BIBLICAL BEAST OF BURDEN. This small bronze figurine, recovered from the island of Rhodes and now on display at the British Museum, depicts a bearded man seated firmly atop a kneeling camel. Both the camel and its Mesopotamian-style rider would certainly have been foreign to Iron Age Greece and it is therefore likely that the figurine was brought from the east, perhaps from Assyria.
Despite its small size (it stands only 3 inches tall), the figurine offers clear evidence of the growing importance of the dromedary (one-humped) camel in the Iron Age Near East (1200–586 B.C.). As a beast of burden highly adapted to desert life and travel, the camel could go for weeks at a time without water and could carry loads of more than 150 pounds. Such qualities quickly made the animal—and its nomadic Arab breeders—indispensable to the flow of trade and traffic across vast stretches of the Fertile Crescent.
Although the date of the camel’s domestication remains a mystery, the Bible tells us that camels were already used during the reign of King Solomon to ferry exotic goods (and a beautiful queen) between distant South Arabia and Jerusalem (1 Kings 10:1–10). Afterward, camels appear regularly in the annals and reliefs of the Assyrian kings, often in association with the vanquished Arab tribesmen who had become wealthy from the overland trade.