Click here to join the effort!
Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature
Caravan is the name given to a body of merchants or pilgrims as they travel in the East. A multitude of people, of all ages and conditions, assembling to undertake a journey, and prosecuting it en masse for days and weeks together, is a thing unknown in Europe, where, from the many facilities for traveling, and a well organized system of police, travelers can go alone and unprotected along the highways to any distance with the most perfect security. But in Eastern countries the dangers arising from the vast deserts that intersect these regions, as well as from wild beasts and bands of marauding Arabs, are too numerous and imminent for single traders or solitary travelers to encounter; and hence merchants and pilgrims are accustomed to unite for mutual protection in traversing these wild and inhospitable parts, as well as for offering a more effectual resistance to the attacks of robbers. Through this kind of intercourse, which principally obtains in Turkey, Persia, and Arabia, most of the inland commerce of the East is carried on. Any person can, under certain regulations, form a caravan at any time. But generally there are stated periods, which are well known as the regular starting-times for the mercantile journeys; and the merchants belonging to the company, or those travelers who are desirous of accompanying it for the benefit of a safe conduct, repair to the place of rendezvous where the caravan is to be formed, exhibiting, as their goods and camels successively arrive, a motley group—a busy and tumultuous scene of preparation, which can be more easily conceived than described. As in the hot season the traveling is performed under night, the previous part of the day on which the caravan leaves is consumed in the preparatory labors of packing—an indispensable arrangement, which has been observed with unbroken uniformity since the days of Ezekiel (); and then, about eight o'clock, the usual starting-time, the whole party put themselves in motion, and continue their journey without interruption till midnight () or later. At other seasons they travel all day, only halting for rest and refreshment during the heat of noon. The average rate of travel is from 17 to 20 miles per day.
The earliest caravan of merchants we read of is the itinerant company to whom Joseph was sold by his brethren (Genesis 37). The date of this transaction is more than seventeen centuries before the Christian era, and notwithstanding its antiquity, it has all the genuine features of a caravan crossing the desert at the present hour. This caravan was a mixed one, consisting of three classes, Ishmaelites (), Midianites (), and Medanites, as the Hebrew calls the last (), who, belonging to the mountainous region of Gilead, would seem, like the nomad tribes of Africa in the present day, to have engaged themselves as commercial travelers, and were then, in passing over the plain of Dothan, on the high caravan-road for the market of Egypt.
Besides these communities of traveling merchants in the East, there are caravans of pilgrims, i.e. of those who go for religious purposes to Mecca, comprising vastly greater multitudes of people. Four of these start regularly every year: one from Cairo, consisting of Muhammadans from Barbary; a second from Damascus, conveying the Turks; a third from Babylon, for the accommodation of the Persians; and a fourth from Zibith, at the mouth of the Red Sea, which is the rendezvous for those coming from Arabia and India. The organization of the immense hordes which, on such occasions, assemble to undertake a distant expedition, strangers, to each other, and unaccustomed to the strict discipline which is indispensable for their comfort and security during the march, though, as might be expected, a work of no small difficulty, is accomplished in the East by a few simple arrangements which are the result of long experience. One obvious bond of union to the main body, when traveling by night and through extensive deserts, is the music of the Arab servants, who by alternate songs in their national manner beguile the tedium of the way; while the incessant jingling of innumerable bells fastened to the necks of the camels enlivens the patient beasts, frightens animals of prey, and keeps the party together. To meet all the exigencies of the journey, however, the caravan is placed under the charge of a caravan bashè, the chief who presides over all, and under whom there are five leading officers appointed to different departments—one who regulates the march; a second, whose duties only commence at halting time; a third who superintends the servants and cattle; a fourth who takes charge of the baggage; a fifth who acts as paymaster, etc.; and besides these, there are the officers of the military escort that always accompanies it. Another functionary of the highest importance is the hybeer, or guide, whose services are indispensable in crossing the great deserts, such as that along the coast of the Red Sea or on the western extremities of Africa. He is commonly a person of influence, belonging to some powerful tribe, whose personal qualifications must embrace an extensive and accurate acquaintance with the whole features of the land. It is absolutely necessary that he understand the prognostics of the weather, the time and places where the terrible simoom or hot wind blows, and the tracts occupied by shifting sands; and that he know the exact locality and qualities of the wells the oases that afford the refreshments of shade for the men and grass for the cattle, the situation of hostile or treacherous tribes, and the means of escaping those threatened dangers.
