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Donkeys are mentioned in the Bible as an early means of transportation (Exod 4.20). Balaam, the prophet, rode a donkey (Num 22.22-35). And the “humble king” mentioned in Zechariah's prophecy is described as riding a donkey (Zech 9.9). Similarly, Jesus rode a young donkey into Jerusalem the week before he was to die on a cross (Matt 21.1-9). Donkeys were also used to carry supplies from place to place (Gen 44.13).
Horses were more expensive than donkeys. As a means of transportation, horses were originally used only by kings and armies. Eventually, all powerful armies in the Near East used horses to transport soldiers and pull battle chariots (1 Kgs 20.21). Messengers may also have used horses to bring news quickly from place to place (2 Kgs 9.18,19). The powerful but slow-moving oxen, on the other hand, were widely used as work animals to pull carts, wagons, and plows (Num 7.3).
Groups of merchants, pilgrims, or travelers joined together for protection as they traveled with their pack animals (either donkeys or camels, depending on the terrain). Trade and travel by caravans go back as far as recorded history (see, for example, Gen 37.25). Caravans were probably in use long before the rise of sea trade and travel.
As civilizations developed, caravans became very important to the economies of cities and empires. Cities could rise or fall depending on their closeness to important caravan routes; and empires had important interests in protecting trade routes (see Judges 5.6,7). Caravans were usually large and their valuable cargo required the protection of soldiers or armed guards. Wealthy travelers, like Abraham, bought slaves to use as armed guards (see Gen 14.14).
Before the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), land caravans contributed to trade in Palestine as they moved from Asia Minor following the western edge of the Syrian Desert. They supplied the markets of Aleppo, Hamath, and Damascus before heading south into Palestine. From there, they would travel to Egypt or to places near the Red Sea.
Other caravans came from central and southern Mesopotamia. Although this land was directly east of Palestine, most of these caravans had to travel north along the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys rather than directly west through the Syrian Desert. These routes, though long, were relatively safe, and caravans could make stops along the way to refresh their animals before traveling south into Palestine. Some routes went directly west from Babylon and Accad to Damascus, but these routes were dangerous because they crossed many miles of desert.
In the deserts of the ancient Near East, Egypt and northern Africa, the animal most often used in caravans was the camel. Some nomads who invaded the Israelite people rode on camels (Judg 6.3-5). Camels are the best pack animals for desert travel because they are strong, have natural protection from the environment, and can travel long distances without needing to stop for water.
In hot weather, on a long journey, a camel usually carried no more than three hundred fifty pounds. But on short journeys, in cooler weather, or to evade customs duties, a camel's load might be increased to a thousand pounds. Loads were usually divided into two parts and tied on either side of the camel's back. Passengers were often carried in large baskets tied on each side of the camel.
Camels are easier to tend during long travels through barren land. They can bite off and digest the thorny plants that grow there. Camels also have calluses on their bodies that insulate them from the heat of the desert sand. While a sandstorm might blind or injure horses or donkeys, camels have very long eyelashes to shield their eyes, and can close their nostrils to protect themselves from flying dust and sand. Because they store water in their humps, camels have the capacity to go without water for many days. They also have an acute sense of smell that makes them useful in finding sources of water.
Caravans traveled when there was enough water and pasture land. In progress, a caravan averaged two to three miles per hour for eight to fifteen hours each day or, in hot weather, each night. If possible, it was arranged to stop at a “caravansary,” (an inn for caravan travelers) which was usually built on a hill or elevation, and consisted of a courtyard, surrounded on all sides by many small rooms, with stables or storerooms underneath.
Archaeologists guess that the invention of the wheel occurred sometime between 10,000 and 8000 B.C. From existing evidence, it appears that wheels were attached to carts no later than 4000 B.C. when the inhabitants of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Sumer placed sledges on wheels to transport goods. At first, wheels were solid disks of wood. Wheels with spokes were first introduced around 2700 B.C.
In ancient times, three types of vehicles were used: the two-wheeled cart, the four-wheeled wagon, and the chariot. Two-wheeled carts were made of wood or woven basket material. Oxen, donkeys or even people pulled them. Carts were used to transport goods, baggage, and supplies. Four-wheeled wagons hauled large items such as building supplies. Wheeled vehicles were efficient on good roads and on the level plains of Palestine. They were not as reliable on rocky and dangerous mountain roads and so were not initially used for long-distance transportation of goods. Later, Roman engineers introduced wagons with undercarriages and a pivoting front axle for easier maneuvering.
Many ancient peoples used chariots as early as 3000 B.C. Battle scenes portrayed on pottery or carved in stone depict chariots in combat. Chariots were two-wheeled vehicles that one or more horses pulled. They were large enough to hold one or two soldiers with their weapons. Chariots were used for hunting by kings or wealthy people who could afford to buy and keep their own horses. The speed and mobility of chariots made a decisive factor in military campaigns. The dominance of the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians at different periods in Bible times is partly due to their well-equipped armies and use of chariots in battle. During the time of Solomon and the divided kingdom, Israel also made extensive use of chariots (1 Kgs 4.26). A horse and chariot could easily travel thirty miles in a day; and up to forty-five miles a day when necessary.