Land Transportation

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Land Transportation


Wheeled vehicles . The zone defined by the first great wave of Islamic conquest was so strikingly homogeneous in transportation characteristics as to raise the suspicion that transportation played some role in defining the limits of expansion. The factors that dictated this homogeneity substantially antedated the life of Muhammad. Though some of the earliest evidence for the use of wheeled vehicles anywhere in the world goes back to Mesopotamia circa 3000 B.C.E., there were few wheeled vehicles in use in the regions the Arab armies invaded in the seventh century C.E. Evidence for this statement comes largely from the near absence of references to wheeled transport in medieval Islamic sources. Not only are they rarely mentioned, but Arabic and Persian are deficient in words relating to vehicles, and the infrequent miniature paintings depicting wheeled vehicles are usually so fantastic as to make it clear the artist had never seen the device he was trying to draw. The disappearance of wheeled vehicles seems to have occurred between circa 300 and circa 600, that is, over the three centuries immediately preceding the life of Muhammad (born circa 570). The cause of the disappearance was the progressive replacement of wheeled transport by pack animals, most notably the camel. Documents from the Roman period indicate that, by the year 300, transport by pack camel had become 20 percent cheaper than transport by oxcart. Other documents indicate that Arab camel breeders deliberately used this economic advantage to force carters and wheelwrights out of the transportation business.

Animal Transport . To place these economic issues in perspective, one must look at the role of animal husbandry throughout the zone conquered by the Arabs and contrast it with animal husbandry in Europe to the north, sub-Saharan Africa to the south, and India and Central Asia to the east. The boundaries of early Islamic expansion mirror those most conducive to the use of cheap animal transport. Animal power generally comes from horses, oxen, camels, donkeys, or mules. Each of these species has characteristics that define its utility for transport. Horses are fast, oxen slow, camels in between. Camels are strong, mules less strong, donkeys comparatively weak. More important than these specific characteristics, however, is the cost of the working animal in terms of food, shelter, and care. One-humped camels and donkeys are desert animals, the former adapted to the torrid interior of Arabia and the latter to the similarly punishing climate of northeast Africa. Horses are native to the grasslands of Central Asia and well adapted to extremes of heat and cold. Wild cattle once roamed forests and mountains throughout the Middle East and North Africa, but they are accustomed to moister climates than camels or donkeys. Wild two-humped camels were found in desolate areas of the Middle East, including mountains, but they were more numerous in northern or high altitude areas because they are adapted more to withstand great cold than great heat.

Arid Landscape . The climate of the Middle East and North Africa ranges from dry to extremely dry. Few areas receive enough rainfall to support farming without irrigation, and those that do often find the rainfall unreliable from year to year. Consequently, human settlement has been determined largely by access to water. River valleys such as the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates offer plentiful water for irrigation. Terracing has been used to turn the seaward slopes of mountains into good farming areas in Lebanon and Israel and a few other places. Oases and wells dot the broad areas of desert, and subterranean canals bring water to Iranian villages suitably situated with respect to nearby mountains that receive rain or snow during the winter. No part of the zone the Arabs conquered in the seventh century is more than fifty miles from land that is either too dry or too mountainous for farming. Human settlement therefore is spotted discontinuously across an arid zone that provides ample pasturage for animals that can live on meager supplies of food and water.

Camels . In the case of camels, it is possible to raise large herds of animals on the abundant wasteland that has no other economic use. Not only does raising a young camel entail no monetary cost, but its omnivorous constitution thrives on low-grade pasturage that would be inadequate to nourish a horse or an ox. A camel also needs no shelter. The costs associated with camel use, therefore, are primarily those of the nomads who raise them and rent or sell them to people requiring camel labor. Oxen, by contrast, require better fodder. Horses require grasslands. In pre-modern Europe, where grassy steppeland was rare and the climate cold, cattle needed shelter during the winter and had to be fed with stored food. Horses also required shelter and had to be fed rations of grain—grain that might otherwise be eaten by humans—in order to do heavy work. Oxen were cheaper to keep than horses but more expensive than camels. A comparison between Central Asian and European horse breeding is instructive. Horses were abundant in the grasslands of Central Asia where the Turkish and Mongol nomads allowed them to graze but did not feed them grain. As a result, the horses were not particularly strong. A Mongol soldier in the days of Genghis Khan would ride a horse for five or six hours, then had to switch to another and could not remount the first until it had had several days of rest. Hence, Mongol armies had some seven times as many horses as men and required vast pasture lands. A European warhorse, carthorse, or plowhorse was larger and stronger than the typical Mongol horse but had to be fed expensive grain every working day. From these comparisons it should be evident that the superior economy of pack camels in late Roman times was not a temporary phenomenon, but a natural consequence of having abundant desert land where nomads could raise the animals at minimal cost. Why then did camels not replace oxcarts at a much earlier time? The answer to this question lies not in animal husbandry but in the relations between desert nomads and farmers. When camel-riding nomads first appear in the historical record, in biblical passages of the mid second millennium B.C.E. and in Assyrian wall carvings half a millennium later, they are portrayed as desert

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marauders, barbarians capable of raiding farmland but militarily weak. They did not begin to acquire military strength until approximately 200 B.C.E., when a new saddle design made it possible to fight effectively from camelback with sword and spear.

