It's an era before the discovery of electricity and I'm aiming for realism.
There is a small desert town of only 15 people by a river and along a strong trade route (so they don't have to produce food, etc.).

Which resources could be

  • found/produced in the desert
  • unique
  • essential for a kingdom and
  • perfect for such a small settlement?

In most situations getting more people to the town would increase the outcome, however

I am looking especially for a resource that won't scale with the population and justifies such a small settlement.

Own ideas I discarded so far:

  • Gold Sluicing
    But if I would be king I would expand for the source. Mine the mountain or sluice closer to the source.
  • Mining (a super narrow vertical hole with stuff to mine in the bottom)
    Which sounds like unrealistic formation. Also I think it would be filled with water and sand.
  • Arrow poison (scorpion/spider/snake/larva and pupae of beetles)
    But couldn't you just breed the animals outside of the desert? Additionally there are good sources for poison outside of the desert.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ You really should pick one: "craft" or "resource". We prefer focused questions here, and this is rather broad & opinion based. Basically, if you place a list of resources in a hat as you just did, and pull one out and it's a valid answer, then your question needs work. Check out the tour and help center and learn what this place is all about $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jul 3, 2020 at 18:34
  • $\begingroup$ It took me way too long to realize, what makes this broad question. Lost hope for humanity in the meantime. Yes, I will separate the example answers to their own questions. Now I am not sure did I fix the opinion based part already. I might add some extra details to make people answer as factual as possible and hope that will fix the issue. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2020 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ Edits cannot invalidate existing answers. therefore I have rolled back your last edit. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jul 4, 2020 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ Your first two discarded ideas actually existed large salt, gold, and copper mines existed in desert regions.It may be worth looking up the Kingdom of Mali. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 9, 2020 at 12:48

13 Answers 13


As soon as you say desert, the obvious answer is water.

In this case:

The "river" would be underground, so the staff of 15 maintains access to the water.

The value is that without this water stop, the trade route could not cross the desert.

The reason it doesn't grow: with more people more food would need to be brought in, making the trade route more expensive.

The staff might also maintain signals to allow travellers to find this valuable water stop.

  • $\begingroup$ Is kingdom completely located in the desert (or at least huge parts)? In this case water could be the resource (cf. David G.‘s answer). Even if parts of the kingdom are outside of the desert and even if there are other water resources in the empire a big water resource would be crucial to (let’s say this is the only thing keeping 10% of the kingdom’s population alive). The underground pipes are interesting – the ancient romans already had mile-long aqueduct although they ran on high bridges from the mountains to Rome. This would be something unique but realisticly possible to your world. $\endgroup$ Jul 7, 2020 at 13:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You would probably need pumping stations along the way. If the pipes are big enough and not filled to the top (or there is a point in your story where they turn off the water or the water flow gets weaker) your character could even go down that underground river on a boat… maybe it’s a secret/fast messenger route to the settlement without having to cross the desert or an underground ferry… $\endgroup$ Jul 7, 2020 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ IRL thing for Iran deserts/semideseerts: Qanat. There were dynasties of qanat diggers/maintainers wich often lived in a small settlement in a place of work (digging were done for generations) $\endgroup$
    – ksbes
    Jul 9, 2020 at 9:57

A ferry

Travellers come along. They have no way to cross the river safely with their goods and animals. They pay you in gold or valuable goods that they are carrying.

Ferry boat across the Nile

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Daniel the stylite


Saint Daniel first lived in the church of the Archangel Michael, but after some nine years, Saint Symeon the Stylite appeared to him in a vision, commanding him to imitate his own ascetical struggle upon a pillar. The remaining thirty-three years of his life he stood for varying periods on three pillars, one after another. He stood immovable in all weather, and once his disciples found him covered with ice after a winter storm. He was a counsellor of emperors; the pious emperor Leo the Great fervently loved him and brought his royal guests to meet him. It was at Saint Daniel’s word that the holy relics of Saint Symeon the Stylite were brought to Constantinople from Antioch, and it was in his days that the Emperor Leo had the relics of the Three Holy Children brought from Babylon. Saint Daniel also defended the Church against the error of the Eutychians. Having lived through the reigns of the Emperors Leo, Zeno, and Basiliscus, he reposed in 490, at the age of eighty-four.”

Your village has a prophet. He lives on top of a tower; a stylite. Or maybe in a cave where she breathes fumes, like the Oracle at Delphi. The resource is only found here, because the prophet is not going anywhere.