There is a close and very striking resemblance between the arrangements of these caravans and the order adopted by the Israelites during their journey through almost the same extensive deserts. The arrangement of those vast traveling bodies seems to have undergone no material alteration for nearly four thousand years, and therefore affords the best possible commentary illustrative of the Mosaic narrative of the Exodus. Like them, the immense body of Israelitish emigrants, while the chief burden devolved on Moses, was divided into companies, each company being under the charge of a subordinate officer, called a prince (Numbers 7). Like them, the Hebrews made their first stage in a hurried manner and in tumultuous disorder (); and, like them, each tribe had its respective standard [STANDARDS]; which was pitched at the different stages, or thrust perpendicularly into the ground, and thus formed a central point, around which the straggling party spread themselves during their hours of rest and leisure (). Like them, the signal for starting was given by the blast of a trumpet, or rather trumpets (; ); and the time of march and halting was regulated by the same rules that have been observed by all travelers from time immemorial during the hot season. Like theirs, too, the elevation of the standard, as it was borne forward in the van of each company, formed a prominent object to prevent dispersion, or enable wanderers to recover their place within the line or division to which they belonged. Nor was there any difference here, except that, while the Israelites in like manner prosecuted their journey occasionally by night as well as by day, they did not, like the caravans of pilgrims, require the aid of fires in their standards, as the friendly presence of the fiery pillar superseded the necessity of any artificial lights. One other point of analogy remains to be traced in the circumstance of Hobab being enlisted in the service of the Hebrew caravan as its guide through the great Arabian Desert. The extreme solicitude of Moses to secure the services of his brother-in-law in that capacity will be accounted for if it is borne in mind, that although the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night sufficed to regulate the main stages of the Hebrews, foraging parties would at short intervals require to be sent out, and scouts to reconnoiter the country for fuel, or to negotiate with the native tribes for provender and water. And who so well qualified to assist in these important services as Hobab, from his intimate acquaintance with the localities, his influence as a Sheikh, and his family connection with the leader of Israel?
The nature and economy of the modern Hadj caravans might be applied also to illustrate the return of the Hebrew exiles under Ezra from the land of their captivity.
The bands of Jewish pilgrims that annually repaired from every corner of Judea to attend the three great festivals in Jerusalem, wanted this government and distribution into distinct companies, and seem to have resembled less the character of the great Mecca caravans than the irregular processions of the Hindus to and from the scene of some of their religious pageants. On such occasions multitudes of men, women, and children, amounting to ten or twenty thousand, may be seen bending their way to the place of ceremonial, with their beds, cooking implements, and other luggage on their heads, prosecuting their journey in this manner from day to day, by long or shorter stages, as custom or physical strength may dictate. As in a crowd of this motley description not the slightest regard is paid to regularity or order, and everyone of course takes the place or mingles with the group that pleases him, the separation of the nearest friends for a whole day must, in such circumstances, be a common and unavoidable occurrence; and yet anxiety is never felt, unless the missing one fail to appear at the appointed rendezvous of the family. In like manner among the ancient Jews, the inhabitants of the same village or district would naturally form themselves into traveling parties, for mutual security as well as for enjoying the society of acquaintance. The poorer sort would have to travel on foot, while females and those of the better class might ride on asses and camels. But as their country was divided into tribes, and those who lived in the same hamlet or canton would be more or less connected by family ties, the young, the volatile, and active among the Jewish pilgrims had far more inducements to disperse themselves among the crowd than those of the modern processions, numbers of whom are necessarily strangers to each other. In these circumstances it is easy to understand how the young Jesus might mingle successively with groups of His kindred and acquaintance, who, captivated with His precocious wisdom and piety, might be fond to detain Him in their circle, while His mother, together with Joseph, felt no anxiety at His absence, knowing the grave and sober character of their companions in travel; and the incident is the more natural that His parents are said to have gone 'one day's journey from Jerusalem before they missed him;' since, according to the present, and probably the ancient, practice of the East, the first stage is always a short one, seldom exceeding two or three hours. Beer—the modern el-Bireh, where Mary's discovery is reputed to have been made—is scarcely three miles from Jerusalem, where the caravan of Galilean pilgrims halted.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Caravan'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/c/caravan.html.