Caravan Cities . As the Arab camel breeders gained military capacity, they applied it to taking control of and reaping the profits from the caravan routes through the desert. These profits, in turn, enabled them to build caravan cities of great magnificence, such as Petra in Jordan and Palmyra in Syria. Though Roman power cut short the period of independent Arab power based on caravan cities by the third century C.E., the Arabs by then no longer needed them. They had become sufficiently aware of the trade and transportation system of the region to carry on and prosper as merchants, caravaneers, and suppliers of pack animals within the Roman provinces of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, and they seem to have penetrated the caravan trade of the Sasanid Empire of Iraq and Iran as

well. The upshot of this complicated transportation history before the coming of Islam was that by means of their acquired dominance in the transportation economy, the pastoral Arabs went from being desert barbarians regarded as enemies by settled farmers to being an integral part of the economy: selling their animals to operate wells, mills, and irrigation devices; providing seasonal transportation for farmers who needed to get crops to market; and dominating the caravan trade across the deserts and increasingly into the surrounding territories.

Islamic Expansion . It would be an exaggeration to say that the transformation of the Arab role in the transportation economy made possible the Islamic conquests, because many other factors contributed as much or more to that historical watershed; but it is a factor that cannot be overlooked, especially in view of the geography of the conquests. Makkah was a caravan city—though it came into being long after the Romans destroyed Petra and Palmyra and never enjoyed a comparable prosperity. Muhammad and many of his supporters are said to have been merchants or at least quite familiar with caravan trading. Furthermore, the limits of Arab expansion in the first period of conquest make more sense from an economic than from a religious or political perspective.

Frontiers . Unlike the Romans and Greeks before them, the Arabs of the conquest period were little interested in sea transport as an instrument of conquest. They never raided across the Red Sea into Ethiopia or Sudan, for example, and they gave up maritime attacks on the Byzantines in the north after a couple of failures. The Muslim-Byzantine frontier stabilized, in fact, at the line of the Taurus Mountains in southern Anatolia. Though less rugged than the Zagros Mountains of western Iran or the Elburz Mountains of northern Iran, the Taurus represented a transportation frontier. To the south, warm deserts were well suited to camel herding. To the north, the high Anatolian plateau was much less suitable for the Arabs’ warm-weather camels. Indeed, oxcarts did not die out there in the pre-Islamic period as they did to the south but remained in use down to the twentieth century. In the west, the Arabs made their way across North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean, but they made a truce with the tribes to the south of Egypt in the Sudan.

Barriers to Trade . The khalifahs’ decision to send a military expedition to Morocco but not up the Nile makes sense when looked at from the point of view of camel herding and caravan trading. Trade on the Nile River was primarily by boat, but the first cataract of the Nile, located roughly at the Egyptian-Sudanese frontier, interrupted the trade. To go further south one had to unload, portage around the rapids, and reload above the cataract. If a population of Arab camel pastoralists had been established in the vicinity of the first cataract at the time of the conquest of Egypt, such a detour might have proven a lucrative source of profit; but no Arab tribes ventured anywhere close to the cataract in the conquest period. Hence, there was little reason to push south into a land where trade would be so difficult and so dependent on others.

Mediterranean Trade . By contrast, the Mediterranean coastal plain and desert fringe of North Africa provided good country in which Arabs could raise their animals and establish an east-west caravan trade. Though trade by ship along the coast continued, the land route across Libya to Tunisia attained a prominence in early Islamic times that it had never had before.

The Silk Road . Turning to the eastern edge of the conquest area, the earliest penetration of the Arabs into eastern Iran was across the desert to the south, a route that was more hospitable to their livestock than the colder north. But they soon found that the richest trading route was the Silk Road that went across northern Iran and into Central Asia on its way to China. By the mid eighth century this road, known as the Khurasan Highway, had become the most-famous and most-prosperous trade route in the khilafah. It is not surprising, therefore, that the khalifahs devoted massive military resources to protecting and extending their frontier in Central Asia while they ignored the Sudan and settled for a frontier-raiding relationship with Byzantine Anatolia.

