Life in the Holy Land: the Camel

It’s not certain when the camel was introduced to the land of Israel. It is, of course, mentioned in the Bible, and we see it depicted in the Lachish Reliefs.
Gustaf Dalman mentions that the camel was first found in Palestine during the Bronze Age. It probably did not play an important role in the agriculture of Ancient Israel. But it was known as a beast of burden, carrying goods across the land. Oded Borowski (Every Living Thing: Daily Use of Animals in the Bible 1998) says that bone remains from several sites in Israel support the idea that the camel appeared in this region at the end of the Settlement Period and became integrated in the overland transport network. That would mean that it arrived sometime during the Iron Age I.

Gustaf Dalman describes the use of camels in early 20th century Palestine. For Bedouins the camel was essential, as they were continually on the move, at times in the desert. The camel carried their tents and belongings. Camels kneel so that the load is easy to secure. When they rise, they lift the back first, getting on their hind legs, and then stand on their front legs. When a camel kneels down, it first gets on the knees of the front legs, then the knees of the hind legs. A saddle is required to secure the load on the back of the camel. It is usually made out of wood. For travel in the Sinai desert a load of 125kg is seen as normal. In the less demanding environment of Palestine with food and water available this can be increased to 200 – 250 kg.

Camels were used to carry the load of the great trading caravans. At night they would often camp out in the field, with the cargo heaped in the middle of the circles of camels. When they traveled, the camels walked in a long row one behind the other. A camel boy (gamal) rode alongside the camels on a donkey to watch them, for “the intentions of the camel are not the same as the intentions of the camel boy” – so an Arab saying. Indeed, in folklore, the camel is seen as mean and devious, so that it is said of some people that they are “more devious than a camel”.

Camels usually graze on wild plants, such as the salt bush, but also grass. Indeed, they are easy to satisfy. Caravan camels were often fed with cakes of barley and darnel. Dalman gives reports that camels can go five days without water. Nevertheless, in his time he heard of events when hundreds of camels died, when tribes were unable to reach water in time.

The camel was also used by farmers in Palestine, sometimes instead of cattle to haul the plow, to bring grain to the threshing floor, and even for threshing.
Camel hair was used for weaving, hides for hose -and sandal making. Camel dung was used to feed fires. Camel urine was used to clean beard, hair, face, teeth and hands. And butchering a camel yields a lot of meat. Female camels are able to provide up to 7 liters of milk per day. It is little wonder that the Bedouins regard such a versatile animal highly.

In the Hebrew Bible the camel was considered unclean to eat, but it was not unclean to the touch and its milk and hair could be used.

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