Lecture 7. Camel as an Early Technology of Globalization

Traditional wisdom holds the wheel to be one of mankind’s cleverest inventions and the camel to be one of God’s clumsiest. But from 200-600 CE camel cultures came to dominate the world scene. The invention of Southern Arabian saddle extended possibilities for herders by also making them into trekkers and merchants. The corollary was the monopoly of land trade by camel cultures without dependence on older infrastructure of imperial Roman roads. This reversed the socio economic power relation between sedentary people (who insist on being more civilized) and nomads. The dizzying speed with which Islam spread globally from Bedouin dependent caravan cities in Arabia around this period, cannot be separated from the technological and economic edge that the camel and Arabian saddle gave Bedouins over agrarian and urban societies. The 4 case studies (a) Petra’s caravan city b) Al Murrah’s Black Tent, c) Tuareg’s Mat Tent and d) Turkmen’s Trellis Tent, demonstrate that camel technology informed both monumental architecture of caravan cities and lightweight architecture of mobile communities in huge swaths of the world. Our methodological framework approaches history of Arab, Bedouin, African, and Turkmen architecture as the history of technology as opposed to religion and primitivism; extending the history of media and technology beyond Europe and United States. Most productively, it allows us to see beyond the male centricism of Islamic architecture (mosques, palaces, madrasa etc.) and recognize the vital role of women as designers and builders in Muslim societies. The lecture ends by featuring the fate of camel cultures in the age of nationalism and carbon economy. Here we witness the radical reduction of camel centric tents to the imperatives of global image economy. Postmodern architecture by western architects building in the Middle East reveals the intolerance of the modern, high tech, instrumental system of knowledge to other systems of making sense of the world.

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