Camel caravan

Camel caravan
Mosaic from Deir al-Adas, Syria, 8th century (photo: J.C.Meyer)
The research project Mechanisms of cross-cultural interaction: Networks in the Roman Near East (2013-2017) investigates the resilient everyday ties, such as trade, religion and power, connecting people within and across fluctuating imperial borders in the Near East in the Roman Period. The project is funded under the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL initiative, and hosted by the Department of archaeology, history, cultural studies and religion, University of Bergen, Norway.

This blog is no longer updated, for any queries, please contact project leader Eivind Heldaas Seland

Friday, 7 October 2016

On dromedaries and the art of classifying diplomatic gifts

By Birgit van der Lans
At Persepolis. Photo: Magnus Halsnes

Last month NeRoNE went to Iran, where many of our individual interests came together.

Relief IV at Bishapur. Photo: Magnus Halsnes

A good example is this Sasanian rock relief, located in the Tang-e Chowgang river gorge on the road leading to the city of Bishapur. Bishapur was founded by Shapur I and built by Roman soldiers who had been captured after the defeat of Valerian in 260 CE. The relief above, however, was commissioned by one of Shapur’s successors, Bahram II (276 – 294 CE). It depicts the arrival of an Arabian embassy at the Sasanian court, bringing two Arabian one-humped camels, also known as Camelus dromedarius, as diplomatic gifts. The six delegates are ushered in by a Persian courtier while Bahram rides to receive them seated on his horse.

The Arabian origin of the six envoys was already established in 19th century French descriptions of the Bishapur reliefs. Their long, belted garments, short moustaches, characteristic head-cloths as well as the dromedaries all point in the geographical direction of the Arabian desert. It is possible to be more specific about the provenance of the embassy and about its date and occasion if a recent suggestion is followed that the relief depicts the coming of a Himyarite embassy sent by king Shammar Yuhar’ish (287 – 311 CE). In the course of his rule South Arabia was unified under the kingdom of Himyar. Shammar Yuhar’ish is also reported to have established closer diplomatic relations with the Sasanians, presumably in order to support his position vis-à-vis his Ethiopian rivals at Axum, who were in turn backed by Rome. For the otherwise not very successful Bahram II, to depict the arrival of the Himyarite embassy, if this identification is correct, was to publicise a Sasanian step forward in the competition with Rome over influence in the Red Sea region.

This was not the only instance we saw of camels with one or two humps being presented to Persian rulers. In various ways the iconography of the Sasanian reliefs harks back to the stone carvings with which their Achaemenid predecessors represented their dynasty (c. 700 – 330 BCE), cut out of natural rock formations or the stone palace walls of Persepolis. 

a) Bactrian camel with Bactrians 

b) Arabian camel (dromedary) with Arabs. Photos: Birgit van der Lans
Here the eastern stairs of the Apadana feature several camels being presented to the great king at the occasion of the New Year’s festival by delegations of nations subject to the Persian empire: the Bactrians, Arians, Parthians and Arachosians bring Bactrian two-humped camels (fig. a) while the Arabian team brings along a dromedary (fig. b).

The appearance of camels and dromedaries on such reliefs is not difficult to explain. After their domestication in the early first millennium BCE the animals became crucial to the development of long-distance trade because of their ability to carry substantial loads and to travel long distances in arid regions. Camels thus became valuable commodities to those who herded them and to those who obtained them. The association with the caravan trade turned them into symbols of wealth. Especially fine animals could fetch high prices, bring prestige to owners and make good diplomatic gifts.

Yet value and meaning depend on the context of representation. As on Bahram’s relief at Bishapur, the envoys in Persepolis are led by the hand by a courtier, in this case towards the audience hall where they would be received by the king. They are dressed in native outfits and carry objects and animals that represent their origins. Despite these similarities in iconography, the Persepolis camels are classified as ‘tribute’ rather than as ‘diplomatic gifts’.

Although it probably did not matter much to the camels themselves, it did make a difference whether they were handed over as tribute or as gifts. The two types of exchange expressed and constituted different types of social relations and distributions of power. Objects that function as tribute signal an asymmetrical hierarchy of power between rulers on the one hand and subjects, clients or vassals on the other. Whereas tribute displays submission and can be demanded or imposed, diplomatic gifts are associated with the voluntary and reciprocal exchange between equal or nominally independent agents.

Despite its importance, the distinction between tribute and gift (and booty, for that matter) could be difficult to make out in individual cases, for instance when the context of exchange is not articulated and all that survives are the (mostly material) objects themselves. Moreover, the meaning of the exchanged goods and – by proxy – the underlying social relations were subject to negotiation and rhetorical manipulation. Some good examples can be found in Marian Feldman’s study of luxury goods in the diplomatic exchange in the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean. She shows that goods could be called gifts even though they amounted to tribute in the reality of power relations, while conversely they could be presented as tribute when they had been intended as gifts. The Amarna archive provides perhaps the best illustration of the sensitivities when the distinction was misrepresented or ignored. In one letter the king of Babylon complains that the Egyptian pharaoh had displayed the Babylonian chariots he had sent as diplomatic gifts alongside chariots which the pharaoh had acquired as tribute from Egyptian vassals. Here, failing to distinguish between tribute and gift amounts to a public humiliation (EA 1: 89-92; correspondence between Kadasman-Enlil I and Amenhotep III).

Classifying diplomatic gifts is an intricate art. Even when camels are not confused with dromedaries and gifts are correctly distinguished from tribute, the camel may still end up as dinner.


  1. Well, in the end you seem to think that it may have mattered the camels themselves too ;-)
    Beyond the joke though, it is in my opinion vital to reconsider the role that animals were playing in human affairs, as well as the importance of the relation of humans with the animals that participated in their social constructs and sensual perception of the world.
    Somehow, in the manner of "A manifesto for a social zooarchaeology" by Overton and Hamilakis (
    But perhaps this is rather secondary in a most interesting and inspiring blog post!
    Thanks for sharing these thoughts with us.

    1. Thank you Alexandros! Perhaps this is an interesting approach to exotic animals as diplomatic gifts, I will check it out.