Photo via Columbia
In our latest installment of professor interviews, Adam Kuerbitz talked camels–just camels!–with history professor Richard Bulliet, who you’ve definitely heard of and may have taken History of the Modern Middle East with. Read on to find out everything you’ve ever wanted to know about camel historiography (you know, good for cocktail parties). Also, Richard Bulliet likes to paint. If you’ve got a suggestion for a good professor interview, email us at email@example.com.
How did you first become interested in camels and animals in the Middle East in general?
In the spring of 1967 I was at home in Illinois and I tried to think of the Arabic word for wheel and I couldn’t think of it. So I decided either my seven years of Arabic study had been misspent or I’d never run across the word and so I decided that rather than give up my Arabic, I’d ponder whether or not there’d ever been any mention of wheels. I realized there hadn’t been and that struck me as odd because the Bible has stories about chariots and ox carts and so forth, but here you had a Middle East in the medieval period, which is what I was then studying, that appeared to have no wheeled vehicles. I decided that was a good historical problem.
So I worked on the disappearance of wheeled vehicles and that brought me to the issue of the relative cost of hauling a load on an ox cart as opposed to hauling it on the back of camel. It turned out that the camel was substantially cheaper and that the camels drove the ox carts out of the transport market at some point. Since camels proved to be the key to the disappearance of wheels, it raised the question as to why camels hadn’t caused wheels to disappear a thousand years earlier or five hundred years later. Why was it then? And when was then? And that required me to reconstruct the history of camel domestication, which in as much as camels don’t actually do any writing, meant reconstructing the history of camel saddle design because the saddle proved to be the primary indicator of changes in the economy and use of camels over the centuries.
So I wrote a book called The Camel and the Wheel
that spelled out why camels became important at a certain time. It had to do with the design of a certain saddle and the book ended up getting into saddle designs in North Africa, central Asia, India and generally was a work on technological history. After that, I was asked by some people why I hadn’t talked about donkeys. So then I did some work on donkeys and ended up doing as much work on donkeys as I had ever done on camels. Putting the donkey, camels, horses, and cows together, I became interested in the history of human animal relations as a general topic and for many years taught a course [titled] Domestic Animals in Human History.
When was the first time you ever rode a camel?
I’ve only ridden a camel once. I was in Tunisia in the south where I actually discovered some very important evidence for the history of camel use and somebody offered me a ride on a camel. So I got on and rode around for a while. Pretty boring. It’s just riding on a camel. It’s the getting up and getting down that is the exciting part. (more…)