Straight down the line
Next March, breeders and horse lovers all over the world
will congregate in Cairo to celebrate the purebred Egyptian Arabian
horse. Jenny Jobbins reports on a breed blessed by fate
Click to view caption|
Ghazal Sakr, 2003 Egyptian National Champion Stallion ; The Mounts of Abdel-Qader from a painting by Alfred DeDreux; Abbas Pasha I, Photo: courtesy of the Mohamed Ali Museum, Manial Palace; Omar Sakr (right) with Mrs Huda Chirine and Samara as a yearling in 2002, shortly before she was sold for $90,000. Now living at the Al-Nakeeb stud in England, she is valued at half a million dollars and is widely regarded as the prettiest black filly in the world. Samara was sired by Sakr's Imperial Madori, who also sired Gelgelah, Senior Female World Champion at the 2003 World Arabian Horse Championship in Paris. Gelgelah was bred by Nasr Marei and is owned by Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts and his wife, Shirley at their Halsdon stud
The Egyptian National Championships, sponsored by the European Conference
of Arabian Horse Organisations (ECAHO) and organised by the Egyptian
Arabian Horse Breeders' Association (EAHBA), will be held at the Saqqara
Country Club in March 2005. This might baffle anyone who thought the
show took place last month at Al-Zahraa under the auspices of the Egyptian
Agricultural Organisation (EAO). Arabian horses have a complex history,
so it seems fitting that even today the breed fulfils the maxim that
history has a way of repeating itself. To follow it, we must go way
back in time.
The horse as a mystic symbol is enshrined in romance and mythology. Robert Graves connected her with "the White Goddess", and her mythological link with the moon and stars is remembered in the use of the words "crescent" and "star" to denote the marks on her forehead. The heavenly bodies were central themes in Arab religion, poetry and life rhythms, and the horse was similarly ingrained in their culture.
So far we do not know when or where in the world the horse was first tamed, but the Arabian horse may have been domesticated about 4,000 years ago by the Hittites in the steppes of Asia Minor. The horse changed the course of history; with it, its masters were able to go on to shape kingdoms and civilisations. The Hittites spread into Babylonia, where the Hyksos, the "Shepherd Kings", originated, and from there it was the horse that brought the Hyksos to Egypt, rather than the other way round as is commonly supposed.
Even so these horses might not have been the first to cross the Red Sea. In 1959 the archaeologist Walter Emery found a mummy of a 19-year-old horse in Sudan which he believed was from the Middle Kingdom, pre-dating the Hyksos invasion -- perhaps it had been taken there as an exotic pet or showpiece. However, onwards from the Hyksos period -- also known as the Second Intermediate Period (1650-1549 BC) -- horses were depicted on wall paintings and mentioned in hieroglyphs, and were even given honorific burials.
The Hittites (and later the Arabs) used the horse as a war-horse; the Babylonians, Hyksos and Egyptians used them primarily with chariots. It is believed that Egyptians only learnt to ride after Ramses II's battle against the Hittites at Kadesh on the Orentes River in 1275 BC. An Austrian archaeological mission excavating in the Delta region has found a huge stud farm dating from the reign of Ramses II, indicating that horses and their breeding had become a serious enterprise. There are several references to Arabian, and particularly Egyptian, horses in the Old Testament -- including the beautiful passage from the Book of Job (39:19-25) which begins "Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?" -- and in about 900 BC King Solomon was comparing his own horses favourably with the Pharaoh's.
New Kingdom wall paintings show the perfect Arabian horse, with the dished face and slender legs of the Egyptian type. The horse was now an accepted part of Egyptian life, but while we know a great deal about the trappings of charioteering and horsemanship we have few details about bloodlines and breeding until the Middle Ages.
Meanwhile, in pre-Islamic Arabia poets were immortalising horses in prose poems. They were becoming the stuff of legend, and no aspect of their beauty or virtue was forgotten. Colour was the substance of superstition, and in Revelations (6:2-8) the four horses of the Apocalypse not only reflect the symbolism of colour but the four phases of the moon. Of the colours bay (which fell into the reds) was associated with stamina and highly esteemed; while chestnut (one of the yellows) was thought to denote speed; black was rare but white was the favourite of all. Because of their association with the moon, and because the moon controlled the tides, Arab myth also linked horses with wells, rivers and the sea.
