The Year of the Camel: Saudi Arabia celebrates its most-coveted creature

Known as the "ships of the desert", camels are regularly featured in Arabic poetry, stories and art, signifying their esteemed position in society.

The cultural connection to camels runs deep and reveals much about Arab customs and culture.
The cultural connection to camels runs deep and reveals much about Arab customs and culture.

The Year of the Camel: Saudi Arabia celebrates its most-coveted creature

Riyadh: The Saudi Ministry of Culture has declared 2024 as the "Year of the Camel" in a nod to the significant role the majestic "ship of the desert" played in the lives of the people of the Arabian Peninsula.

The camel played its role in the development of civilisation in the Kingdom and the broader region. The cultural connection to camels runs deep and reveals much about Arab customs and culture.

Camels are a means of transportation and a source of sustenance — whether through their meat or milk — and are often featured in Arabic poetry and stories.

Each facet of the culture’s relationship with camels highlights a different Arab quality, whether it is pride, generosity, courage, chivalry, optimism or a longing for home.

Awe-inspiring creatures

Camels are awe-inspiring creatures in their ability to help sustain life in the region. They can survive without water for extended periods by storing water in their distinctive humps.

Another interesting fact is that they can find their way back home over hundreds of kilometres. In ancient times, if the Arabs became lost in the desert, they would allow the camels to roam freely, leading them to water sources.

Camels are even mentioned in the Quran: "Do they not look at camels, how they are created?" reads one verse.

Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) once said: "Camels are a source of pride for their people, sheep are a blessing, and horses are a sign of goodness."

Camel milk has also been used for medicinal purposes, and its healing properties have been cited in several hadiths.

 The cultural connection to camels runs deep and reveals much about Arab customs and culture. 

Camels and Arabic poetry  

For the Arabs, poetry is a repository of their wisdom, a testament to their history, and a showcase of their creative talents.

And because of the camel's integral purpose and revered status in Arab society, Arab poetry is replete with references to the animal. As such, camels were elevated from mere desert-dwelling animals to powerful symbols with profound cultural significance. 

According to the writer and critic Dr. Ali Zaala, the ancient historian Ibn al-Nadim listed at least 20 books referencing camels. Unfortunately,  most of these books have been lost and have only been preserved through other works, such as Ibn Manzur's Lisan al-Arab.

This early interest in camels in Arab cultural writings highlights the significant role camels played in the lives and consciousness of Arabs.

It is particularly evident in pre-Islamic Arabic literature, which cannot be fully understood without a deep understanding of writings about the camel found in the poetry, prose, narratives, and proverbs of that time. 

The camel was seen as the symbol of the Arab man, a companion in difficult times and journeys, and a symbol of pride and heroism, Zaala explains.

"I forgot my worries when he brought a female camel with straps around her neck," one poet, Al-Mutalammis, wrote.

Al-Marqash Al-Akbar wrote about his difficult journey in the harsh desert with his camel.

"In a timeless desert, where the roses have withered away 

I rouse from my slumber 

And silently, 

I beckon my camel as the night grows darker."

Desert safari camel ride festival in Abqaiq Dammam, Saudi Arabia.

Camels in contemporary Saudi culture 

Camels also hold significance in the modern era.

Poet and humanities researcher Abdul Hadi Saleh explained to Al Majalla that the animals represent authenticity and reflect Saudis' strong connection with their environment.

Camels have different names that reflect their different colours, markings, and unique traits. Each description serves a practical purpose, whether for ownership, racing, meat, or milk. 

Some Saudis keep camels for sport or other commercial activities, and some keep them for fun, as a hobby. Others are collectors of rare camel breeds. One of the top collectors of purebred camels was King Khaled.

There are two types of camels. The Al-Majaheem or Najdi camels are black in colour, while the Al-Maghateer have a tan, yellowish or even reddish colour.

Camels in art

Camels have always been a part of the Saudi arts scene, including fine art, drama, and poetry.

Saudi popular memory is filled with songs about camels, such as one by the late singer Mutlaq Al-Dhiyabi. This presence has remained strong throughout time, as seen in the contemporary Saudi film Naga, directed by Mishal Al-Jasser.

The film was showcased at the Toronto Film Festival and the Red Sea Film Festival, and it became one of the most-watched films on the Netflix platform. 

A still from the 2023 film Naga

Read more: Naga: How a film about a vengeful camel is inspiring Saudi women

Camels are often featured in art, photography and creative writing.

Dr. Rania Al-Ardawi, a professor of criticism and literature, says the Ministry of Culture's decision to honour camels this year highlights their rich place in Saudi identity, culture and heritage.

"This year's theme channels Saudi Arabia's rich culture and history, just as previous themes over the years — from Arabic calligraphy, poetry and coffee," she said.

The camel's role will be celebrated this year through a host of artistic and cultural activities as Saudi Arabia continues to showcase its rich traditions to the world. 

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