Eastern Limits . Central Asia and India, however, represented a limit to Arab trading enterprise. The Arabs’ hot weather camels could not be used in Central Asia because of the frigid winters, and the cheapness of grass-fed horse power in the steppe lands lessened the need for camel power. The Arabs knew little about the two-humped camels bred by the nomads of Central Asia, which were the mainstay of Silk Road traffic north of the fortieth parallel. The Central Asian frontier stabilized, therefore, at approximately the point where caravans shifted from one-humped to two-humped livestock. As for India, despite their seizure of the lower Indus Valley in 711, the Arabs soon settled for a stabilized frontier. Over the course of several centuries, camel herding and camel transport became a major enterprise in the Indus region and beyond, but the India the Arabs encountered in the eighth century was basically a land of oxcarts in which Arab merchants with their strings of camels had little place.

The Second Expansion . While considerations of animal husbandry and land transport seem to have played a role in determining that the Islamic khilafah would spread extensively east and west but stabilize its frontiers effectively at the southern and northern limits of Arab nomadism of the pre-Islamic period, these frontiers were not fixed permanently. The second wave of Muslim expansion, after the year 1000, carried the faith into India, Anatolia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Historians usually associate raiding on the Indian frontier with desire for booty or religious zealotry. Be that as it may, the post-1000 time frame seems, from rather scanty evidence, to coincide with the extension of one-humped camel pastoralism into the northwestern portions of India where the raids concentrated.

Spread of One-Humped Camels . The only breed of camel known in ancient India, as in ancient Iran, was the two-humped Bactrian variety, seemingly a rather uncommon animal that was not the focus of a herding culture. The first specification of a camel as “two-humped” occurs in a Sanskrit dictionary compiled in the twelfth century, implying that the one-humped variety had become known in India by that time. This date is in accord with the estimate by scholars that the Baluchi-speaking people, the most-important camel-herding people east of the Arabian peninsula, moved into their current territory in western Pakistan, southern Afghanistan, and southeastern Iran between 1000 and 1200. Subsequently, one-humped camels came into use east of the Indus River, but they were still fairly scarce in the fourteenth century. Though considerations of transport probably had nothing to do with the onset of Muslim raids into India, the expanding area of Muslim control seems to have fostered an expansion eastward of the transport pattern of the Middle East. Camel pastoralism became established in desert regions, and one-humped camels became an inexpensive mode of transport. Since camels had been scarce prior to that time, the competition between camels and wheeled vehicles only then began in India. Unlike the lands further west, however, wheeled transport of a quite efficient nature was well established in India, and camel pastoralists such as the Bal-uch remained on the fringe of settled society. As a result, Pakistan and India saw the widespread development of one-humped-camel carts, using harnesses that betray their technological lineage by incorporating Arabian saddle designs. (Two-humped-camel carts exist in China and eastern Central Asia.) Thus, the Muslim-dominated areas of north India acquired a distinctive mode of transportation of such low cost that it continues to compete effectively with motorized transport in certain situations down to the present day.

Turkic Migrations . In Anatolia, the crucial transport consideration is that the Turks who defeated the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and then

spread westward to the Mediterranean coast were primarily horse breeders. Anatolia offered a cooler climate than other parts of the Middle East, and the grassy mountain valleys surrounding the arid central plateau provided excellent horse pasture. Arab camel pastoralists living to the south of Anatolia in Iraq and Syria did not move northward into the territories newly opened to Muslim settlement because the winter climate was ill-suited to their animals. Thus, Anatolian peasants—and, north of them, peasants in the Balkan regions into which the Turks began to expand in the fourteenth century—continued to use inefficient ox carts down to the twentieth century because cheap camel transportation never materialized.

Saharan Transport . On the Saharan frontier, camel pastoralism was well established among Berber-speaking tribes on the northern and southern fringes of the desert before the Arab conquests of the seventh century. The southern pattern of pastoralism seems to date to the early centuries B.C.E. while pastoralism in the north seems to have developed with the decline of Roman agriculture in the third to sixth century C.E. Breeding conditions kept these two camel cultures largely apart, however. The mating season for camels typically coincides with the best pasture season. Since the gestation period is twelve months, the season of births is more or less the same as the mating season. In the northern Sahara, the best pasture time is in winter, when occasional rains trigger the brief flowering of desert plants. In the south, rains and good pasture come in the summer. Hence, there is little cross-breeding of animals from the north with animals from the south, which helps explain the fact that the two camel cultures also differ in the types of saddles they use, the role camels play in the society, and even how the camels look. (The south has many camels with splotchy black-and-white or brown-and-white coloring).

