Saturday, June 29, 2019

Camels, Salt, and the Rise of Islam: Some Small Reflections on a Minor Controversy on Someone Else's Blog

Westwold, British Columbia, lies in the trees at the far left. The view is from the shoulder of Highway 97C. Arable bottomland stretches to the right of the picture and beyond Westwold proper. It's quite a big piece of land, is what I'm saying.
British Columbia Highway 97 has a familiar and storied number for those who've taken long vacations on the Pacific slope, continuing the California-Washington-Oregon route number for the simple reason that it is the Canadian extension of that road. In its earliest recorded form, it follows the Okanogan River, becoming the Okanagan Trail at Osoyoos once it crosses the border and the regional spelling changes. Once into Canada, many old-time travellers on the Okanagan Trail wanted to get to the Cariboo gold fields, which requires crossing from the Okanagan- Columbia basin to the Fraser-Thompson basin at Kamloops, which happens to be where my sister and her family are now living. 

About halfway from Vernon to Kamloops,  Highway 97C runs through the unincorporated community of Westwold, which lies in a peculiar, glacial valley suspended about 200m above both river basins. Westwold is only one of three major areas of flat, arable land along the route. Since that kind of farm country is rare in British Columbia, it might seem surprisingly little-used, but it is probably too high and too cold for fruit, and back when steep climbs and bad winter weather actually mattered to travellers, it was avoided in favour of the slightly longer route running through Salmon Arm. Traditionally, Westwold was the  winter pasture of the nearby Douglas Lake Ranch

I could talk about this at even greater length, but really my only point would be that I was thinking about mountains and winter pasture a great deal this past week, and I travelled through Westwold three times in four days. Since the thing I wasn't doing was reading and writing towards the next postblogging installment, I thought that I would talk about something else. Specifically, a reading that bloomed over at Brad Delong's blog not incidental to my own attempts to plough through Raoul McLaughlin's Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean

So, way back in 1977, the late Patricia Crone (which is a real name) collaborated with Michael Cook of Princeton in a work entitled HagarisnThe Making of Islamic Religionwhich essentially argued that "Islam" was made up under the Umayyad caliphs to provide a religious/ideological explanation for the fact that there were Umayyad caliphs. The "Hagarism" is a Biblical reference I leave to the reader. The "Hagarist" thesis was that the political transformation of the early seventh century Middle East (fall of Rome, rise of the Islamic caliphates) was driven by a Jewish revolt, but that the Jews allied with "Hagarene" tribes of Arabic nomads. Eventually, the "Hagarene" elements won out. Much later, to bring this back to something vaguely like a point, the caliphs' court hung it all on some dude named "Mohammed," made up a book called the Koran so that Mohammed could have a scripture, like all the cool prophets, and threw in a pilgrimage requirement similar to the one in Judaism, but directed to an obscure desert town called Mecca.  

Hot! We wouldn't be discussing this if there weren't some things to be said for this interpretation. The earliest history of Islam is obscure. Islamic scholarship is very, very clear on this! The history of the transition from the Byzantine to the Islamic Middle East is also obscure, with much less excuse. There's no contemporary Byzantine account of the conquest of the Middle East by desert heathen, and while we might excuse that on grounds of embarrassment and disorganisation, it is something of a wonder that, say, Archbishop Theodore, never  chanced to clarify the situation for the clergy of the Atlantic littoral. Perhaps that is because he understood these events in a quite different a way from us. (He hadn't heard of the Prophet because the Prophet had not been invented yet. As I say. Hot.)

Which, sure, whatever. There are many other important things about this period that we don't understand; that doesn't justify being wildly contrarian about it. Even Crone accepted that shge might have bitten off a bit too much, and returned to the subject in 2005, with the less ambitious Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, which picks out an element of the purported Umayyad deception that seems more easily demonstrated. This was that Mecca did not have a substantial international trade, in spite of the picture formed from reading the Koran, and that therefore its status as the holy city of Islam derives from the Umayyads' decision to designate a remote desert city as the object of religious patronage for the usual reasons of social control.

Does it hold up? The classic argument turns on showing that various well-known Indian Ocean luxury trades did not pass through Mecca. Rather, the comparatively wet and fertile southwest of the Arabian peninsula, the "Arabia Felix" of the Ancients, either produced these goods or was the entrepot for them, and sent them on by ship to the Red Sea ports serving Egypt and Palestine.