With Islam, the horse was raised to glorious heights. According to Islamic tradition the angel Gabriel presented Ishmael, son of Abraham, with a mare to be his friend and companion in the desert -- the mare was in foal and bore a son which sired famous horses. These horses carried the Muslim armies from Arabia across the Levant and into Europe, North Africa and Asia. The Prophet Mohamed instructed his followers: "Whoso keeps a horse for the Holy War in the way of the Most High, increases the number of his good works. The hunger and thirst of such a steed, the water he drinks, the food he eats, every one of his hairs, each step he takes, and every function of nature, shall weigh in the balance at the day of the Last Judgment."
Arab rulers vied to be the ideal horsemaster. Ahmed Ibn Tulun led 7,000 mounted mamelukes (white slaves). The fourth caliph, Al-Muizz, received a gift of 500 horses wearing saddles and bridles encrusted with precious stones at the celebrations to mark the founding of the city of Al-Qahira (Cairo). The steppe-born Mamluk rulers of Egypt were outstanding horsemen, born to the saddle and riding like Cossacks. The last of the great Mamluk Sultan horsemen was Barquq, who reigned from 1382 to 1390 and, when he died, left 7,000 mares.
Interest in the Arabian continued. Napoleon rode one, and after the Battle of the Pyramids several were taken as bounty and sold to Europe. Mohamed Ali and his son Ibrahim coveted Arabian horses, especially those from Nejd, and by means both fair and foul acquired hundreds which they shipped via the Red Sea to Cairo. Those that survived the journey were kept in appalling conditions, but fortunately a saviour arrived in the form of Ibrahim's nephew and successor Abbas Pasha, who had spent time among the tribesmen of Arabia and was passionate about their horses.
Abbas I sent delegates all over Arabia to acquire the finest horses, bringing with them Bedouin grooms to discharge their day-to- day care. His 1,000 purebred Arabians were kept at three purpose- built studs, one of which cost a million pounds to build. At one of his farms Abbas I kept 300 camels to provide the foals with milk, as was the Bedouin custom.
Emissaries were sent to ask the original owners to recite their pedigrees, which were recorded and bound into the first stud manuscript The best horses of the Nejd and elsewhere in the Arab world now belonged to Abbas I. According to researcher and breeder Judith Forbis, nothing like it had been seen since the days of Solomon. Through his stud, and particularly the offspring of his celebrated mare Wazira -- for whom he paid a staggering LE7,000 -- the Egyptian Arabian is the horse we know today.
Abbas I was assassinated in 1854, and his son, Elhami Pasha, had no interest in horses. The stud was dispersed in a three-week sale that attracted buyers from France, Germany, Italy and Australia. But one Egyptian buyer bought 40 horses: this was Ali Bey, later Ali Pasha Sherif, president of the Egyptian parliament.
Ali Bey's father was a relative of Mohamed Ali, and had joined him from Albania. Ali Pasha Sherif shared Abbas I's passion, and like him was particularly fond of greys; such foals begin life with a coat of misty copper, but slowly lose the darker hairs until at about four or five years old they are pure white. Later in life they may become sprinkled with reddish freckles, or "fleabitten".
At its height Ali Pasha Sherif's stud held 400 of the finest Arabians in the world, all carefully selected according to a calculated breeding programme. Sadly, half of them perished when the stud was hit by plague and several strains were lost.
One person who greatly admired the stud was Lady Anne Blunt, granddaughter of Lord Byron, whose passion for the Arabian horse had taken her to many places and especially Syria. There she was instructed by her celebrated friend Lady Jane Digby, who was married to a Bedouin sheikh, on how best to nurture mares and foals in the desert. Ali Pasha Sherif gave horses away liberally but, although he was cordial to Lady Anne, he was loath to sell horses to foreigners and she was able to buy very few. It was only when his horses were sold on his death in 1897 that Lady Anne Blunt could take her last-minute pick and, as she thought, save the bloodlines by taking them to Crabbet, her Arabian stud in England.
Unfortunately Lady Anne and her daughter Lady Wentworth managed to produce very few purebred Egyptian foals. Luckily, however, she had sent some of Ali Pasha Sherif's horses to her other stud farm at Sheikh Obeyd, near Heliopolis, and these strains fared much better. Other enthusiasts were also breeding Ali Pasha Sherif's horses, albeit on a small scale. They included at least one of his sons and several members of the royal family.
But mechanisation had brought great change, not least to Egypt. Horse breeding was no longer the necessity it had been. Thoroughbreds and other imports were introduced in a misguided attempt to improve quality, but the result was ugly and vicious horses and the experiment ended. When in 1914 Prince Kamaleddin Hussein assumed the presidency of the then Royal Agricultural Society (RAS), it was decided to set up a breeding programme at its Al-Zahraa farm using horses from the Abbas I and Ali Pasha Sherif studs.
