A souq that is guaranteed to bring out the ‘aaaahh’ factor in almost anyone can be found on the Dammam Road, heading east out of Riyadh. A vast area of around five kilometres square is home to the largest collection of camels in the Middle East and is a market that has probably changed little in the last few hundred years.
Domesticated thousands of years ago by frankincense traders, who trained camels to make the long and tortuous journey from southern Arabia to the northern regions of the Middle East, Ata Allah, or ‘God’s gift’ as the Bedouin call them, went on to become the desert dweller’s primary source of transport, shade, milk, meat, wool and hides.
But in modern Sa’udi Arabia, camels are now valued more as thoroughbred racing animals than as the mainstay of transportation.
Some of the camels are eaten – the young male camel is preferred – a tough meat, but which is quite tasty, and it needs to be well marinated or stewed for some time.
Camel’s milk is much more nutritious than that of a cow. It is normally drunk fresh, though the warm frothy liquid, heavy and sweet, is usually an acquired taste for the Western palate. (If, when travelling in the desert you are offered a bowl of camel’s milk by hospitable bedouin, do give it a try! You can also buy it from some supermarkets for around SR9 per litre.) Most Sa’udi Arabian camels are females reared for their milk in dairy herds, whilst the males that are not up to racing standard are culled ready for the pot.
Many Sa’udi camels are also kept as pets and live in the enclosures of this souq area. Their owners go out there in the evenings and weekends to spend ‘quality’ time with them, to drink coffee, gossip, and generally hang out with other camel-loving friends, whilst the camels themselves feign indifference in the extreme, wearing Who, me? faces as they stroll around their enclosures.
You can wander freely around the camel souq, where the locals will be only too happy to show off their prized possessions which come in a variety of colours ranging from off-white to nearly black. (There are seven 'official' colours designated in camel beauty contests.)
Look for the branding marks, or ‘wusum’, often applied to the camel’s neck, leg or rump which shows ownership of an animal.
And ladies, try not to be too jealous when you see their double row of long curly eyelashes that help keep out sand and dust!
Thick bushy eyebrows shield a camel’s eyes from the desert sun; and when the camel places its foot on the ground its broad, flat, leathery pads with two toes on each foot prevent it from sinking into the sand.
When walking, the camel moves both feet on one side of its body, then both feet on the other, suggesting the rolling motion of a boat, explaining perhaps the camel’s ship of the desert nickname.
Camels have the reputation of being bad-tempered and obstinate creatures, whereas in reality, they tend to be good-tempered, patient and intelligent.
Their hearing is acute – even if they choose to pay no attention when given a command. The normal life span of a camel is 40 years, though a working camel retires from active duty at 25.
To reach the camel souq, take the eastern or northern ring road to junction 8, and continue along the Dammam Road for approximately 10 kms, whence you will see endless camel enclosures on your left. Come off at the next exit, following signs for Thumamah, and the camel souq is on the left hand side of the road. However, be aware that at the end of 2006 a central reservation was made in the road, and this runs for some 9kms before you can turn back on yourself to the camels, so you're probably better off parking on the right hand side and braving the traffic.
Another way to reach the camel souq is from the airport. Take the eastbound road signposted Private Aviation and drive as far as you can go - past the end of the airport runway, right through the check point, across the junction and when you meet the junction at Janadriyah, turn right - past the BAE Systems Salwa compound and keep in a straight line for 20kms when the souq will appear on your right hand side.
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