The sun blazes overhead, and the only sound is the wind stirring up the sand and rustling the sparse, dry bushes. In the distance, beyond the waves of heat rippling up from the ground, appear “ships of the desert,” laden with goods. But there is no water for miles around.
No, they aren’t some kind of strange boat navigating the hot sands. They are camels, called “ships of the desert” because of the swaying motions they make when they walk—they may even make some riders feel seasick—and because they can carry heavy loads.
Camels have been around for centuries and are mentioned many times in the Bible, especially the Old Testament. They are first mentioned by name when the pharaoh of Egypt gave animals to Abraham the prophet, who lived about two thousand years before Jesus was born (see Gen. 12:16). Like present-day camel owners, Abraham probably used them to carry goods; to provide milk, fat, and sometimes meat; and to supply hair for making clothes, tents, and carpets. Camel hides are also made into leather, and their dung may be used for fuel.
What’s that stored in the camel’s hump? Contrary to what a lot of people think, it isn’t water. Camels store fat there, as much as 100 pounds (45.5 kg) of it. Most mammals have a layer of fat all over their bodies, but in desert temperatures, that layer would hold in warmth and cause a camel to become overheated, so it’s all kept in their humps, to help keep them cool.
A camel’s hump is like its own portable food storage! When the camel has lots of plants to eat, its hump becomes big and firm. When food is scarce, the hump shrinks as the camel lives off the fat stored there. When this happens, the hump on some camels may even flop over to the side.
The camels we read about in the Bible are one-humped Arabian camels, sometimes called dromedaries. Bactrians, which have two humps, live in the deserts and surrounding mountain regions of central Asia. They have shorter legs and heavier bodies than their Arabian cousins.
If you were out in the desert in the summer, it wouldn’t take long for you to get very thirsty. In hot weather, a person can live only two days or so without water, but camels can go two weeks or more without taking a drink. And in the winter, some can go eight weeks! A camel can lose up to one-third of its total body weight in water without getting sick. When a thirsty camel does finally get water, it might drink as much as 26 gallons (100 liters) in just a few minutes! They can absorb water much faster than most other animals. They also get some of the water that they need from the plants they eat.
Camels are strong animals, and they don’t complain about carrying loads up to 600 pounds (250 kg). If they are given loads that are too heavy, though, they will refuse to budge. And if they aren’t treated well, they might even spit a very bad-smelling liquid at the person who mistreats them.
The camels we see today have changed very little from the time the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon “with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones” (1 Kgs. 10:2). In some parts of the world, they are still the most reliable way to get around. And they’re probably the only kind of “ship” you’ll ever find in the middle of the desert!