The prophet is important because important people come long distances to get advice and hear visions of the future. The gifts they bring support the city and then some. People don't stick around because the prophet is hella spooky, and the 14 people serving the prophet are pretty spooky too.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer! It fits really well with the question 👍 Shame, that I am bad with creating a highly religious character. I think I would explain every weird behavior with their religion instead of focusing on their character. :D $\endgroup$ Jul 3, 2020 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ Saint Daniel was highly religious. Not sure about the Oracle at Delphi. You can have your oracle / prophet be whatever you want. Maybe he is channelling information from elsewhere, or some other power, or he is just a person who somehow knows. That by itself is spooky enough. I had a concept for an SCP: a guy who can answer any question. He loves to make people happy and he is not very smart; no questions of his own. But give him a little time and he will come back with your answer. He is kept on an island with no human contact. He is very dangerous and he does not understand why. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jul 3, 2020 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ About Delphi/the psychedelic fumes - if they rise from within the earth in this one cave, it might even be impossible to relocate, not just depending of the prophet wanting to stay where he is. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2020 at 23:14
  • $\begingroup$ The rules one has to fulfil for joining the community might be too uncomfortable or difficult for it growing quickly... the prophet might have chosen an ascetic hermit life and you can only stay if you vow to devote your whole life to serve the sacred ways and live chaste (maybe you even have to still be virgin to join the cult). Maybe there is more like having to get your whole body painfuly tattooed with sacred symbols... enough to scare most people away... the 14 other people who live there just gathered around the prophet over the course of decades so the settlement grows very very slowly. $\endgroup$ Jul 7, 2020 at 14:22

Salt. In the pre-industrial world salt was an essential ingredient in food preservation and seasoning. It was also a luxury good because the only way it was by either;

A) the use of evaporation ponds where possible in coastal regions or inland via (rare) salt water springs.

B) Mining it. Either from buried underground seams (ancient ocean beds or salt lakes on from salt lakes on the surface which are always located in dry/arid regions. Salt mining was a large scale industry back then. In ancient times salt was mined and traded in many parts of the globe.

Other than that? name virtually any rare or valuable precious try Opals - look up opal mining. They are mined ins underground seams where water has seeped in then evaporated away in ancient times. Even Diamonds being volcanic in origin are often located and mined from ancient volcanic lava 'pipes' i.e. old lava flows that have cooled and solidified underground. Read up on all three

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The kingdom of Mali got rich off salt, but the towns that mined it had to be small because food was scarce. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 9, 2020 at 12:54

This resource is INFORMATION. Or unique skills this 15 people possesses.

This 15 people are Guild of Cloud Watchers. They observe clouds all day, and say, when there will be drought, rain or where winds will blow in various kingdoms, surrounding the desert. But, to be honest, their forecasts not always true, but local governors believes them, so, its reason why they send messengers with gifts and supplies to Cloud Watchers to get information required.

Or, this is Guild Of Desert Healers, who knows art of gathering rare desert insects to make potions for rich people to prolong their lifespan, make their hair grow better and make them younger. Even placebo medicine works sometimes

Or, they are Guild Of Desert Pathfinders, who has secret knowledge how to make pathway for caravans of traders among quicksands, sandstorms and other dangers. Because going cross the desert is few weeks against few month via other routes. Hiring Desert Pathfinder seems like optimal strategy for caravan traders.

Or, this mighty 15 people are Guild Of Sandwalkers, that does all things mentioned above on the same time.

Reason why they are only 15 - its simply traditions. Because only eldest son can become next Sandwalker, and, oasis is not so big to give enough water and food (dates, bananas, etc, seeds to feed chickens) for more than 15 humans.

Long time ago one king tried to enslave Guild of Sandwalkers, but he lost full army while trying to find theirs oasis among quicksands and sandstorms. After this time nobody of local governors wants to mess with Sandwalkers - its not worth it, better play by their rules in this desert.

  • $\begingroup$ Please don't call them "deserters" - that word has an entirely different meaning and will get the army hunting them down. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2020 at 1:53
  • $\begingroup$ The trade route (crossing of cultures and techniques) could allow the village to discover better production quality for some things than in other parts of the world (like Venetian mirrors). Although this would rather spawn a city with a few hundred or thousand inhabitants, even if they keep the exact production process a secret to outsiders. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2020 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ Or the village could be a remain of an old civilization (an ancient temple or monastery) with ancient knowledge. It might not even be the only place in the world (the ancient empire collapsed and is now a smaller country, hundreds of miles away) but the only place that your king has power over. And as the village inhabitants deem the ancient production rituals sacred they would rather die than tell outsiders. For example there is a monastery in Belgium that is said to brew the world's best beer but the monks don't want to expand too much industrially although there is a market for it. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2020 at 18:48

A unique animal to the desert that has to be undisturbed to produce product X.

