"We identify the Middle East with that romantic image of camels and caravans," said anthropologist Donald Cole at the American University in Cairo, speaking above the din of car horns and revving engines from the traffic nearby. "But that doesn't much exist anymore."

At Christmas, a thousand department stores in the United States portray the wise men arriving at Bethlehem atop their ungainly, humped dromedaries. The romantic explorers of the last century -- and Lawrence of Arabia in this one -- all mounted camels and rode them into legend.

But slowly this central element in the life of the region, particularly that of the Bedouin tribes, has been supplanted.

"In the past, the camel-herding Bedouin were the elite," said Cole, who spent years among nomadic tribes. The beasts gave their owners mobility and food. A man with many camels was considered wealthy. Now wealth is more likely measured in hard cash, cars or more tractable animals than the lumbering, often ill-tempered camel.

As transportation, camels have given way to Suzukis and Datsuns and Land-Rovers in most of the Middle East. As a source of food, herders have replaced them with sheep and goats, whose meat is more in demand in the area's burgeoning cities. Romance gives way to practicality.

Cole, smiling, said, "Camels have a sort of personality that a sheep doesn't have."

For the Bedouin, he suggested, "it's very hard to write poems about sheep, whereas they did write poetry about camels and horses." Now, he added, "sometimes in Saudi Arabia you hear Bedouins who write poems about their pickup trucks."

Yet in the still-primitive countryside of Egypt, camels continue to serve as beasts of burden. In Sudan, small caravans still traverse the remote recesses of the desert, the traders sometimes armed with swords and spears, sometimes with Kalashnikov automatic rifles.

And in Cairo, the poorest of the poor still eat the camel's cheap, stringy meat.

In a corner of the Imbaba slum by the railroad tracks in northern Cairo each Friday morning, thousands of camels are assembled for sale, mainly to the slaughterhouses.

A few tourists, having heard of the place, wander nervously through the hobbled ranks of towering beasts and cringe for fear of a bite, or of being trampled. Boys whack the animals back into place, swinging long bats against their haunches like a rug being beaten.

Merchants sell arrays of truck bearings that are hard to find in Sudan, brass talismans to ward off the evil eye, gaudily decorated horse harnesses, blankets and cheap sweaters made in the Orient. Women cook up odd pieces of meat on oily fires. Some prepare the shisha for men to smoke out of hookahs cobbled together from a hose, a wooden pipestem and bowl, and old insecticide cans that boast "Triple Killing Power: Strong, Fast, Sure."

"In Sudan, things are just as they were in the old days," said a driver as he told of his trip here. "In Egypt, things are modern."

The camel herders left their homes in Kordofan in western Sudan, or Kassala in the east, sometimes a month or more before their arrival in Cairo.

Some came over the track once known as the Darb Arbain -- "the way of 40 days" -- through the western deserts before loading their herds onto trucks and trains just this side of the border. They go back by boat down Lake Nasser, which they call "the sea," behind the Aswan High Dam.

Less than a century ago, tens of thousands of camels might move in a single caravan, bringing ivory and skins, ebony and slaves to the rich markets of Cairo. Now the caravans rarely exceed 1,000 animals brought here as humble livestock.

Cairo gives the sense of a city that is a compost heap of history, where nothing is new, nothing is destroyed, but everything is decayed under the weight of time.

In the camel market, hemmed in by low tenements, there is a feeling of history become as incongruous as the beasts being sold, a sense of people caught up by time and the remote vastness of their land.

"Where are you from?" asks Ahmed, a young driver whose robes are covered by a cheap woolen coat against the early morning chill. A length of his turban is wrapped across the lower part of his face. Only his nose and his clear eyes show above it.

"America," answers a reporter.

"Where is that?"

Far in the west, the reporter replies.

"Where? Near Libya?"

The drivers say they prefer this journey to Cairo over similar trips to Libya, where bandits still lie in wait for them, invisible behind the dunes and ridges, ready to kill them and steal their herds.

"They come when you are sleeping, and they steal them," said Abdul Rahman, 47, from Kassala, who has sharp eyes, sharp features, a razor-edged beard: a face one sees in Orientalist lithographs.

"We follow their trail. I fight them by myself or with my weapons, with anything I have."

The camels that survive the trek are sold and slaughtered.

The drivers carry long whips and wear daggers up the wide sleeves of their long galabias, but other weapons are taken from them at the Egyptian frontier.

"We have our knives," said one driver, "and God will provide."

In recent years the drought that has extended the reach of the desert to once arable lands was a test more severe than the ravages of banditry, drivers said.

"You become crazy a little," said an older driver, his long whip seeming almost an extension of his hand. "You become crazy from being tired. You think there might be water here. You think there could be water there. You think you see water. But you don't."

They sleep perhaps an hour, perhaps four hours in a night. They navigate by the stars, they say.

Cole, the anthropologist, sometimes likens the Bedouins and camel traders to cowboys.

In Saudi Arabia and some of the other rich oil states, camel racing has been revived, partly for sport, partly as cultural legacy. But the races, said Cole, are "like rodeos." The Bedouin has gone the way of the cowboy in America's West, he suggested; the camel, the way of the horse.