Faroqhi, Suraiya (1982) “Camels, Wagons, and the Ottoman State in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 14/4, 523-539.
Earlier research on the subject of Ottoman transport history have emphasized the role of the state in the system. Less attention has been paid to the “material bases of overland transportation” (p.523). The main point is the competition between camels and wheeled-wagons pulled by oxen. Overland transportation was uniquely important in Anatolia since most urban centers lacked an access to the sea. Even for port towns, the bulk of the international trade transited through land routes (p.524).
Where do camels come from?
Nomad groups in Syria and Mesopotamia had to pay their taxes to the Ottoman state in kind; to collect the cash needed, they proposed their camels for transportation in the region (p.525). As a result, Beduins would commonly establish themselves in the pastures near the main business centers (hans) for the summer. Often, the merchants would hire a tribal chieftain to conduct their caravans with drivers of his clan. But it is not known whether the animals were common property or belonged to the individual drivers.
“Camel drivers often hired out their animals only for a limited distance, so that caravans had to be rearranged several times during a long journey”. The process of hiring new drivers could immobilize a caravan for two or three weeks, but on the other hand the driver could more easily find a cargo for the return trip (p.526).
The Sultan’s camels
The administration (e.g. for the grain deliveries to the army) had the possibility to choose between the camels belonging to the state (miri deve) and those hired or more generally levied as taxes (mübayaa). Except in Istanbul, state stable were rare and local merchants were often forced to host the government’s camels in their hans (p.527).
The mübayaa are often described by sources as a particularly heavy tax as well as leading to numerous cases of embezzlement by government officials (animals being estimated half their market prices). The most severe drafts ought to have had serious consequences on civilian transportation (p.528).
A camel’s daily consumption may have been around 4 kg of barley and 9.4 kg of straw (for an estimated monthly price of 3,000 akçes; p.529). A significant proportion of this cost was bared by the population of the areas the camels traveled through who had often to provide the food necessary to the animals. Many high Ottoman dignitaries unlawfully enjoyed similar privileges and forced the locals to feed their camels. Local magnates also regularly assumed similar privileges and demanded food and fodder for their beasts (p.530).
Local officials were also in charge of levying taxes in cash to pay for camels hired by the state for a specific task. More broadly, on a Payas-Erzurum trip in the mid-sixteenth century a kilogram of grain may have cost as much as 2 akçes to carry. “Only extra-economic constraint, as exercised by the powerful Ottoman state, could make overland transportation of grain […] a reality”.
Camels and wagons
There was a division of tasks between camels and wagons drawn by horses or oxen (p.531). Some nomads used wagons in Anatolia and they were common for transports but mostly for shorter distances, camels being used for longer trips. In Rumelie, on the other hands, wagons were used for long-distance trade (also camels were also present there; p.532). Camels were even preferred by the administration over sea routes when it came to carrying woolens from Salonica.
The district of Vize in Thrace was renowned for its manufacture of wagons. Although not as common as in Rumelie, wagons were not unknown in Anatolia and most roads seems to have experienced some wheeled traffic (p.533). It is not unreasonable to think that the Iranian war ought to have incented the Ottoman state to maintain roads to the East in such a state that they could be used by gun carriages (p.534).
The sources used in this study do not allow us to understand exactly why wagons were sometimes preferred over camels. But the fact is that these two means were widely used and that overland routes were crucial for the Ottoman state.
“While the choice of camels or wagons for a given transportation task is not in itself a sign of ‘progress’ or ‘decline’, it is very probable that the Ottoman road system was in much better condition around 1550 than it was to be two hundred years later. Under these conditions, we might expect to encounter sixteenth-century wheeled traffic in places where it could not be found in the eighteenth, nineteenth, or even early twentieth century” (p.535).