delanceypl? 6/14/11 - islam and the camel

In today's excerpt - founded by the prophet Muhammad in the sixth century C.E., Islam spread faster than Christianity and its kingdom grew larger than the Roman Empire. By one estimate, the Islamic caliphate's revenue in 820 C.E. was no less than five times greater than that of the Christian Byzantine Empire. This fortune was built on trade and the marketplace, and that trade was built on the backs of camels:

"At the height of [Islam's] glory, three disparate, rival regional Islamic power centers arose—Spain-Maghrib, Egypt-Levant, and Mesopotamia-Persia—reflecting and magnifying the religious and tribal divisions within Islam. In such decentralized circumstances, economic organization by command was impossible. Instead, it was the invisible hand of market forces that governed the signature transit and trade that held together Islam's economy and helped stimulate the breakthroughs underpinning its civilization's rise. 'Not being well endowed by nature,' observes historian Fernand Braudel, 'Islam would have counted for little without the roads across its desert: they held it together and gave it life. Trade-routes were its wealth, its raison d'etre, its civilization. For centuries, they gave it a dominant position."

"Water scarcity presented the primary obstacle standing between Islam and its historic rise to greatness through trade. First and foremost, it needed a way to cross the long expanse of its own hot, waterless interior deserts. Its first triumphant innovation, which at a stroke transformed the barren desert barrier into an insulated, exclusive Islamic trade highway, came by its disciplined organization of the hardy camel, with its prodigious water-storing capacity, into long trade caravans and military supply transports. A caravan of 5,000 to 6,000 camels could carry as much cargo as a very large European merchant sailing ship or a fleet of barges on China's Grand Canal. Islam's quasi-monopoly over this powerful pack animal provided it with the mobility to cross and exit its desert homelands—and to make its mark on world history.

"The one-humped Saharan dromedary was specially adapted for the hot deserts. It could go without drinking water for a week or more, while plodding some 35 miles per day across the desert sands with a 200-pound load on its back, Water was stored in its bloodstream—its fatty hump, which grew flaccid during long journeys without nourishment, functioned as a food reserve—and it maximized water retention by recapturing some exhaled water through its nose. Once at a water source the camel speedily rehydrated by consuming up to 25 gallons in only ten minutes. It even could tolerate briney water. It possessed an uncanny memory for the location of water holes. Moreover, it could eat the thorny plants and dry grasses that grew on desert lands and were indigestible by most other animals. During a trip, camels could lose one-quarter their body weight, twice the amount fatal to most other mammals. The camel's extraordinary physical attributes made it possible for caravans to make the two-month, trans-Sahara trip from Morocco to Walata at the frontiers of the Mali Empire in Africa, which included one notorious stage of ten waterless days. ... Camels took Arab merchants and soldiers everywhere."


Steven Solomon


Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2010 by Steven Solomon


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