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Animals that were Important to the Islamic Empires

 Animals played an important role in the work done in the Islamic empires of the Middle Ages. They helped move the traders across the vast empire in caravans loaded with goods. They worked on farms to plow the fields and turn water wheels that brought irrigation to the desert land. They carried goods through the crowded city streets. Animals were even used in war and in recreation. Without these animals, the Islamic empires never could have achieved such greatness and prosperity.


The most important of all the animals to the medieval Muslims was the camel. Camels were called "the Gift of God" and "the Ships of the Desert". It could live where few other animals could live. It was strong enough to carry heavy loads for the Arab caravan traders.

At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the camel was the most important animal in war. The earliest wars were attacks with warriors mounted on camels' backs.

Camel caravans carried goods and people across the empire. Pilgrims also traveled to Mecca from all over the World of Islam on the hajj, or Pilgrimage. Some caravans were from 1,000 to 2,000 camels long! To encourage trade, the kings built caravanserai (camel "hotels") along the trade routes.

GeoImages, UCB, Professor Powell, Modern Caravan in Afghanistan

Arab miniature painting of Pilgrims Traveling to Mecca, c. 700 A.D.

Camels were used to turn water-wheels, as shown below.

GeoImages, UCB, Professor Powell, Afghanistan

Camel products include:

  • milk (which is lower in fat and lactose, and higher in vitamin C, potassium and iron than cows' milk). (There's even a camel dairy in Ramona, California - Oasis Camel Dairy).
  • meat (which tastes something like beef, but is tougher - it's a delicacy (a special treat) in Arabian cuisine).
  • fur and skin (leather) which were used for clothing and tents
  • dung (which was a fuel for campfires on the desert and was also used in making a type of cement or plaster for desert houses when mixed with sand, clay, straw, and water).

Although camel caravans are not common today, there are still some caravans that bring travelers to isolated places in the desert. Now tourists can join a camel caravan to relive history. But most of the camels in the market below will be used for meat or breeding stock. (The best camel meat comes from young male camels.) Some camels are bred for camel racing, a popular sport in Saudi Arabia, and some are still used by farmers to turn water-wheels or to do other farm work as it was done long ago.

Photo by Tony B. Lee, 1998
This picture shows a camel market outside of the city of Cairo, Egypt. Today most camels are raised for racing, carrying goods, and for their meat or milk. The men in the picture are looking at the camel's teeth to see its age and health.

3. How are camels adapted to the desert environment?

Hump: Camels store fat in their humps. They can go for 5 - 7 days without eating or drinking. When they haven't eaten for a while, the hump shrinks in size and flops over to one side.

Bactrian camels (found in the Gobi Desert of China) have two humps. Dromedary camels (found in Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East) have one hump.

Eyes: A camel has two rows of thick long eyelashes to keep out blowing sand.

Eyelids: Camels have a translucent (light can go through) second lid that allows light to go through, but protects the eye in mild sand storms.

Most of this information is found in ArabNet: A-Z of Arabian Camels and ZooNews magazine (San Diego Zoo)

Stomach: Camels have three-part stomachs. After eating without much chewing, the food goes into the first stomach. Then, like with cows and other grazers, the "cud" is regurgitated (spit up), chewed, and goes into the second and then third parts of the stomach for complete digestion.

Feet: The feet of camels are large, flat, and round. This keeps them from sinking into the soft sand. Their feet have leathery pads and two toes on each foot that spread out when hitting the ground. The camel moves both feet on one side of its body, then both feet on the other, causing its body to rock back and forth while walking.

Nostrils: During a sandstorm the camel's nostrils can close down to keep out the sand.

Eating and Drinking: A camel can go 5-7 days with little or no food and water, and can lose a quarter of its body weight. Today camels are fed dates, grass and grains such as wheat and oats, but a camel traveling across a desert where food is scarce can easily survive on thorny scrub bushes, or whatever it can find - bones, seeds, dried leaves, even bits of leather.

