East to west of the Arabian horse
Anyone looking for a cultural complement to the Olympic Games this summer could do worse than the British Museum's intriguing new exhibition on the Arabian horse, writes David Tresilian in London
Strangely quiet this summer despite the presence of the Olympic Games, or perhaps because of them, London this year has been putting on a "cultural olympiad" that is designed to complement the athletic events taking place in the east of the city. While the British Museum's current exhibition on The Horse, from Arabia to Royal Ascot, running until the end of September, is not on the agenda of this event, the way the exhibition links together the cultural and sporting roles played by horses in eastern and western societies is perhaps not inappropriate to it, and the exhibition is also an ideal introduction for anyone who has been intrigued by the western fortunes of the originally Arabian horse.
The exhibition takes the form of a survey of the various uses to which horses have been put in the Middle East from their introduction in antiquity onwards, breaking in the middle to record the transit of the famous Arabian horse from the Arab countries, notably Egypt, to Europe from the 17th century onwards. It has been jointly organised by the British Museum and the King Abdulaziz Arabian Horse Centre in Riyadh, one of the world's leading centres for breeding Arabian horses, and taken as a whole it draws attention to what in theory has been a well-known, but in practice little emphasised, form of cultural and intellectual exchange between east and west carried out through the medium of horses and their attendant skills and practices.
Horses, as John Curtis and Nigel Tallis, the authors of the catalogue, remind visitors to the exhibition, were probably not introduced into the Middle East in any quantity before 2000 BCE, having been broken in and first domesticated somewhere on the grassy plains of the Eurasian steppes, probably in what is today Kazakhstan, some thousand years before. Nevertheless, early evidence, such as the so-called "standard," a mosaic inlay from the royal tombs at Ur in today's Iraq that dates to 2600 BCE, shows that domesticated animals related to horses, probably asses or donkeys, were already being used for transport and other purposes at this early date, and it was not long before horses began to be used for similar purposes, as well as for sport and warfare.
A beautiful wall painting found in the tomb of Nebamun at Thebes in Egypt and dating to 1500 BCE shows a pair of horses being used to draw a chariot, presumably for civilian purposes, together with a similarly employed pair of asses or hinnies. Later evidence, culled from across the ancient Middle East, bears witness to the range of uses that horses were put to, including warfare and hunting. Such uses seem to have been particularly well-developed in ancient Assyria, the capital of which was in what is today northern Iraq, where horses were an important status symbol linked to a masculine warrior code and a significant store of wealth.
Assyrian wall panels found at Nimrud in Iraq show horses being used to pull war chariots and for hunting and other purposes, for example, and they also show the elaborate tackle âê" reins, bits, blinkers, cheek pieces, saddles and so on âê" that had been developed to control and decorate horses, whose magnificent presence in many of the wall panels contributes to their owners' own evident courage and prestige. According to Curtis and Tallis, had it not been for their horses, the ancient Assyrian armies could scarcely have conquered so large an area of the Middle East, their empire at one point extending from Iran to the Mediterranean. Ancient Assyrian warrior identities seem also to have been tightly bound up with horsemanship and riding skills in a development that parallels later masculine warrior codes, such as the Arab furusiyya (horsemanship) considered later in the exhibition and mediaeval western chivalry.
The ancient Achaemenid Persians who ruled most of the Middle East at their empire's furthest extent in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, including Egypt, also developed a range of practices linked to horses, the famous bas-reliefs at the ruins of Persepolis in southern Iran clearly showing horses being used as a form of tribute and as an essential part of royal ceremonies. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, one of the "three things" that the Persians taught young men was how to ride a horse, (the others being "using a bow and telling the truth").
While the Achaemenids were defeated by Alexander the Great in 333 BCE, the latter possibly riding his famous horse Bucephalus, their successors, the Sassanids, continued the tradition of using horses for military purposes. It seems possible that it was from the Sassanids, defeated by the Arab armies that swept the region in the 7th century CE, that Arab traditions of horsemanship themselves in part developed. According to Curtis and Tallis, "in the early years of the Islamic conquest, and certainly during the lifetime of the Prophet, there do not seem to have been many horses available to the Muslim forces," though "this situation changed with the conquests of Syria, Mesopotamia and [Sassanid] Iran."
Plentiful or not, horses played an important role in early Muslim societies, the exhibition giving details of the frequent admiring mentions of horses to be found in the Qur'an and their various uses. However, it was perhaps not until the establishment of the Ayyubid Dynasty in Egypt in the 12th century CE that horses really came into their own in warfare and as part of a characteristic warrior code. This code, in Arabic furusiyya, was developed under the Egyptian Mamelukes to the extent that the training, care and military purposes of horses gave rise to a minor literary genre, with books on horses being produced in considerable numbers throughout Mameluke rule. Horse racing and spectacles involving horses such as jousting and other tournaments became an essential part of the Mameluke calendar, and the exhibition includes illustrations taken from one of the best-known works of furusiyya produced in 1371 CE.
