Camel, O Camel: On Camels in Ancient Egypt

Jennifer Cromwell

Playmobil boxed and unboxed: My new desk companion!

I recently bought my first ever Playmobil set: Egyptian Warrior with Camel. It’s only taken me thirty odd years. But I can’t resist a camel. And this kit evokes one of the key images that comes to mind when we think of ancient Egypt: the quintessential image of camels in front of the pyramids. Camels, however, were not common in the pharaonic period – they are not indigenous to Egypt. It’s possible that they were transported to Africa via the narrowest part of the Red Sea, between the Arabian Peninsula and modern Eritrea / Djibouti in ancient times, and so the odd one may have been seen by the ancient Egyptians. If anybody did see one, though, it’s really unusual that camels are never depicted in tomb scenes, which show a whole variety of exotic animals.

Early 20th century archaeologists, including Frederick Green and James Quibell at Heirakonpolis and Flinders Petrie at Abydos, seemingly identified terracotta camel heads on site. However, model camel heads and sheep heads are almost indistinguishable – without the long legs and neck of the camel, when is a camel not a sheep? Possibly the earliest secure pharaonic attestation of a camel is a dish from Qantir in the Delta dating to the late 18th or 19th dynasty, ca. 1,300–1,100 BCE (published in Pusch 1996). The Assyrian occupation may have brought more camels into Egypt, but it is probably not until the reign of Ptolemy II (285–246 BCE) that the dromedary, the single-humped camel, was introduced in large numbers.

camels 2
Left: From Midant-Reynes and Braunstein-Silvestre (1977). Right: from Adams (2007) Both now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

In the grand scale of Egyptian history, camels are a relatively new thing. And that postcard of camels in front of the pyramids, never actually happened. And, contrary to Playmobil’s sets, no Egyptian ‘warrior’ would have saddled one up and charged into battle.

After its introduction to Egypt, however, the camel became one of the most important long-distance beasts of burden, perfectly equipped as it is for travel across the desert. Any discussion of transportation in Roman Egypt, especially the Eastern Desert, has a wealth of material to draw upon to discuss the use of camels. But what of smaller scale use closer to the Nile Valley itself? What role did camels play in the daily lives of people in late antiquity? Coptic documents from several sites give us an idea.

Wadi Sarga
The monastery of Apa Thomas at Wadi Sarga, located in a desert valley a couple of kilometres from the cultivation’s edge, provides great opportunities to study its daily and economic life in the 7th and 8th centuries CE (for which, the project page at the British Museum is a great place to start). Excavation of the site in 1913/14 resulted in the discovery of a large body of documents, mainly in Coptic. Among this corpus are letters written to the monastery that ask for loans of camels for different reasons. In one letter, the senders – the names of whom are unfortunately lost – ask:

… send [us] eight [camels], so we can load them with wheat … And provide three camels for wine … Whenever the camels are coming up(?) loaded with fodder, tell us, so we can load [them], to come down(?)

O.Sarga 93

In another letter, really much more of a brief note asking for a favour, monks from another monastery write to the superior of the monastery at Wadi Sarga for an unspecified number of camels for a different reason:

Give it to the Father, Apa Justus, from the brethren of Pohe. Please send us all the camels, so that they can clear out these palm-branches. For we will come up/down on the night of the feast.

O.Sarga 94

(As a sidenote for both texts, in Sahidic Coptic the same word is used for ‘up’ and ‘down’, so we don’t actually know what directions are intended.) In addition to these letters, receipts of wine show that large quantities were delivered to Wadi Sarga by camels, on a daily basis for a month after the grape harvest. Whether the monastery owned all these camels is difficult to determine, but the letters at least confirm that the monastery did own some of its own and they were used for a range of activities, from transport to cleaning up before a festival.

camels 3
O.Sarga 94 (left) and 93 (right). Photographs by J. Cromwell, (c) Trustees of the British Museum

Western Thebes
Moving south to western Thebes, a number of legal contracts were drawn upon between individuals and camel herders to work and tend the animals for them. These contracts all differ in their details, based on the needs and expectations of the parties involved. In one ostracon, a man Sacou is hired to look after two camels together with all the equipment belonging to them. In turn, he will be paid in a mix of wheat, wine, and other commodities. One really important incidental detail is that Sacou’s payment will vary depending on whether the inundation is high or low, that is, whether the resulting harvest will be a good or a bad one:

I, Isaac, hired Sacou for the camels, to tend the two camels, their equipment, and their accessories. If I find any negligence on his part, he will swear an oath to me about my cattle and the work [for] the monastery. I, myself, am ready to pay him twenty artabai of wheat in the high-yield year, plus twenty-five jugs of wine, an artaba of dates, and two lakane of oil. In the low-yield year, sixteen artabai of wheat, plus twenty jugs [of wine], and two lakane of oil.

