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.
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.
– T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926)
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.
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.
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.
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.
- The Desert Camel Corps of the Jordanian Police traces its lineage to the tribal Beduins who fought with Lawrence of Arabia in World War I. The current unit was organized in 1931 by another legendary British officer: Maj. John Bagot Glubb, father of the “Arab Legion.” With a traditional uniform of khaki robes, crossed bandoliers, silver daggers and red-checkered kaffiyahs, the small force of camel riders (now down to about a 40-man platoon) patrol the desert borders of the kingdom to rescue stranded travelers and arrest smugglers.
- Oman’s Royal Camel Corps, with a breeding center of 400 animals based at Muscat, is a ceremonial unit with a mission of “promoting cultural heritage, developing camel racing and making training techniques more professional.”
- The Royal Moroccan Army nominally has three “Camel Corps” (Mehari) battalions, but these are apparently motorized light infantry. The Royal Guard’s two horse cavalry squadrons may stable some camels for ceremonial events.
- India’s Border Security Force, a national police agency with 240,000 personnel, runs camel-mounted desert patrols, and maintains a colorful ceremonial band of camel-riding musicians. The town of Bikaner in the Rajasthan desert was the base of the British Indian Army’s Camel Corps and remains India’s most important camel-breeding center.
- The Saudi National Guard, a regime protection force separate from the regular army, has a “ceremonial cavalry squadron” with horses and camels. There are 24 battalions of tribal militia, the Fowj, who may ride camels on festive occasions, but are more likely to drive new Toyota Hilux pickup trucks.
The current U.S. military manual, Special Forces Use of Pack Animals (FM 3-05-213, June, 2004) states, reassuringly, “Camels are clumsy-looking, rather ugly animals, and have a lousy reputation because they are believed to spit and kick at people. This perception is not accurate, because well-handled camels are safe to work with and be around.” But it also advises troops to rely on “native handlers” whenever possible.
This article was originally published online on March 1, 2013