A large animal can drink as much as 21 gallons of water in ten minutes. This amount would kill all other mammals, but the camel can store water in its bloodstream.

Strong backs and legs: Camels have long, thin legs with powerful muscles. They can carry heavy loads over long distances. A strong camel can carry as much as 990 lbs., but a usual and more comfortable load weight is 330 lbs. Camels usually work as beasts of burden for only six to eight months of the year and rest the remainder of the time and recuperate (regain their strength).

Speed: Walking speed is 3 miles per hour (m.p.h.). A camel caravan would normally travel 25 miles a day. A racing camel can reach 12 m.p.h. at a gallop for short distances. This speed was used by Arab warriors in attacking an enemy.


Weight: A fully-grown camel can weigh up to 1540 lbs.

History: Scientists believe that ancestors of the modern camel lived in North America at least 40 million years ago. It wandered across the Alaskan 'land bridge' to Asia and eventually to Africa. In Asia, two groups separated to become the dromedary and the Bactrian camel. Camels are related to the llama and alpaca of North America.

Mouth: A camel has 34 sharp teeth which help it eat thorny bushes and tough material. Camels can also use their teeth as a dangerous weapon in a fight.

Life span: The normal life span of a camel is 40 years. Camels don't usually do heavy work beyond 25 years of age. A camel is mature after 5 years of age.


Learn more about camels:

There are several good sites showing the importance of camels to the people of the Middle East. For good introductions to camels, see "Camels...the ships of the desert (UAE)" and " -- A-Z of the Arabian Camel".
For more on camel racing, see "The Sport of Sheiks".
Learn more facts about Dromedary Camels and Bactrian Camels at this Rolling Hills Refuge Wildlife Conservation Center site.
For images of travel by camel caravan by Powell, Geoweb, see
Moving to Winter Pastures (Afghanistan),
The Very Old Nomads Ride (Afghanistan), and
Camel Caravan (Afghanistan)
See a Turkish miniature art showing camels in battle.



This is Page One: Camels

Go to Page Two: Horses and Donkeys

Go to Page Three: Herding Animals such as Sheep and Goats

Go to Page Four: Other Animals to learn about pigeons, falcons, and more.

Go to Page Five: Animals in the Middle Ages to learn about zoos, the study of animals, and endangered animals.

Go to the Student Activities Page

Go back to the Main Page


Books and Magazines

  1. Silver-Burdett, Rise of Islam by Moktefi. See pages 46, 22, 12
  2. The Arabs in the Golden Age by Moktefi and Ageorges, Millbrook Press, pages 16 - 25.
  3. ZooNews - San Diego Zoo "Camels", P.O. Box 85271, San Diego, CA 92138. A great overview of the camel family, camel's body, and world distribution.
  4. Science and Civilization of Islam by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (especially p. 120 - 125 telling which animal parts can be used as medicines)
  5. The Arabian Horse by Gail Stewart, Capstone Press, Minneapolis, 1995
  6. ARAMCO World: September-October, 1991 "Safe Haven for Birds" p. 12-17
  7. ARAMCO World: May-June, 1991 "In Harm's Way" p. 42-48
  8. ARAMCO World: May-June, 1990 "Arabia: Sand, Sea & Sky" p. 16-25
  9. ARAMCO World: July-August, 1989 "Arabia Forests" p. 38-41
  10. ARAMCO World: November-December, 1989 "Imbaba [Camels]" p. 36-41
  11. ARAMCO World: September-October, 1989 "Oryx Update" p. 12-15
  12. ARAMCO World: March-April, 1986 "Arabian Horses" [entire issue]
  13. ARAMCO World: May-June, 1990 "The Black is Back" [Horses] p. 34-39
  14. ARAMCO World: May-June, 1987 "New Battle in an Ancient War" [Insects/Locusts] p. 6-13
  15. ARAMCO World: January-February, 1985 "In the Lions' Den" p. 36 - 41 [Bahrain's wildlife]
  16. ARAMCO World: Book of Animals by Al-Jahiz, Festival of Islam-Science


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