Having come to the point where one could argue that it is at least not obvious that an overland trade via Mecca made sense, the discussion over Delong's place turned in an interesting direction when commentator derrida derider suggested that Mecca might have been the centre of a hypothetical salt trade. .

Besides repeated trips through Westwold, my vacation saw  me bogged down in a book about Rome's Indian Ocean trade, which further focussed my attention. Specifically, it focussed my attention on some of the worst habits of classical scholarship. Some people hear "Arabia" and "trade," and "late Antiquity," and it turned to take it as an excuse to pile up tags from classic literature. This is all very well, but the Roman commentators we have are of very high social status and are interested in the highly visible luxury trades, and let's face it, luxury trades are by definition inelastic. You can make a lot of money off them, but they have a relatively low "multiplier" effect compared with staples trades.

To the extent that there was an  important "Arabic" carrying trade in the region that reached for staples-level activity, it was the camel caravans that cross the northern fringe of the Arabian desert directly from southern Iraq to Egypt via southern Israel and the Sinai. In the fully developed "Hagarene" or Hagaren-light theory, this trade provides the base for an Arab army of conquest. A claimed lack of a Meccan connection then justifies the idea of Islam as an ideological inventin..

So far, so good. (Unless you're an even vaguely pious Muslim.) But if you're tired of Classicists piling up tags and your ears have perked up at "salt," you might ask about the agronomic underpinnings of the business. The Arabian peninsula is an uplifted continental block which has been pushed steadily northwestwards since separating from the African plate, tilting as it goes. Riyadh sits on an elevated plateau sloping down towards the Gulf, at an altitude of 613m, while Mecca lies on a bench carved out of the side of the escarpment that lines the Red Sea at an elevation of 277m --a bit less than halfway to the top. There are salt marshes along the coast below Mecca, and high pasture on the plateau. The situation seems well-arranged for some vertical transhumance, and there is a road up the escarpment passing through Mecca to Taif. 

It does not, however, carry salt. The climate of Arabia is famously arid and hot. But, in spite of my inspiration, it is the summer, and not the winter that is the season of hardship and flight to safe pastures. In the hottest months, pastoralists huddle around wells, keeping to the shade while their animals roam the land, effectively chained to the well, but browsing freely and as widely as they are capable of doing. While salt licks would probably make for healthier animals, the fact is that the well water is brackish and the scrub is alkali. There are better things to spend one's money on. There's clearly a transport mechanism carrying salt up from the seaside marshes to the plateau, but it is in the body tissue of the livestock.

Sheep and goats are the most important livestock from the point of view of feeding and clothing humans. There are some 4 million ovicaprines in Saudi Arabia today. Camels, formerly raised in large quantities for overland trade, are now something of a prestige animal. The Kingdoms' official statistics say that there are  800,000 in the country, but the FAO estimate can only find half of them. If the international organisationis right, Saudi Arabia's camel herd is only about 25% larger than that of the UAE.

There are still reasons to herd camels. Camels are mobile, and so can exploit marginal pasture that sheep and goats cannot. Arabian herding communities are segregated by the animals they raise, with camel-herders having the highest prestige, which means that they have a higher anthropologist carrying capacity. At least, that is my excuse for knowing more about where camels pasture than the lowly sheep and goat. All Arabian herders practical horizontal transhumance, constantly shifting grazing areas as the local browse runs out. The major pasture is in the far north, abutting the Fertile Crescent. Every fall, pastoral kindreds emerge from there summer refuges, rush north, graze their animals until they are fat enough that the camels are in danger of breaking their own ribs with the weight of the fat in their humps. At the end of winter, camel (and presumably sheep, goat and cattle) fairs are held, before the kindreds return to their refuges. Bizarrely enough, the kindred best known to anthropology summers in the depths of the peninsula's notorious Empty Quarter, but that's an anecdote, not data. We want to know about the larger pattern of movements, and the coastal salt marshes.
Per the ancient Naval Intelligence Division report, camels tend to get too much salt, rather than too little. An old time Red Sea trading world existed, consisting of of tiny little boatyards in small towns, small-scale textile production, and charcoal exports from favoured ports with access to the forests of the southwest. (And, perhaps, to charcoal burners in the saline marsh.) I find a little more current data thanks to the the National Institute of Health, of all funding sources. A camel-born respiratory disease called MERS is of current interest, and a paper by Megid G. Hemida, et al, provides us with this: 
There you go, drop the mike. Crone is wrong. Mecca is central to the  camel business.

