Part of the Traveling the Silk Road exhibition.

"The world is a caravanserai, with one entry and one exit. Every day, new people come to the caravanserai."
- Persian poet Omar Khayyam (A.D. 1048-1123)

Desert Voyager

A model of a camel bearing a pack, superimposed over a background drawing of people.

Adapted to the harsh desert conditions of Central Asia and the Middle East, camels made ideal pack animals for travel along the Silk Road. These hardy creatures thrived on tough desert plants. They could carry more weight than horses or donkeys--as much as 300 pounds (136 kilograms)--and needed less water. A loaded camel could sometimes go for 15 days without a drink of water.

How Camels Cope

Feet: Wide, padded feet help camels keep their balance on rocky paths and walk across sand without sinking.

Humps: Camel humps don't store water. They store fat, which provides energy when food can't be found.

Eyes: Bushy eyebrows and long, heavy eyelashes help protect the camels' eyes from dust and sand.

Coat: A Shaggy winter coat helps Bactrian camels stay warm in Central Asia, where temperatures can drop to -20° F (-29° C). Camel herders shear them and spin the hair into yarn to weave rugs, blankets and bags.

Nose: Narrow nostrils can close to protect the nose from blowing sand.

Mouth and stomach: Camels eat both grass and salty plants that grow in the desert. Their thick, tough lips can even put up with thorns.

What Kind of Camel?

Two-humped camels are known as Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus). Another species, the Arabian camel (Camelus dromedarius), has one hump only. Both animals hauled goods along the Silk Road.

Bactrian camels are fit for the cold climates of Central Asia, Mongolia and China, and were commonly used on the eastern trade routes. Arabian camels were more likely to be used on the western routes. Camel breeders also crossed the two species, producing a hybrid called a bukht, which was strongest of all.