O.Lips.Copt. 28

In a second example, Joseph son of Paul is hired by Apa Victor on behalf of the monastery of Apa Phoibammon (built upon the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri) to look after a camel and its calf, from the first day of the festival of Apa Papnoute on Mechir 15 (9th February or the 10th if a leap year) for one year. Unlike the previous contract, no wages are actually recorded here, but the document specifies the individual pieces of equipment belonging to the camel, including a couple of collars and baskets.

I, Joseph the son of Paul, write to the priest Apa Victor. You hired me to tend your camel. Now, I am ready to devote myself to it, with all my power, and to tend the calf until the time that I will leave your camel. I will tend it from the first day of Apa Papnoute1to the first day of Apa Papnoute of another year. Moreover, I will look after your [equipment] and return it to you when I leave you, namely: a working(?)-collar, a chain(?)-collar, a rope basket, and a […] basket. Moreover, you shall not find me in contempt over anything.

O.Crum 221

But what did the camels do? A short letter found at the monastery of Epiphanius (built in and around Theban Tomb 103) records how two camels were used to transport a loom (P.Mon.Epiph. 352). A contract, from the church of St Mark on Gurnet Mourrai, records that the herder’s terms of employment include drawing water one day a week (SB Kopt. IV 1803).

From short to long distance travel, drawing water from wells, and sweeping up debris, camels became an essential part of everyday life in Egypt. Albeit not until the Ptolemaic period, and not in the way that Playmobil thinks.

Technical Details (Text 1):
Provenance: Monastery of Apa Thomas, Wadi Sarga, Egypt
Date: 7th century CE
Language: Coptic (Sahidic)
Collection: British Museum (EA 55736)
Designation: O.Sarga 93 (according to the Checklist of Editions)

Technical Details (Text 2):
Provenance: Monastery of Apa Thomas, Wadi Sarga, Egypt
Date: 7th century CE
Language: Coptic (Sahidic)
Collection: British Museum (EA 55752)
Designation: O.Sarga 94 (according to the Checklist of Editions)

Technical Details (Text 3):
Provenance: Western Thebes; Egypt
Date: 7th century CE
Language: Coptic (Sahidic)
Collection: Ägyptisches Museum, University of Leipzig, Leipzig (inv. 1611)
Designation: O.Lips.Copt. 28; SB Kopt. IV 1802 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Tonio Sebastian Richater (1998) “Zwei Komposita jüngerer Bildungsweise im koptischen Ostrakon Ägyptisches Museum der Universität Leipzig Inv.-Nr. 1611,” Zeitschrif für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 125, pp. 56-62

Technical Details (Text 4):
Provenance: Monastery of Apa Phoibammon (Deir el-Bahri), western Thebes, Egypt
Date: Early 7th century CE
Language: Coptic (Sahidic)
Collection: British Museum (EA 33062)
Designation: O.Crum 221 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Walter C. Till (1956), “Die koptischen Arbeitsverträge,” Eos48.1, pp. 272—329 (#28); Walter C. Till (1964), Die koptischen Rechtsurkunden aus Theben (Vienna), p. 58.

Other bibliography on camels:
Adams, Colin (2007), Land Transport in Roman Egypt. A Study of Economics and Administration in a Roman Province (Oxford: OUP)
Agut-Labordère, Damien, and Bérangère Redon, eds. (2020) Les Vaisseaux du désert et des steppes: Les camélidés dans l’Antiquité (Camels dromedarius et Camels bactrianus) (Lyon: MOM Editions); available online here.
Midant-Reynes, Béatrix and Florence Braunstein-Silvestre (1977), “Le chameau en Égypte,”Orientalia, NOVA SERIES 46/3, pp. 337–362
Pusch, Edgar B. (1996), “Ein Dromedar aus der Ramses-Stadt,” Ägypten und Levante6, pp. 107–118
Ripinsky, Michael (1985), “The Camel in Dynastic Egypt,”The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 71, pp. 134–141 (note: this article repeats early archaeologists’ presumed discovery of ceramic camel heads)

camels 4
Left: camel terracotta (UC48026), Right: camel mould (UC33303). Both in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. See online publication here.

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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