But could it be due to the hajj? No doubt the modern pilgrimage is a factor, but the main movement is the familiar race for northern pasture, and that is simple agronomic logic. Starting in the rough country of Asir province and adjacent northern Yemen, camels move along the bench of the escarpment as far as Mecca, then ascends the escarpment to Taif, racing via Riyadh for the northern grass. the return via Mecca in the spring is much slower. 

Yes, it seems like an indirect route:

But San'a has an elevation of 2250m. That is a 1500m bump on the direct road to Riyadh, and, in the heights, the morning temperature can go as low as -9 C. The race to the northern pastures will not be won by the treacherously icy, even snowy, passes of the direct route.

Meanwhile, a further stream of African camels arrives by ship from Sudan and Somalia. I'm not a camel-trading guy, but I presume that this is because there is demand for camels in Arabia, and Jeddah is a good place to unload them. I would guess that Mecca is a good location for a winter camel fair, and, no doubt, associated wool sales. Finally, given that you're travelling that way, anyway, and in a screaming hurry at that, it makes considerable sense to find some room in the saddlebags for some incense and myrrh.

In conclusion, I will admit to having been intrigued and amused by Crone and Cook's daring. Now, having done a very small amount of research into the very basics of the quotidian carriage trade of livestock and their burdens was and is conducted in Arabia, my intrigue has turned into outrage. All of this is surely everyday knowledge to everyone who works in logistics around Saudi Arabia, and these things have surely been pointed out to obstreperous western scholars. The fact that these criticisms have not passed the gatekeepers --who appear to be Crone and Cook!-- is disheartening.

As for the salt marshes around Jeddah, I assume that they are reserved for sheep and goats. The browse is denser, and there is ash available for cleaning wool.


  1. Interesting to revisit this from an agronomically informed perspective - thanks!

    I'm more familiar with the linguistic/philological side of this, in which the evidence appears equally unfavorable to the Hagarene thesis. Seeing Islam as Others Saw It gives some of the surviving non-Arab early sources on the Islamic conquests, including what appears to be a contemporary reference to "the Arabs of Muhammad" fighting a battle east of Gaza in 634, and a mention of the "Hagarenes" praying south towards the Kaaba by 688. There's a nice recent article (open-access) confirming that the written text of the Qur'an can hardly be any later than the period of Uthman, as indicated by the traditional accounts: “The Grace of God” as evidence for a written Uthmanic archetype: the importance of shared orthographic idiosyncrasies. For the Mecca discussion, however, this confirmation is perhaps of limited relevance, as the town is mentioned by name only once in the Qur'an.

  2. I guess the Mecca problem remains interesting to some, but after realising that Crone wrote an entire monograph about Mecca's trade without bothering to inform herself about, you know, Mecca's trade, I've decided not to waste any more time plumbing the Hagarene rabbit hole.

  3. Can't say you're wrong. The whole notion strikes me as a bit of a conspiracy theory, kept going more by wishful thinking than by anything else.

  4. From memory, Jeddah is also the best place for a way-port on the Red Sea. Winds in the northern Red Sea are contrary, and the place infested with reefs. So sailors favoured unloading at ports on the Egyptian side and trans-shipping to the Nile (at Myos Hormos in classical times) rather than going north. The African shore is treacherous. Small ships need fresh water every few days - so Jeddah, as market, safest anchorage, water supply served all purposes. Mecca, in this view, would be as Athens to Piraeus or Rome to Ostia - inland enough to be safe from raids, high enough to be out of the malaria zone.

  5. A late, late comment (ah, the joys of vanity googling ...).
    This is all fascinating stuff, made more fascinating by the paucity of reliable evidence which leaves us free to specualte wildly. But my own wild speculation about a salt trade passing through Mecca was salt taken from inland rock or brine to the coast, not the other direction. Trading ports needed lots of salt to preserve fish and meat for ocean voyages (plus of course the salted food was a trade good itself). That's why all that salt from Timbuktu was carted to Mediterranean ports, f'rinstance.