Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 August 2007
Issue No. 859
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Furusiyya: origins of a knightly code

Horses play an important cultural role in Arab societies, but it is their past links to military magnificence that are stressed in a current exhibition, writes David Tresilian

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At one time furusiyya, or horsemanship, was an important part of any aristocratic young man's education, whether in European societies where it was related to the knightly virtues and chivalric code, or in the Arab world where the relationship between men and horses was an essential part of chivalry, warfare and sport.

This was perhaps especially true for the warrior Mamluk caste that ruled Egypt, Syria and Palestine from 1250 to its defeat by the Ottoman Turks in 1517, writings from this period describing the Mamluk knight, or faris, as the bearer of a moral code that linked military virtues such as courage and magnanimity with skill in horse-back games and spectacles. Some of these games seem to have been rather like mediaeval European jousting, while others required even greater displays of athleticism and magnificence.

While the link between horsemanship and warfare has today been almost entirely broken and survives only on ceremonial occasions, the many bonds that once bound men and horses together in Arab societies have survived into the present, if the video presentation that closes Furusiyya, chevaliers en pays d'Islam, an exhibition currently at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris, is to be believed.

This shows the elaborate preparations that lie behind contemporary displays of horsemanship in Morocco, for example, picking out the discipline required of both man and horse and the need for a relationship of mutual trust between them.

However, the lion's share of the exhibition is devoted to the military and historical side of furusiyya, and this is displayed through hundreds of items drawn from the collection of the Furusiyya Art Foundation, a private foundation based in Europe. Many of the objects on display date from before the 16th century, and, though they come in the main from Arab countries including mediaeval Spain, they also include pieces from the Ottoman Empire, Central Asia and India. There are also Iranian pieces and pieces dating to the 18th century.

Some of the objects on display belonged to knights or horsemen, including swords, armour, helmets, daggers and so on, while others were used to protect horses in battle or to show off the wealth and status of the rider. The latter items include examples of the armour used to protect horses, and the studs and other items used to decorate trappings or bridles. While it is unfortunate that the magnificent trappings shown in many mediaeval illustrations of Arab horsemen have mostly not survived, the gold and silver inlays used in armour and the surviving jewels and other pieces used to dress horses nevertheless bear witness to the ample opportunities ceremonial and sports events provided for the display of rank or prestige.

There are also some magnificent swords on display, the first part of the exhibition being given over to weaponry and armour. Some of these are straight blades dating from early Mamluk times, others magnificently curved Ottoman-style sabres from a later period. Swords conferred status, as they still do today in many European societies, and they were not necessarily made to be used in battle. Among those on display is an ornate example made in a 16th-century Mamluk workshop dedicated to "our lord the sultan al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghouri, may he always be victorious". The blade is signed "Ibrahim al-Makari". Unfortunately, this sword was unable to bring victory to its owner: the Mamluk sultan Qansuh al-Ghouri was defeated by the Ottomans in 1516 CE.

Close by, another Mamluk blade bears the familiar inscription, "there is no hero like Ali and no blade like Dhu al-faqar," this time signed "Misri". Dhu al-faqar is the name of a sword used by the Prophet Mohamed, these words being reportedly spoken when he presented the sword to his son-in- law Ali.

Armour and other forms of weaponry are displayed in nearby cases, including some striking headgear and ornately curved and decorated helmets. Most of these are Ottoman in style, tapering to a point and decorated with Qur'anic verses. However, there is also an older, hemispheric Mamluk helmet that dates to the late 13th or early 14th century. The magnificent brass-and-silver "war mask" used to advertise the exhibition is from Iran and dates from the 16th century.

Among the other forms of weaponry on display are rows of ornate and richly decorated daggers, most of which had a ceremonial role, and many decorated axes inlaid with gold and silver. There are some impressive-looking chain-mail coats, shields and archers' rings. The latter were worn by archers as protection when drawing back their bows, and the exhibition includes enameled examples from Mughal India inset with rubies and emeralds. A fine-looking Mughal lacquered shield also bears the inscriptions "Ali" and "Dhu al-faqar".

The present exhibition does not obviously concern itself with horsemanship in its ethical and social aspects as a form of training for those aspiring to enter a particular caste, as did Chevaux et cavaliers arabes dans les arts d'orient et d'occident, a previous, much larger exhibition at the Institut du monde arabe (reviewed in the Weekly in December 2002). Nevertheless, Bashir Mohamed, curator of the exhibition, comments intriguingly on these points in press material, as well as on the parallels between the Islamic materials on display and those dating from the same period made in Christian Europe.

Mediaeval Christian orders of knights, for example the Knights Templars and others, were religious fraternities dedicated to the propagation of the Christian faith, the kind of thing recreated later in Wagner's opera Parsifal. Similar knightly fraternities existed in Islam, Bashir explains, and their members were engaged in analogous spiritual quests, the military framework providing the necessary comradeship and discipline.

The moral and spiritual components of the materials on display in this exhibition are noted in the interpretative material and exemplified in wall panels showing some magnificently attired horsemen. However, in order fully to appreciate furusiyya in its deeper aspects, as well as the important cultural role played by horses in the construction of the knightly code, one needs to turn to the catalogue of the Institut's previous Chevaux et cavaliers arabes exhibition.

This provides a more multi-faceted version of furusiyya, examining its military, spiritual, athletic and even veterinary aspects. While a horse was necessary in battle, as well as being a companion and co-competitor in sports events, it was also a valuable animal and owning fine horses was a mark of prestige. This meant that it was important to attend to horses' needs, and Mamluk furusiyya manuals explain how this is done, as well as detailing how to organise horse events and go about a horseman's training.

In his curiously named Nihayat al-su'l wa-l-umniyya fi 'ilm al-furusiyya ("The Final Answer about the Science of Furusiyya "), for example, the 14th-century writer Mohamed ibn Isa al-Aqsara'i gives details of Mamluk horse-games. A similar work from the same period by Mohamed ibn Ya'qub ibn Khazzam al-Khuttali serves as a veritable encyclopedia of horsemanship, including favourite Mamluk games such as qabaq, which seems to have involved shooting arrows at moving targets while on horseback.

Furusiyya, chevaliers en pays d'Islam

Institut du monde arabe, Paris, 26 June to 21 October 2007.

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