Nomads in The Middle East

By: Brian Spooner

Originally Published in 2018

View PDF

Nomads are mobile tent-dwelling pastoralists in areas of the arid zone (which stretches from Morocco to China, with the area we call the Middle East at its center), where there is no urban or agricultural development. By migrating seasonally to find the best pastures, they are able to manage larger flocks. Unlike urban and agricultural communities, which are organized in terms of land and water ownership, and investment in water supplies, nomads are unable to organize investment or accumulate property in the same way as urban populations can, and are organized tribally, in terms of personal relations of descent, kinship, marriage connections and relative age.

Two shepherds with their flock of sheep

Nomadic Life

TDepending on the region, nomadic pastoralists herd different sets of species, with horses dominant in the steppes, camels in the deserts, and yak in the mountains of East Asia. Sheep and goats, however, form the basis of herds through-out Eurasia. Lur shepherds with sheep crossing the Zagros Mountains, near the village of Saliabad, Luristan, 1932. Museum image: 83409.

embroidered band in red and yellow
Embroidered band from a nomadic tent, similar to those pictured in image 195127 (see opposite page, lower right). Museum object: A609.
Bronze horse bit in the shape of two horses
Horses were domesticated around 3500 BCE in the steppes of Kazakhstan, entering the Middle East about a millennium later. The people of Iron Age Luristan, a mountainous region in Iran, crafted bronze horse bits with figural cheek pieces. Like the Lurs of today, they may have been semi-nomadic. Museum object: 31-14-1.
A man and his camel and dog in the desert
Man and camel, Saudi Arabia. There is a falcon perched on the man’s left arm. Photograph by Carleton S. Coon, 1952. Museum image: 50201.

Nomads milk and shear their animals, and are important producers of clarified butter and other milk products, as well as meat and wool, all of which they market in the settled communities where they get their bread, fruit, and vegetables. The two economies have always been reciprocally inter-related, and their interdependence was important for the rural (and to some extent also the urban) economies well into the 20th century.

Unlike the settled populations, for whom land and water are long-term investments, nomads depend on their flocks, mostly sheep and goats, which have a ten-year productive life span, and reproductive rates that vary year by year. The two groups are also ideologically opposed. Urban disdain for nomads and their lifestyle is known from as far back as Sumerian texts, and the nomadic groups often see the property of the cities as a potential resource. It is easy for them to take advantage of new opportunities, such as, in some cases, raiding trading caravans or villages. There are even examples of nomads taking over the government of a city. But there have also been exchanges of population between nomadic and urban communities. Nomads could be recruited as additional labor in the cities in an economic boom. Urban laborers and villagers may have joined the nomads when there were problems in the rural or urban economies.

BRIAN SPOONER, D. PHIL, is a Curator in the Near East Section at the Penn Museum.

Four people sitting inside a Kyrgyz tent
Interior view of a Kyrgyz tent, Tash-kent district, Uzbekistan. Photograph by Bolojinsky, 1890s. Museum image: 195127. In the steppes, nomads live in self-support-ing circular tents with felt coverings, while in the Middle East, they use tents made from strips of handwoven cloth.

Cite This Article

Spooner, Brian. "Nomads in The Middle East." Expedition Magazine 60, no. 1 (May, 2018): -. Accessed April 20, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/nomads-in-the-middle-east/


This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to digitalmedia@pennmuseum.org.