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

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.

With the research for your most recent book, Cotton, Climate and Camels in Early Islamic Iran: A Moment in World History, were there camel experts you could talk to?

You know, the key aspect in that book dealing with camels is the crossbreeding between one-hump camels and two-hump camels. I have some photographs that show small herds still exist. People who cross breed one and two hump camels, but essentially what was once a big industry has entirely disappeared and basically other than myself no one has ever written about it in the present day so there is nobody to consult. I knew that there were crossbred camels because there are medieval sources that give the terminology and some of the details for what happens when you cross one and two hump camels, but the only person who has done substantial research on the subject lived between World War I and World War II. He was a Soviet veterinary professor who taught at a university in the Volga River area, University of Saratov. I first ran across an article by him on the camel crossing by a German veterinarian journal that had done a couple more substantial studies in Russian, but he is a completely unknown figure. I know nothing about his life. It’s apparent that at the time he was working, there were farms in Russia that still used hybrid camels and he was not studying something that was from the medieval period, but he was studying the actual breeding circumstances for practical purposes in Soviet agriculture.

At one point I wrote to a number of famous zoos in the world asking what experience they’d had with hybrid camels and I got back a series of letters that bordered on being abusive that said “Dear Sir, We are a scientific institution. We do not dabble in trying to get our animals species in trying to mate with each other.” Because they were totally unaware that this at one time had been a significant industry. So there was no current scientific research and Mr. Banikoff, who had written these things in German and Russian was the only scientific source. So for the book that I published a year ago, it was piecing together fragments from medieval sources and fleshing them out from the knowledge of the hybrid camel industry that I gained from his work.

What are your plans for next year?

I have required leave time for a year. So that means I don’t have to break up my office this year, but next year I have to find something to do with 4,500 books and innumerable chatchkas of various sorts.

But I also don’t know what I’m going to do in the broader sense. I know that I could to continue to teach in the Core Curriculum if I wanted to, but I taught in the Core Curriculum for fifteen years and I’ve had my fill of Immanuel Kant and other worthies.
I have three or four books I want to write. I’m thinking of going back to painting, which I was very interested in when I was in my twenties.  I’ve always drawn through all these years sort of weird pictures. I draw when I’m attending conferences and listening to lectures. I cannot bear to take notes. I quit taking notes in graduate school and what I find is that if I’m listening to a lecture, it frees up the other side of my brain to draw interesting pictures. I listen better and I draw better. But if I actually sit and try and draw, then my logical brain provides something of a limit on what I can do. So I have hundreds and hundreds of pictures that I’ve saved up from conferences. I’ve now got about 450 of them digitized. I think I’ll probably make some of them available online and then pick some and maybe turn them into paintings. At their best they’re arresting images. I’m not a great draftsman. I don’t have a gift for reproducing reality, but I produce absurdity with some facility. The world’s basically absurd. Might as well recognize that in all areas of work. That’s the reason I write novels and draw pictures and write history.