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The Desert Is Their Home: Nomads and Their Animals

by Rev. Terrence J. Mulkerin

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The villages and towns of the Near East are built by the mud that oozes from springs and streams in the desert. Mud makes bricks for their houses. Water determines where those houses can be and how many of them there are. These castles in the sand are home for ninety percent of the people of the Near East, who occupy a tenth of its land.

The rest of the land belongs to the nomads. These weather-beaten wanderers travel between the fire-blackened stones that nomads have used to mark camp sites for generations. To survive, these migrants must reach the water holes that seep up from the desert sands. Without water neither they nor their animals can live.

The animals they raise make the nomads different from townspeople. Nomads lead their herds in constant search of the grass and water on which their very existence depends. Sedentary people search for sources of water to settle by; nomads settle for searching for sources of water. Their animals also distinguish the nomads from each other, dividing them into three groups.

Camel herders have held power in the Near East for more than a thousand years. Large tribes of camel nomads in the Syrian and Arabian Deserts dominate the other people who live there. They are superior because their animals are superior. They occupy the largest territories because camels can travel faster and farther than any other animals in the desert. As warriors, they became rich because they could carry off whatever they seized. As merchants, they are wealthy because they can transport whatever others wish to have.

A new revolution is taking place in the desert now. For centuries only camel tracks crossed the desert. Today, networks of highways follow the old caravan routes and trucks have become the beasts of burden. Bedouins motor from place to place. Motor vehicles transport their families, carry their belongings and move their animals. Trucks even fetch water for their livestock. The camel caravan has all but disappeared. Water holes are turning into service stations. The fighting and the marauding of the camel nomads are fading into legend. But the camel remains. Symbol of strength and endurance, the camel stands tethered outside the nomads’ tents. Bearer of the traditions of the past, the camel carries on the Bedouin way of life for nomads of the present.

Sheep and goats were the first animals to be domesticated in the Near East. For thousands of years, shepherds and goat herders have migrated with their flocks to reach grazing areas and drinking water. Herdsmen travel in small bands of twenty to thirty tents in order to avoid overcrowding at wells and pastures. Their movements follow a more regular pattern than the wanderings of the camel nomads. In lowland areas, herders move their flocks from the desert where they spend the rainy months of winter to the plains where they stay during the dry months of summer. In mountainous areas, they go to warmer low-lying pasturages for the winter and return to higher and cooler hilly pasturages for the summer.

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Tags: Migrants Farming/Agriculture