© Mark Lowey. All rights reserved.
In this piece, Mark Lowey recounts the unique journey of a traditional Bedouin camel saddle that found its way from the Saudi desert to Watsonville, California.
The camel saddle, as it was found in Fazran area, 1979.
Found in 1979
During lunch hour on a warm winter day on January 13, 1979, I took a walk to look around an abandoned Bedouin encampment near my worksite at Fazran. The smooth, almost white sand was strewn with small round camel dung pellets and the remains of the encampment included broken-down wooden sheds, overturned oil barrels and a dilapidated corral for animals. Journal entry: “Today I took photos of an old camel saddle at the deserted Bedouin camp.” I didn’t think I wanted the saddle and left it where it was. After all, I had the photos.
The following Friday, I and a friend from university who was working in Al Khobar at the time, Rob Hardesty, ventured into the desert 70 kilometers north of Fazran and, among other things, encountered the “Solitary Bedouin” on his march through the desert.
On our way home that day we were passing Fazran, and I mentioned the saddle to Rob. We took a brief detour to have a look. “You don’t want it?” he asked, and then placed it into the back of his truck. We set off and promptly got stuck in the sand. Thankfully, it didn’t take us long to dig out the sand around the wheels and place boards beneath them. We soon freed the two-wheel drive pickup, proceeded to Abqaiq for dinner and, later, Rob took the camel saddle home to Al Khobar.
Mark’s and Rob’s route to the desert.
Fast Forward to 2023
I never saw the saddle again, nor did I think about it much except when I viewed my photos and reminisced about the good old days in Saudi. As for Rob Hardesty, after knowing each other in Saudi, we met only once, twenty years later in 1998 at his California home and occasionally corresponded by email.
Then, just this month on October 2, 2023, I was in Northern California for my 50th high school reunion, staying a few nights with an old college roommate. We decided to visit Rob, a fellow college alum, for a day.
Rob showed us around his hometown of Aptos. We hiked in a redwood forest and visited his home. When we stopped by his office in Watsonville, Rob showed me the camel saddle, well preserved and fully intact except for the interior padding that can be seen in the old photos from 1979. Rob described how he had cut off the straw-filled cotton sacks before shipping the saddle from Saudi to California.
I carefully studied the saddle’s structure and workmanship and was impressed that it looked the same as when I first saw it laying there among the camel dung. It felt like I had been reacquainted with an old friend after 44 years, and I was quite pleased that Rob had taken good care of that camel saddle.
Mark holds the camel saddle in Rob’s office, Watsonville, CA, 2023.
Camel saddle details: hand-carved wooden structure, leather ties, steel chain and decorative steel studs.
Near Fazran in 1979, a riderless camel with a North Arabian saddle. 
Rob Hardesty at the Al Hasa Camel Souq in 1978.
Rob in 2023.
 “The Solitary Bedouin, a Winter’s Day in the Middle of Nowhere,” Mark Lowey, September 2018. https://www.aramcoexpats.com/articles/the-solitary-bedouin-a-winter-s-day-in-the-middle-of-nowhere/
 The North Arabian Camel Saddle, Brown University course, “Arabia and the Arabs: The Making of an Ethnos,” February 2007. https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/courses/arabiaandarabs/1862.html
The North Arabian camel saddle was developed sometime from 500-100 BCE. It is formed by two inverted saddle bows that rest on a single or two pads in front and behind the camel's hump. Another pad is then laid atop this frame and the hump, and this is where the rider sits. As a pack saddle, the weight is distributed evenly and tied on either side of the saddle. In either case this type of saddle distributes the weight of the rider and/or pack over the camel's ribcage, rather than on its hump. The North Arabian saddle allowed for two things: because the rider is more securely atop the camel (as opposed to the former South Arabian saddle), he was then able to use swords and pikes mounted as opposed to just the arrows that had been possible before. In addition, the new saddle positioned the rider much higher up, which gave great advantage in battle. Both of these facts, R. Bulliet argues in The Camel and the Wheel (1975), led to a change in the balance of military power in the area and allowed the camel nomads to take control of the caravan routes, which in turn allowed for more social and economic integration of camel tribes into settled society, and this progression of increased importance of the camel is what allowed it to beat out the wheel in Arabia. (Bulliet)
 The Structure of the Camel Saddle, May 2014. https://www.dorotheum.com/en/l/3304580/
The wooden structure of an old camel saddle of the Bedouin consists of six segments, carved from wood, firmly attached with leather bands. The wide, vertical main supports feature a semicircular pommel each in the upper section. Both are carved with linear geometrical decorations on the external side. The wooden structure of an old camel saddle will display usage patina and age-related damage.
 “The Art of Saddling a Camel,” Doug Baum, Aramco World, November 2018. https://www.aramcoworld.com/Articles/November-2018/The-Art-of-Saddling-A-Camel
The dromedary (one-humped) camel allows a rider to sit in front of, on top of, or behind the hump; the Bactrian (two-humped) camel is saddled between humps. It is not surprising, then, that camel saddles vary as much as the cultures that make them and the work the camels do, as well as the resources available for fabrication. Generally, in regions where wood is plentiful, one finds larger contraptions; in less resource-rich areas, designs tend to be minimalist.
It was probably in Babylonia and Assyria that camel cultures first encountered horse cultures, and the horse’s superiority in warfare likely gave rise to the North Arabian saddle, which is situated on top of the hump—the best position from which to fight with spear and sword.
The frame for the North Arabian saddle is two upside-down, Y-shaped pieces made of tamarisk wood, tarfa in Arabic—one in front of the hump and one behind—joined by two pieces on each side. The front and back poles of this saddle can extend up high enough to hang the rider’s belongings, in one or more handwoven and often beautifully dyed saddlebags called horj.