I'll just use ostriches here to give that thing a name, also because it's used a lot in ancient Arabic poetry and they lived in the desert. But you can change it to Griffins or whatever you want. Also change the product. I'll just call it X. It can be gold, magical lighting gems, highly potent medicine...etc.

The basic premise is that as long as someone is willing to pay for it you can make a profit. Like a lot of "luxury" items. To this day illegal pouching exists.

First of all the undisturbed part covers the question of breeding the thing. Mostly a handwave but we breed camels, horses, goats, cows...etc...etc. So the first reasonable step is to breed ostriches.

However they do not take kindly to that. Once in captivity they wither and die. And those who survive produce a weaker version of the real thing.

So they need a lot of the open desert to produce strong X.

The second part is that they are very dangerous and can kill a man easily. So people learned to hunt for X that is unguarded or something similar.

For example instead of going to the animal and taking X with a fight that will lose you the animal or a human, they just track it for miles and then capture X when it is unguarded.

And the whole trade is a thing that is passed down from family member to family member or from master to student. Because the goal is to capture X that is natural in the wild without causing trouble.

You can also add a lot of other things.

For example X produces a natural toxic gas that is harmful in small doses. But skilled hunters build an immunity to the thing by small exposure until they develop a physical sign that tells them the are immune to it. This sign thing adds a unique appearance and seems cool. But also serves to actually show they are immune. So maybe a blue or green nose? Maybe a large patch of dark skin on the cheek. Something like that.

So the limitation of the animal with the danger of the product and the time limitation of production and training gives the whole trade certain limitations that makes it profitable to a small number of people but insures it stays small, so far, and limited in most ways.

That's all I can think of right now.

  • $\begingroup$ The first idea is cool. Now I just have to think of an animal that would fit the description. 😛 The second idea would work in most stories, but what I didn't tell you is that there is a powerful king, that would make these people share their craft's secrets. The third idea would work well in an anime. I am not sure how applicable that is to realism I am trying to achieve. Thanks for responding though! 👍 $\endgroup$ Jul 3, 2020 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Mr.ManSir, "It's just the one idea, actually" Anyway one thing about deserts thought. They don't get a lot of kings. To have a king you have to have stability like in Egypt, Persia, Byzantium..etc. Pre-Islam Arabia was just tribes and they might pay a king some money from time to time. Even then they just shrugged them off and did their thing. A whole lot of desert with few things in between don't cultivate a stable economy and a magnificent court. $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Jul 3, 2020 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking that the desert area would be just small portion of the enormous kingdom. Kind of like the ancient Rome. $\endgroup$ Jul 3, 2020 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ @CeeMon, Nice. Certainly has an appeal to it. $\endgroup$
    – Seallussus
    Jul 6, 2020 at 0:09

Meteoric Iron

Ancient civilizations called Meteoric Iron many different things: star metal, metal from heaven, fire from heaven, lightning iron, etc. but one things is true across the whole ancient world. They all attributed mystical or divine properties to this natural alloy making it by far one of the most rare and valuable substances in the ancient world... and for good reason to. It naturally contained a significant amount of nickel and very little silica; so, when ancient smiths forged the iron from meteorites, they would get a sort of natural stainless steel of a purity that was practically unheard of before the medieval period.

Blades made from such alloys would not rust or chip making them so distinguished as to be the kind of thing you'd only see in the hands of a king or emperor: The twin swords Shamsher I Qati and Shamsher I Barq-sirisht which belonged to Emperor Jahangir, and the famous iron dagger of king tutankhamun are two historically confirmed examples. Many legendary swords such as the "unbreakable" sword Durendal are also often theorised to have been historical weapons made from meteoric iron.

Although this alloy is very rare, there are a small handful of sites where it exists in significant quantity. If this settlement is somewhere near an ancient air-bursted metior, the desert sands may be worth sifting for these rare finds, but still too hostile to be considered a worthwhile danger for most people. Or you could go the opposite route and have there be one really big one like the Cape York meteorite in which case they might have enough of the alloy to live off of for generations, but not enough to need much man power to fully mine.


Fun Juice

found/produced in the desert

Deserts are great places to grow cacti[citation needed]. They are THE kind of plant you think of when you think desert plant. It turns out that some kinds of cacti (peyote, St. Peter, peruvian torch and others) produce a chemical called mescaline.

It doesn't matter who they are, where they're from, what they did... People just want to get high. Mescaline a psychedelic drug, much akin to LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms). In other words, fun and a lot of potential for spiritualism (I like to think of this answer as a companion to Willk's.