Ali Pasha Sherif's great-great- granddaughter Gulsun Sherif is a former amateur jockey and has a lifelong interest in the horse and its bloodlines. "This horse has divine protection," she says. "Every time it's been on the verge of extinction someone has stepped in and saved it."
Several people donated horses to the RAS breeding programme, and members went to England and bought horses of Ali Pasha Sherif's stock from Crabbet. They also toured Arab countries from North Africa to Saudi Arabia. "They felt the quality of those horses was very bad," Sherif says. "The Saudis had lost the breed because Abbas Pasha I had acquired the best horses they had and brought them over to Egypt.
"After [the Saudis] discovered oil they were only interested in racing and winning, so they got thoroughbreds and English jockeys and trainers. They lost the eye for the Arabian horse." But the RAS had the Egyptian lines. "They set up with what they bought and what there was and what people had donated," Sherif says.
The RAS sent stallions all over Egypt, offering an almost-free service to cover baladi mares and improve the quality of the horse in Egypt. However, after the revolution the RAS became the Egyptian Agricultural Organisation (EAO), and Nasser had no time for reminders of the aristocracy and the previous government. By that time horses were only used for was racing: people would buy or rent horses from the stud and race them, but up to then racing was always for purebred Arab horses. Soon after the revolution thoroughbreds began to be cross-bred with Arabs. "They were able to produce some horses which were quite good looking and had some Arabian features, but which actually raced like thoroughbreds," Sherif says. But Arabian horses cannot compete with thoroughbreds over short distances, the lengths of today's race tracks. The pure Arabian suddenly had little value except for their looks, and they became a mere hobby. "People wanted to run horses and make money so it didn't matter what means they used," Sherif says. Purebred horses from Al-Zahraa were being sold to private owners who raced them, found they could not compete and sold them to the carts. "My father [Ahmed Sherif] saved two horses that had been sold for LE50 apiece. He bought them for LE60 each, so the carter made LE20. He gave one to the Ferousseya riding school [in Gezira], but they found it difficult to handle and gelded it. My father was furious."
All over the Arab world, the only interest was in racing and purebreds were being mixed with thoroughbreds. "The EAO horses had very little value and people weren't interested in breeding just for the sake of preserving the blood," Sherif says.
One owner, Ahmed Pasha Hamza, watched as his property was sequestrated. "They took his horses, and one of his most beautiful ones was sent off to the zoo as lion food," Sherif says. "They had even chopped off his tail, but he was saved at the very last minute by an American woman. She kept him until he died peacefully and with dignity."
But just as all seemed lost, fate took a hand in the guise of another American, Judith Forbis, whose husband was in the oil business. She was looking for her ideal of the Arabian horse as depicted in old books and paintings, and she had travelled and read widely, especially the diaries of Lady Anne Blunt. Forbis found her ideal in Egypt at the government stud farm. She purchased four or five colts and fillies and took them to the US, where they proved so popular that other breeders came to buy stock from the EAO. The value of the Egyptian horse skyrocketed. "This was at the time when Nasser wanted to disband the stud, but Judith Forbis spoke to Sayed Marei, who was the Minister of Agriculture and who kept racehorses," Sherif says. The stud, instead of closing, began buying. "They bought some horses from private breeders such as Ahmed Sherif, Sayed Marei and the Hamzas. Suddenly people became very interested in breeding these horses because they could smell the dollars."
Egypt, however, was going through hard financial times. "Over the next three decades, the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the EAO sold all the best horses they had," Sherif says. "Some went to Germany, but most went to the States. They lost several bloodlines and strains, and what was left was what nobody wanted."
Things might have looked bad in Egypt, but in the US people were taking care of the bloodlines, cutting a nucleus of lines that could be traced back -- through Egypt -- to the Arabian desert. Together hey preserved the foundation bloodlines through an association called the Pyramids Society, and coined the term Straight Egyptians.
"Straight Egyptians have more dished heads; they are more chiselled, more refined than other Arabians," Sherif says. "Judith Forbis bred some wonderful horses, and the quality there was nothing to do with what was left behind here." It had been a total exodus of the best bloodlines.
