Sailors on sandy seas: camels in Saharan rock art

If we were to choose a defining image for the Sahara Desert, it would probably depict an endless sea of yellow dunes under a blue sky and, off in the distance, a line of long-legged, humped animals whose profiles have become synonymous with deserts: the one-humped camel (or dromedary). Since its domestication, the camel’s resistance to heat and its ability to survive with small amounts of water and a diet of desert vegetation have made it a key animal for inhabitants of the Sahara, deeply bound to their economy, material culture and lifestyle.

Yet, surprising as it seems, the camel is a relative newcomer to the Sahara – at least when compared to other domestic animals such as cattle, sheep, horses and donkeys. Although the process is not yet fully known, camels were domesticated in the Arabian Peninsula around the third millennium BC, and spread from there to the Middle East, North Africa and Somalia from the 1st century AD onwards. The steps of this process from Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean have been documented through many different historical sources, from Roman texts to sculptures or coins, but it is especially relevant in Saharan rock art, where camels became so abundant that they have given their name to a whole period. The depictions of camels provide an incredible amount of information about the life, culture and economy of the Berber and other nomadic communities from the beginnings of the Christian era to the Muslim conquest in the late years of the 7th century.

What is it that makes camels so suited to deserts? It is not only their ability to transform the fat stored in their hump into water and energy, or their capacity to eat thorny bushes, acacia leaves and even fish and bones. Camels are also able to avoid perspiration by manipulating their core temperature, enduring fluctuations of up to six degrees that could be fatal for other mammals. They rehydrate very quickly, and some of their physical features (nostrils, eyebrows) have adapted to increase water conservation and protect the animals from dust and sand. All these capacities make camels uniquely suited to hot climates: in temperatures of 30-40 °C, they can spend up to 15 days without water. In addition, they are large animals, able to carry loads of up to 300kg, over long journeys across harsh environments. The pads on their feet have evolved so as to prevent them from sinking into the sand. It is not surprising that dromedaries are considered the ‘ships of the desert’, transporting people, commodities and goods through the vast territories of the Sahara.

As mentioned previously, camels came from the Arabian Peninsula through Egypt, where bone remains have been dated to the early 1st millennium BC. However, it took hundreds of years to move into the rest of North Africa due to the River Nile, which represented a major geographical and climatic barrier for these animals. The expansion began around the beginning of the Christian era, and probably took place both along the Mediterranean Sea and through the south of the Sahara. At this stage, it appears to have been very rapid, and during the following centuries camels became a key element in the North African societies. They were used mainly for riding, but also for transporting heavy goods and even for ploughing. Their milk, hair and meat were also used, improving the range of resources available to their herders. However, it seems that the large caravans that crossed the desert searching for gold, ivory or slaves came later, when the Muslim conquest of North Africa favoured the establishment of vast trade networks with the Sahel, the semi-arid region that lies south of the Sahara.

Rock art can be extremely helpful in learning about the different ways in which camels were used in the first millennium AD. Images of camels are found in both engravings and paintings in red, white or – on rare occasions – black; sometimes the colours are combined to achieve a more impressive effect. They usually appear in groups, alongside humans, cattle and, occasionally, dogs and horses. Sometimes, even palm trees and houses are included to represent the oases where the animals were watered. Several of the scenes show female camels herded or taking care of their calves, showing the importance of camel-herding and breeding for the Libyan-Berber communities.

That camels were used to transport goods is obvious, and depictions of long lines of animals are common, sometimes with saddles on which to place the packs and ropes to tie the animals together. However, if rock art depictions are some indication of camel use, it seems that until the Muslim conquest the main function of one-humped camels was as mounts, often linked to war. The Sahara desert contains dozens of astonishingly detailed images of warriors riding camels, armed with spears, long swords and shields, sometimes accompanied by infantry soldiers and horsemen. Although camels are not as good as horses for use as war mounts (they are too tall and make insecure platforms for shooting arrows), they were undoubtedly very useful in raids – the most common type of war activity in the desert – as well as being a symbol of prestige, wealth and authority among the desert warriors, much as they still are today.

Moreover, the extraordinary detail of some of the rock art paintings has provided inestimable help in understanding how (and why) camels were ridden in the 1st millennium AD. Unlike horses, donkeys or mules, one-humped camels present a major problem for riders: where to put the saddle. Although it might be assumed that the saddle should be placed over the hump, they can, in fact, also be positioned behind or in front of the hump, depending on the activity. It seems that the first saddles were placed behind the hump, but that position was unsuitable for fighting, quite uncomfortable, and unstable. Subsequently, a new saddle was invented in North Arabia around the 5th century BC: a framework of wood that rested over the hump and provided a stable platform on which to ride and fight more effectively. The North Arabian saddle led to a revolution in the domestication of one-humped camels, allowed a faster expansion of the use of these animals, and it is probably still the most used type of saddle today.

Although North Arabian saddles are found throughout North Africa and are often depicted in rock art paintings, at some point a new kind of saddle was designed in North Africa: one placed in front of the hump, with the weight over the shoulders of the camel. This type of shoulder saddle allows the rider to control the camel with the feet and legs, thus improving the ride. Moreover, the rider is seated in a lower position and thus needs shorter spears and swords that can be brandished more easily, making warriors more efficient. This new kind of saddle, which is still used throughout North Africa today, appears only in the western half of the Sahara and is well represented in the rock art of Algeria, Niger and Mauritania. And it is not only saddles that are recognizable in Saharan rock art: harnesses, reins, whips or blankets are identifiable in the paintings and show astonishing similarities to those still used today by desert peoples.

Since their introduction to the Sahara during the first centuries of the Christian era, camels have become indispensable for desert communities, providing a method of transport for people and commodities, but also for their milk, meat and hair for weaving. They allowed the improvement of wide cultural and economic networks, transforming the Sahara into a key node linking the Mediterranean Sea with Sub-Saharan Africa. A symbol of wealth and prestige, the Libyan-Berber peoples recognized camels’ importance and expressed it through paintings and engravings across the desert, leaving a wonderful document of their societies. The painted images of camel-riders crossing the desert not only have an evocative presence, they are also perfect snapshots of a history that started two thousand years ago and seems as eternal as the Sahara.