Mescaline also seems to be an antidepressant, so if people in the kingdom are suffering from depression, it might be used as a medicine.


If that desert is the only one where you can easily find peyotes, your little settlement will be quite unique indeed.

essential for a kingdom

Maybe the kingdom as a whole worships the visions granted by Mescaline. Maybe they just use it for recreation. Anyway, cut people's supply of drugs and they will revolt.

perfect for such a small settlement?

Peyotes kinda live on their own without need for much care. You don't need infrastructure to grow them, so 15 people could potentially harvest a lot of mescaline with little investment in tech and materials. They might only need the water to cover a lot of terrain everyday in search for the fun juice, but living close to a river solves most of the logistics related to that.

  • $\begingroup$ The next question is - is the fun juice legal in the kingdom? Or is the town just small enough to stay under the radar officially, while supplying some important people in the kingdom... $\endgroup$ Jul 16, 2020 at 13:23
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    $\begingroup$ @CeeMon either way the fun juice becomes part of the economy, being illegal has never kept drugs from moving money around. $\endgroup$ Jul 16, 2020 at 13:24

The town is an

exile / hideout / prison / isolation for one important person

(the river and trade route might be a little unfavourable for a prison)

Maybe the prisoner was the leader of a riot against the king or a fanatic cult. Or even guilty of war crimes while helping the actual king claiming his throne. And after a life of intrigues and battles this person chose the simple life in a remote desert town as exile. Nonetheless he/she is an important strategist the kingdom might have to rely upon in it’s darkest hour...

The person could also be an ingenious inventor, developing (and testing) weapons… You don’t want that within the city walls but somewhere where he can cause no damage. But it is kept secret and his assistants are all trained guards to keep him safe from kidnapping attempts and make it impossible for him to flee.

It could also be the prison for a hostage who, in the right hands, can influence very powerful people or some “witness-protection program”… the desert town people are not entangled with politics, they don’t even know the person or his/her leverage in the faraway capital so they are perfect for this job… in return, the king doesn’t demand tribute of them and lets them live however they want. It might even not be a permanent solution, just a temporary solution, happening at that point in the story where the protagonist happens to stumble across the desert town or is even sent there by someone because that person knows the town as a "safe house" (I don't know where your story is heading)


Endemic species

There are endemic species that only evolved on one island or in one cave after being cut off from the rest of the world... let's assume the super narrow vertical hole leads to a cave deep below the desert, the only place where a rare species (animal, herb, fungus) lives which is either the caviar of your world or something you can extract a drug or poison from (now that's some real money and could even be relevant for warfare, both poison and drug, cf. WW2 soldiers on Meth).

In that case those animals/herbs/fungi couldn't be just picked up anywhere in the desert by your royal troops but just in that one secret location which isn't shared by your locals, maybe because it's a sacred place to them. And I really like Seallussus' idea of only local hunters developing a tolerance against the substance over years.

We could also try to find/invent reasons why it would be hard to breed that endemic species elsewhere, or, given the location, at least very difficult to get a living specimen all the way out of the desert
Real world example: There are deep-sea animals with adapted inner body pressure which would simply explode near the water surface. The animal/plant could need a special atmosphere that has developed in the cut-off ecosystem of the cave over centuries (no direct air exchange with the outside world, instead the cave is only reached by diving through a lake) or a special water temperature and acidity from the underground spring, special alga that are only found in the cave - try to carry that several hot days or extremely cold nights through the desert. While the local tribe tries to avenge the sacrilege of lootingg one of the holy creatures around which their whole culture evolved… a creature, trying and able to kill a person with one touch…
The animals could just be that dangerous (extremely poisonous, aggressive, fast, attacking in packs) that no experienced hunter has tried to capture them alive...

Maybe your world just has not discovered YET how to transport and breed them at the point of your story (depending on how advanced it is and for how long...)
The poisonous atmosphere or even water in the cave, to which only local hunters develop some kind of tolerance over time and still need to hold their breath and their reluctance to reveal their sacred lake (in combination with blow darts with the deadliest poison on earth) have prevented scientific exploration so far…

If you want an epic background story, lay out the ruins of a great empire in the desert and put the endemic species into the caves below some ancient giant pyramid that has been covered with sand to the top over the course of millenia. That empire expanded over your village territory millenia ago and enslaved the locals. Then at some point the whole colony died mysteriously. Legend has it, it was the wrath of the old spirits you can still see haunting in the ruins at night when the light of your torch shivers over the cracked demonic stone faces… the locals cultivate those stories and keep the cave secret as they learned from history how dangerous the attention of greedy empires can be for a small tribe and want to be in control of their monopoly, not oppressed to harvest it.


