliefs found in excavated Assyrian palaces show Assyrian cavalry fighting the camel people, and they always show the cavalry winning. While this is probably in part Assyrian propaganda, there is also likely to be some truth in it since the type of saddle used by the nomads at that time was not well designed for fighting.

It was a long time after the fall of the Assyrian Empire before the tribes of camel breeders acquired the military strength to assert themselves politically and economically. First the militarily efficient modern Arab camel saddle had to be developed, and then the bow and arrow used by the nomads in Assyrian times had to be replaced by the long lance, which capitalized upon the great height of a camel rider in comparison with a horseman.

Then and only then could the famous caravan cities of Petra, Palmyra and Mecca be born. A shift in economic power from the settled land into the desert took place as a consequence of this newfound camel-based military power.

Hitherto, the empires of the settled lands had methodically shut out the nomads by fortifying their desert frontiers, and had used them for their own economic purposes. Now, although the nomads may still have been unable to face imperial cavalry in pitched battle, they were at least able to dominate the desert caravan routes and seize control of long-distance trade.

With this development of independent nomad power, direct competition between camels and wagons finally began. The pack camel had been theoretically superior to the wagon for centuries, but as long as the camel breeders were confined to the desert areas by imperial military force and as long as the caravan trade was dominated by merchants from the settled lands, the competition could not be joined.

The acquisition of significant military power by the desert dwellers enabled them to penetrate gradually into settled agricultural districts and coexist there with the settled population. Camels, for the first time, became commonplace around cities and farms. More and more farmers and other people with goods to haul gave up their expensive wagons and simply rented camels from the nearby nomads when they needed transport. Gradually the entire wagon making industry disappeared.

The conquests of Islam, which were partly fueled by the capital that the camel caravan trade enabled the Meccans to accumulate, spread camel breeding to new geographical areas. Already wheeled transport was gone in the central Middle East. With Islam it disappeared also in Spain, Egypt, and most of modern Turkey.

Only Central Asia, among all the lands conquered in the first wave of Islamic expansion, continued to have wagons. The Turkish tribes already had two-humped Bactrian camels, so there was no room for expansion of one-humped camel breeding into the area. But the Turks had never developed camel breeding intensively. Camels were used, but they were not highly valued. Partly for this reason and partly because the type of wagon harness used in Central Asia was much more efficient than the Western harness, the camel was able to compete effectively only in desert areas. Elsewhere wagons continued in use.

Still, in the Middle East, the first round of the contest was over; the camel had won. In limited areas where Islam only spread later or where camels could not be bred, such as northern Turkey and the subtropical Caspian Sea coast of Iran, the ox cart remained, and remains to this day. Everywhere else in the Middle East and North Africa the wheel disappeared, and no doubt there were people then who looked at its passing with nostalgia and at the coming of the camel as a newfangled innovation just as today there are those who do the opposite.

The counterattack of the wheel began with the coming of the Turks to the Middle East in the 11th century. As already mentioned, on the Central Asian steppe the Turks had always used wagons to carry goods, and they even put their yurts, their round, rigid tents, on wheels. Thus they had a sympathy for wheeled vehicles and some knowledge of their use, both of which had long passed away in the Middle East.

The word araba or arabiya, which is so commonly used today in both Turkish and Arabic for any wheeled vehicle, first came into use at this time.

Still the basic economic superiority of the camel prevailed. A few wagons reappeared under the Turks. More significantly, the Ottoman Turkish expansion into the Balkans did not spell the end of wheeled transport there. However, in general the use of the camel remained all-pervasive until the advent of European influence which stimulated the building of carriages for use in cities.

Then came the automobile and the end of the contest was in sight. There were setbacks, of course. In World War II, for example, lack of tires often forced the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) to use camels instead of trucks. But that was temporary. Today even Bedouins keep a truck parked outside their tents. The day of the camel is past, and whoever laments its passing would do well to remember that 2,000 years ago someone else was lamenting the passing of the ox cart.

But what vestiges will remain of 2,000 years of camels as a ubiquitous fact of life? The nomads who lived by camel breeding are settling down and becoming part of the modern economy. The roads that for centuries remained unpaved because the softer dirt surface was gentler than stone on the camel's padded foot are becoming ribbons of asphalt.

Perhaps only in the picturesque narrow, winding streets of the old quarters of Middle Eastern cities will the indirect influence of the camel remain visible. Although camels themselves were not too widely used within the walls of medieval towns, it was they who caused the tradition of wheeled transport to vanish; and it is the absence of carts and wagons that accounts in large part for the layout of medieval Middle Eastern cities.

Steps in the middle of the road, abrupt right angle turns, sudden narrowing from eight feet wide to two feet wide—streets like this could never have come into being in a society accustomed to using wheels. Streets like this are built only for pedestrians, animal and human.

As for the future of the camel now that its monopoly on transportation has been broken, it is not bright. Perhaps as a meat animal it will remain in some areas. Perhaps in Somalia or among the Tuaregs of the Sahara it will remain sheltered from modern civilization for a while longer.

Worldwide, however, the population of camels is rapidly declining. The camel phase of history is over, and a new symbol must be found to represent the modern Middle East.

Richard W. Bulliet is an assistant professor of history at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

This article appeared on pages 22-25 of the May/June 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1973 images.