14. Land Transportation 5,203 Years Ago.

The prior 13 blog posts have served to lay a foundation for understanding the physical and cultural world used as a setting for the Raising Up Pharaoh series of novels. Compared with the arid Middle East today,  the region was still a verdant Cornucopia 5,203 years ago, although Holocene temperatures had peaked 4,000 years earlier and the subsequent cooling trend, accompanied by renewed glaciation’s drying process, has continued until our time. Life was far better than man had ever experienced during the last ice age, which had begun its melt about 20,000 years ago, followed by the Holocene. The agricultural revolution was well underway and feeding  their world no longer required every man, woman, and child to either farm, hunt, or gather in order to survive. As a result, talented risk-takers created specialized niches where their goods and services could be exchanged for the excess harvest of the farmers. Some risk-takers and farmers became much richer than others.

The population, for many reasons, not least of which was safety, for the first time congregated in walled cities such as Uruk. Their medium of exchange was barter for goods and labor. Large purchases were much more easily paid for with more portable, precious items e.g. gold, silver, copper, jewels, jewelry, cylinder seals, pottery, livestock, fine manufactured goods: textiles, rugs, tents, etc., and slaves (as property) and indentured servants (slaves for a fixed period of time). Exchanging such precious goods at a distance created another risk-takers niche: trading. Virtually everyone was eating and the population was growing geometrically, despite periodic interruptions e.g. sieges of war, drought and pest induced crop failures, floods, plagues, earthquakes, and other acts of God. Scientific data demonstrating one such setback, apparently instigated by drought, was described in Blog post # 4 where population density peaked at about 5,500 BP and dropped by about 50% (see first chart, post #4) which coincided with a drought (see second chart, post #4)—a pretty suspicious coincidence. This appears to be a good example of a population outrunning its sustainable food supply. And, of course, the drought-induced crop failures and poor nutrition would have exacerbated the mortality of the usual plagues afflicting an urban population. Despite such setbacks as in post #4, you’ll note the population resumed an upward trend, at a slower rate.

Having set the stage, now is an appropriate moment to study one set of props for our novels’ setting in 5,203 BP: the means of land transportation for those rich enough to travel on something other than their own feet.

The Onager was a readily available wild animal in Mesopotamia—available, but nearly impossible to tame, hence train. There is a dispute about whether the animals drawing war-wagons on one side of  The Royal Standard of Ur were onagers or donkeys. The visible difference, a black stripe down the back of an onager, would be small. Some people’s eyes see what they want to see. Below is a picture I took of four onagers in the Arabah, and the stripe is apparent, but I didn’t notice it until writing this article.

Onager herd under tamarisk tree.

  Photo by Richard E. J. Burke 2009

Not having noticed the stripes, I had misidentified these as wild donkeys. As a rider of horses, I vote for the animals on the Standard of Ur as donkeys. Why? Because it’s hard enough to ride any animal safely, or to handle any large unruly draft animal. In 5,203 BP we’re talking about the dawn of man’s using animals as helpers—rather than as food. The issue of willingness is a prerequisite for training. Conventional wisdom says somebody must “break” (i.e. tame) a horse before its training can begin. The Wiki article says “Onagers are notoriously untamable.”

The Donkey was domesticated in Mesopotamia by the time of my novels, and has been a tamable, docile, hearty, and strong working companion to man ever since. However, in researching this with an eye to the “stripe” that is supposed to distinguish the onager, I find that donkeys often have a black stripe down their backs, usually part of the “Donkey’s Cross” (visible in some of these pictures) which requires both a back stripe and another stripe crossing it at the shoulder and going down along the upper front legs. Since I don’t see this “cross” piece in the photo I took, I still say my picture is of four onagers. In my novels, donkeys are traded for camels or abandoned as more trouble than they’re worth in travelling through the Arabian desert.

Dromedary Camels were domesticated in Southern Arabia by the time of my novels, and play a very important role in the story. I chose camels over donkeys as the primary transportation of the central characters because of the camels’ superior load-carrying and desert-crossing capabilities. Frankly, it was no contest: dromedary camels can go up to 9 days without a drink, travel much faster, and carry much more than donkeys. In the early novels, some Bactrian camels show up in small numbers and nonessential roles with the invading Austerati, a proto-Mongol people from east of the Hindu Kush.

When I decided to introduce camels into the story 12 years ago, I was told that camels did not show up in the Middle East until around 1000 BC. Now, we’re told that they were domesticated by Bedouin in what is now called the southern Arabian peninsula by the time of my novels, which is exactly where I had placed them for the convenience of my story.

Horses were big in my life when I lived in Montevideo, Uruguay. I thought I knew how to ride horses when we departed the U.S.A., as Nancy and I had taken lessons in New England, but those lessons started with posting—and that’s the wrong starting point. I found this out when a polo pony that was lent to me ignored my fancy posture and ran away with me for a 5-mile dash back to the riding club. As the groom approached me atop my lathered mount, he said, “Oh, Senor, you mustn’t abuse the horse like that.”  When I told him what had really happened, I could see the blood drain from his face. He had let the Norteamericano take the Ferrari instead of the Volkswagen, simply because he’d been impressed by the Gringo’s fancy jodhpurs, two-toned boots, tunic, English riding helmet, and swagger. They’re going to demote me! He told me I had to take lessons from the Maestro, or I’d have to ride a lesser horse than Carpintera. Having driven the Ferrari, a Volkswagen was out of the question. So I took lessons from the Maestro, a real Uruguayan Army Cavalry Captain, and he started me riding bareback, to develop a “seat.” I also bought a Spanish-language book on Equitation. That was September 1976. After studying the book while travelling around my 6-country region, and riding lessons every Saturday that I could come home from my travels, in March I put on a dressage display before a jealous Nancy, who was then heavy with the child who produced the cover art of the Raising up Pharaoh series. She still bridles at the memory, feeling I showed too much swagger that day.

When I decided to introduce horses from the Steppes into the story 12 years ago, I was told that horses didn’t show up in the Middle East until after the camels— after 1000 BC. Yet we know, from Pharaoh Thutmose III’s brilliant victory in 1482 BC at Megiddo over  the Canaanites led by the King of Kadesh, that the Canaanites were humiliated by Egyptian confiscation of their horses (see the book Egypt… cc 1992 by Donald Redford under the Bibliography tab). To do what I wanted in these novels, I followed my instincts and common sense until my research capabilities, and subsequent developments, proved what I suspected.

Horses in my novels are used, not to pull carts or wagons, but as mounts for natural, essentially bareback riders atop a blanket or sheepskin cinched by straps, without stirrups, but with bits and reins, which is essentially the equipment found in the Kurgans in the Eurasian Steppes. My novels’ first riders are horse herdsmen from the Steppes who are hired by an ambitious king.

Although my story doesn’t use carts (drawn 2-wheelers) or wagons (drawn four-wheelers) as weapons, even though these were obviously used in that era as we know from the remains of those sacrificed at royal burials found by Woolley’s excavation at Ur, I do use them sparingly as supporting props in minor roles, but used by civilians.

Next week, we’ll address the homeland of the horses, and of the people who first domesticated and learned to ride them.

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