Yet again fate stepped in. In 1990 Egyptian financier Omar Sakr began to take an interest in breeding, and bought a couple of horses locally. However, Sakr was not a man to take his hobbies lightly. He studied history and form, and the trail took him to the US where he was overwhelmed by the quality. "These were Straight Egyptian horses whose bloodlines were identical to those in Egypt, except that these were selectively bred," Sakr says. He brought some horses back to Egypt, where they immediately started carrying off prizes. Some breeders copied Sakr and flew on shopping trips to the US and Germany, but others were bitterly opposed to the idea of bringing in horses from abroad. The EAO, still holding to the tenets of its foundation, refused to allow new strains into its bloodlines. Sakr offered the use of his stallions to those breeders who so desperately needed to infuse some new blood, but his overture was spurned. "They think they lose their characteristics if they are in another country," Sherif says.
Such breeders share the view of the RAS handbook of 1948, translated from an Arabic edition published some years before, which states: "The Society proved that desert breeding helps the Arab horse to recover its beautiful appearance, harmonious formation, hard tendons, powerful muscles and sound respiratory organs -- all features of the Arab horse for thousands of years, but which it cannot retain if it has tame and civilised breeding... outside its original environment."
According to the new generation of breeders, this is denying the basic rules of genetics, or like saying that all Africans sold into slavery in the United States are now blue-eyed blonds.
Nevertheless, the EAO has insisted that any horse that has left Egypt may no longer be considered Egyptian and cannot compete in the national championships. In 2003 the European Conference of Arabian Horse Organisations (ECAHO), which officially authorises all national shows, retaliated by disaffiliating itself from the EAO, authorising the Egyptian Arabian Horse Breeders' Association (EAHBA) Show as the official ECAHO-endorsed national show in Egypt. The ECAHO statement said: "There has been an on-going disagreement between breeders and the EAO, who refused to allow imported straight Egyptian horses... to participate. Under this rule, only horses of the third generation qualified. This rule included horses that were exported and then returned to Egypt. Once the horse was away, it was no longer 'Egyptian' in their eyes. This is a clear violation of the ECAHO rules."
So ECAHO sponsored the international show at Al-Zahraa as usual, and also the EAHBA national show at the Saqqara Country Club. Meanwhile the EAO show held its own show at Al-Zahraa. Confused? So were the winners.
Earlier this year EAO director Helmi Sidawi said imported horses could still only compete in the international show, which went ahead on 2 and 3 October. "The rule now is second generation. We are planning to accept first generation horses from the next show, but the change will be gradual," he said. "We want to give Egyptian horses a chance."
ECAHO spokeswoman Gudrun Waiditschka said ECAHO had decided to give the next Egyptian National Championships to EAHBA. The show, originally scheduled to be held on 26 and 27 November at the Saqqara Country Club, will now take place next March."The EAO as well as the Breeders Association was informed of this decision on 5 April 2004," she said. "If the EAO has changed their policy, they have not yet informed me about this change."
To further deter importation, customs duties are rocket-high. Even this does not deter dedicated Egyptian breeders like Sakr, Nasr Marei (the son of Sayed Marei) and Ahmed El-Talawi. The largest Straight Egyptian stud in the Middle East belongs to Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Al-Thani of Qatar. Both he and Sakr have bought horses from Judith Forbis. "Many others are breeding pedigrees, but not horses," Sakr says.
Why do people bother to come to buy horses in Egypt rather than the US or Germany? "There has been a renaissance of the Arabian horse in Egypt, and the quality of horse has improved dramatically," Sakr says. "Straight Egyptians are only two per cent of all Arabians, but they are the purest of the purest." Sakr's foals are much sought after by breeders in the West and the Middle East.
Forbis continues to breed excellent horses at her stud in Arkansas, as she has done for the past 45 years. But while such breeders as Forbis and the Australian Marion Richards have proved themselves in the field, Egypt seems to be closing in on the finishing line in the race for the perfect Arabian in the Middle East, even though oil-rich sponsors like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait can afford to import huge numbers of horses. For a while American horses fetched incredible prices, and many people went into breeding as a form of tax evasion. Recently, however, prices have dropped.
"We're trying to get back to where we were in the old days," Sherif says. "Breeders need foresight and vision and they desperately need new blood. Otherwise they might just as well give up and close down."
"There's a lot of luck involved," adds Sakr, who recently spent thousands of dollars flying in vets from Belgium to treat a colt which later died. "If you're in it for the business, you're dead.
"There are only two items where the prefix 'Egyptian' is used to denote quality: cotton and horses. Egypt does not appreciate how lucky it is to have such a valuable treasure."
The Classic Arabian Horse, Judith Forbis, Liveright, New York, 1976.
Egypt's Arab Horses, Erwin A Piduch, Kentauros, Lienen, 1988.