"The kingdom is pretty dependent upon this resource." - that could be anything, If it's either world-beating quality (the world's best mirrors/porcellain/wine) or unique (the dutch East-India Company was the only supplier for nutmeg for some time because it only grew on one island) it might grow into an essential part of that countrie's economy.

A couple of questions

  • Are you only looking for a scientific reason/justification or does your kingdom/story have an underlying motif that could be reflected in the approach you choose for the town? Are all their current efforts concentrated on war or does your kingdom/its decadent aristocrats have a drug problem...

  • Does the town have to be the place where the ressource is produced?
    What about a nomad tribe with no permanent city or a reclusive tribe that has withdrawn to a secret refuge deep in the desert (like the rock city of Petra in Southern Jordan or Machu Picchu in Peru), unknown to the "modern" world. The village is just their trade outpost or run by a small independent merchant family, the only outsiders in contact with the tribe for centuries, selling their refined substance in exchange for goods from the rest of the world. And even they don't know where the tribe exactly lives.

  • Does it have to be as few as 15 inhabitants?
    Or is it just important to have a small settlement and a reason it’s not growing in a goldrush town manner? 70 to 300* might already be a small tribe, living according to their old ways and not eager to share their secrets and mingle with the foreign intruders. Here is an old list of the population of Bedouin tent settlements. But I'm not sure if it is counting the population or only the men fit for action (no women and children). And if these numbers only apply to a nomadic lifestyle or alyo for permanent settlements.

  • Is the town necessarily part of the kingdom?
    Depending on what the resource is and how well-fortified the desert tribe is, they may be granted no royal interference in exchange for their commodity.

  • Is it official/legal?
    The town could be one of several places to produce or sell a drug or substance that has been officially banned in the kingdom, yet there is high demand in the realm. Maybe even by the royal family or other powerful people who have a lot of influence in the realm and its resources, without the king knowing. Therefore it's in the town's own interest to stay under the radar.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thank you so much for the contributions Cee Mon! I am not in the W.B. state of mind currently (bit too busy) and I wish I wouldn't try to respond to these without giving a proper calm and thorough read at first. I think in a week or two, I will be less occupied. Until then! $\endgroup$ Jul 13, 2020 at 7:30

Less scientific, crazy idea, based on deadly endemic cave species and Seallussus' idea of a tolerance the locals have built over years against the poisenous atmosphere: It's a

high-security bank vault

The locals (in that case a tribe of 200 to 300 people but with a steady population) are not interested in money or the value of “dead” materials (gold and jewels, anything you didn’t hunt or farm yourself) which is not part of their secluded, centuries old culture. Maybe even the idea of personal possession feels strange to the small tribe sharing everything.

As they are the only ones who have built up a tolerance against the atmosphere in the cave, are trained to hold their breath for a long time, are in possession of the deadly animal poison and by tradition are taught their way through the underground tunnel maze (to the different repositories), the locals store highly valuable or dangerous items for important persons of the kingdom in the underground tunnels. In return they are allowed to continue traditional ways and the kingdom does not interfere directly in their territory and defends it from other nations.

Which on the other hand works as a reassurance for the tribe - most important forces of the world won't risk the tribe getting attacked, fearing to loose their stored treasures, rendering the tribe is untouchable. Imagine Switzerland as a desert tribe. Which leads to the question - you want the little settlement to be important to the kingdom. But does it have to be PART of the kingdom or is it an independent tribe, important enough for several empires/kingdoms to rely upon its resource and untouchable to them?

But then again this might cause empires and kingdoms to station soldiers to grant the safety of the little tribe - imagine the untouched land of the desert town, surrounded by one huge camp, made of the tents of soldiers from different kingdoms of which some even are at war with each other, just watching over the peace and safety of that tribe together.


Another less scientific one:

The fountain of eternal youth / death

– depending on how you view it.

There is a jellyfish, that alternately ages foreward and backward, making it practically immortal (Turritopsis dohrnii). Let’s add a deadly botox-like venom to the creature and you not only get a reason for the desert people to have a long tradition of worshipping that creature connected to both eternal life and death (yours doesn’t have to be a jellyfish).

This could even be the reason of its importance to the kingdom - it is said, that a tincture of its toxin makes you younger (in fact it just stiffens your skin…)

However, your special substance takes a toll on its regular users, leading to mental and physical decay. The king officially banned it as illegal. And yet there is a huge demand among the aristocrats and rich patricians trying to outshine each other, leading to a black market and secret camps for its production/selling. The desert town is not the only one of its kind, but it is an important vendor for some important people in the realm. And intent on staying small and under the radar.


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