The Arab-Berber Alliance . During the first wave of Arab conquests, the invaders undoubtedly came to know about the camel culture of the south, but they made no significant connection with it. By contrast, they saw the camel pastoralists of the north as natural allies pursuing a familiar style of life. This alliance helps explain why the army that invaded Spain in 711 consisted mostly of Berber tribesmen from the north with only a small contingent of Arabs, a rare example of Arab alliance with local forces. The caravan routes of the Middle East were easily extended along the northern frontier of the Sahara from Egypt all the way to Morocco, and North Africa was subsequently considered a part of the Islamic world despite early political separation. Since the Muslims of the north knew of the southern camel herders and the Berbers among them spoke a dialect of the same language, it is not surprising, once North Africa had become integrated into the Middle Eastern caravan network, that trade across the Sahara became a serious venture.

Sub-Saharan Trade . From the late eighth century onward, camel caravans laden with manufactured goods made their way southward, trading for salt at salt mines in the southern Sahara and then trading the salt for sub-Saharan commodities, particularly gold, in the savanna region below the desert. Though prosperous, however, Saharan trade did little to spread Islam south of the Sahara. Arab merchants were received with favor and perhaps converted a few local people to their faith, but sub-Saharan Africa was not a major area of religious expansion. This situation did not begin to change until the eleventh century, when for the first time Berber-speaking Mauritanian tribes (from near the Atlantic coast) imbued with the southern pattern of camel pastoralism adopted Islam and used it as an instrument for political organization and expansion. From that time onward, Islam spread rapidly in the southern Sahara and in the adjoining savanna lands. Northern control of the trans-Saharan caravan routes lapsed, and the Muslim peoples of the south became the new masters.

Urban Life . The expansion of Islam seems closely tied up with the spread of specific forms of land transportation. Yet, Islam had nothing to do with the origin of those forms, which derived mostly from pre-Islamic developments. In the first wave of conquest, Arab camel pastoralism and the network of caravan routes seems to have dictated minimal expansion north and south and phenomenal expansion east and west, the eastern frontiers stabilizing in regions where the mode of transportation along caravan routes normally changed. The second wave of expansion after 1000 was geographically discontinuous and politically uncoordinated, and also involved transport issues. In India it opened the door to significant changes. In Anatolia it made less difference because the animals of the conquerors were used for riding rather than baggage transport, and in sub-Saharan Africa the adoption of Islam by camel pastoralists changed their role in the region and their faith.

Pedestrian Roads . The Islamic world prior to the post-1000 period of expansion was a pedestrian zone. In the absence of wheeled vehicles, every aspect of society and the economy was predicated on movement by foot. Dirt being kinder than stone on human and animal feet, roads and streets were seldom paved, nor did pedestrians have to take into account the length of axles or the turning radius of vehicles. Roads could meander, take sharp turns, incorporate stairs, and vary in width without causing inconvenience. Governments interested in fostering interurban trade concentrated on bridges and rural rest areas—caravanserais—rather than the roads themselves. Within cities, the desirability of living at easy walking distance from congregational mosques, markets, and other centralized amenities raised the value of land near the city center. Space devoted to streets and open areas was therefore scarce, giving the city a high population density. Shops catering to everyday needs—such as baths, bakeries, and butcher shops—were distributed throughout the residential neighborhoods while craftsmen and shops less frequently visited—such as cobblers, coppersmiths, jewelers, and perfumers—were concentrated in one place. A person wanting to buy cotton cloth could walk to the appropriate section of the market and stroll easily from shop to shop. As a result, market areas typically featured close clusters of shops selling the same type of wares.

Limitations of Animal Transportation . Finally, the need to divide loads of freight into units small enough to be carried on animal back militated against monumental construction based on large stones. Brick and wood, commodities that were easily divided, were the building methods of choice. Though transportation was not the sole factor shaping the fabric of urban life, it contributed materially to the way in which travelers from beyond the Islamic world perceived Islamic life. They often reported on cities with narrow, irregular streets; little public space; crowding; and clustering of crafts and stores according to the commodities being sold. Impressions such as these contributed to the image of an Islamic world that was comparatively homogeneous across a broad geographical area, and different from the neighboring regions of Europe, Anatolia, India, and sub-Saharan Africa.


Richard W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard iversity Press, 1975).

Jibrail S. Jabbur, The Bedouins of the Desert: Aspects of Nomadic Life in the Arab East (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).

Owen Lattimore, The Desert Road to Turkestan (New York: Kodansha International, 1995).