This book, attributed to Ahmed Ibn Umar al-Misri, has been lent to the exhibition by the British Library in line with the exhibition's stated policy of drawing on the British Museum's own collections. While this will certainly have reduced the cost of mounting the exhibition, it has also meant that furusiyya, an important feature of Arab societies especially under Mameluke rule, perhaps does not receive the attention it deserves, particularly when compared to earlier exhibitions elsewhere on this theme. The Chevaux et cavaliers arabes exhibition at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris, held in 2002 and reviewed in the Weekly in December that year, was able to investigate furusiyya in much greater depth, thanks to loans of works on the subject from a number of European museums, among them books by Mameluke writers Mohamed Ibn Isa al-Aqsara'i, Mohamed Ibn Yaqub Ibn Khazzam al-Khuttali and Nasir al-Din Ibn Tarabulusi.
Similarly, the Chevaliers en pays d'Islam exhibition in 2007, also at the Paris Institut and reviewed in the Weekly in August 2007, presented hundreds of items taken from the collections of the Europe-based Furusiyya Art Foundation, a private organisation specialising in the field. The great strength of these exhibitions, less apparent here, lay in their detailed reconstructions of horse-based military tactics and of spectacular games such as qabaq, in which the aim was apparently to hit targets with special arrows while mounted on horseback, and varieties of horseback acrobatics and jousting put on at horse games in massive hippodromes.
As Curtis and Tallis note, the horses used for such purposes were not necessarily Arabian in the presently accepted meaning of the term, since they were probably made up of "all Middle Eastern horses, including Arabs, Barbs, Turkmens and Kurdish and Persian breeds." It was perhaps only centuries later when dedicated breeding programmes started that the Arabian horse with its characteristically dished or concave face, expressive eyes, arched neck and high tail carriage was explicitly identified. Curtis and Tallis write that "the origins of the Arabian breed of horse are not clear," and "modern breeds are creations of sometimes hundreds of years of human intervention," even though Roman and Byzantine texts already stress the excellent agility and stamina of the horses ridden by Arab horsemen.
Such horses began to be imported into Europe from the 17th century onwards, and apparently all modern English thoroughbreds can be traced back to just three stallions, known as "foundation sires," two of which, and possibly all three, were Arabians. One of these horses was the "Byerley Turk," according to one story captured from Ottoman troops in 1686 and transported to London by a British soldier Robert Byerley. Another was the "Darley Arabian," acquired in Syria by the British consul of the time in 1702, a truly prodigious horse to which "ninety-five per cent of modern thoroughbreds can trace back their bloodlines." The third was the "Goldophin Arabian," acquired in France, apparently after spending time in Syria and Tunis, by Edward Coke in 1729.
One of the most interesting parts of this latter section of the exhibition is that dealing with the horse-breeding activities of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Lady Anne Blunt, 19th-century Egyptophiles known as much for their political activities as for their interest in horses. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, originally a British diplomat, championed the Orabi Revolution in 1882, for which he was temporarily banned from entering Egypt, and later in life he was the author of famous polemics against the British occupation of the country, among them Atrocities of Justice under the English Rule in Egypt and The Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt. Perhaps rather surprisingly, the exhibition catalogue passes over Blunt's anti-imperialist activities, briefly describing them as "forlorn interventions" and the expression of the "wayward contradiction" of Blunt's character.
However, it does provide details of the Blunts' horse-buying expeditions in Egypt and other Arab countries, a first trip in the 1870s taking them through what are now the separate countries of Syria and Iraq, then parts of the Ottoman Empire, during which they acquired some dozen horses, shipping them back to their stud farm at Crabbet Farm in Sussex in southern England. A second expedition one year later took them through the Arabian Peninsula and back to Baghdad, Lady Anne Blunt perhaps using these trips to gather material for her books Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates (1879) and A Pilgrimage to Nejd (1881), as well as to perfect her already considerable knowledge of Arabic. 1880-81 were spent in Egypt, where Blunt bought horses from Ali Pasha Sherif, who had himself acquired stock from the stud farm built by the khedive Abbas I earlier in the century. According to Blunt, Abbas had "ransacked the deserts of Arabia [in search of horses] and broke down, by the enormous prices he offered, the traditional refusal of the Bedouin breeders to part with their best mares."
Commenting on the importance of the Crabbet Farm stud for Arabian horses today, Curtis and Tallis write that "the Blunts would not buy any horses, no matter how fine, unless they could determine their exact breeding." The desert-bred horses originally acquired by the Blunts in Syria and Mesopotamia were crossed with stock acquired in Egypt from Ali Pasha Sherif, among them "the stallions Mesaoud and Merzuk and mares Sobha, Safra and Khatila," with the result that "some ninety per cent of purebred Arabians today trace their lineage to Crabbet Park, and it was of worldwide importance in maintaining the integrity of the breed."
Full of interesting side-lights on eastern and western history and the multiple interconnections between the two, this is a rewarding exhibition even for those who have had few opportunities to ride a horse.
The Horse, from Arabia to Royal Ascot, British Museum, London, until 30 September