All posts by Hylke

Decolonising the narrative


Those who have attended some of my lectures know I always bring up Orientalism before we can discuss the Arabic material that is at the heart of my research. Outside the seemingly protected area that is academia, few people know what Orientalism is, and fewer realise what it does. Yes does, not only has done, as it is still happening today because it is part of a larger system at work; inherited imperialism, colonialism and racism. Today I attended a workshop for PhD students who are having to deal with decolonising knowledge, and it struck me once more how important it is that we discuss the ways in which the discourse on horses and equestrianism can and must be decolonised.

But the way in which we deal with the knowledge on horses and equestrianism even in academia is very colonial. Views on breeds, ridingschools and ethics are inherited frameworks that originate in the imperial and colonial era. An example is the very DNA studies that we so impatiently await and expect to answer some questions about historicity of breeds, are verified by the same colonial studbook and breed structure that we aim to investigate anew based on DNA.  Or the popular discussion on riding bitless vs with a bit, where we tend to see arguments agains bits based on assumptions about premodern material and methods that root in the colonial system of viewing the world. The narratives of breed histories are almost all intrinsically intertwined with the processes of nation and state formation during the colonial period.

So what can we do? My first aim is to expose the issue and then decolonise the knowledge on the desert horse by refusing the material on the Arab horse that echos imperialist, colonialist and orientalist epistemology. Secondly I strive to bring forward the “other” material, mostly Arabic,  that was there all along, this time to offer it center stage instead of marginalising it through Eurocentric research methods.

Things that fly in the Horse

One of the most well known early Islamic works on horses is the Kitāb al-Khayl (Book of horses) written by Abū ‘Ubayda (d.822 CE).  In it he features a chapter called “The names of things that fly in the horse“.  

Below I’ve listed the 16 terms that he includes in this chapter and their literal meaning and the part of the horse they refer to as recorded in the many other chapters of the Kitāb al-Khayl by Abū Ubayda. 



Literal meaning

Part of horse



Any small bird(s)

Parietal crest (on the muzzle)



Owl that visits burial places

Bregma or crown




Point of the ear



Black bird with a white belly

The white hair that appears after a healed saddle sore



Moth/ Butterfly

Muscle beneath the tongue



The king of the bees/male bee

a blaze that ends before the nostrils and extends no further than the beginning of the forehead




A whirl in the middle of the neck of the horse (on the side of the neck)



A young bird whos wings have become complete and is able to fly

Deltoid (shoulder muscle)




Whirl on the back behind the place of the liver



Sand grouse

The loin




Sacroilliac joint



A species of sparrow

Socket (of upper arm bone)



Male bustard

A whirl on the flank



Vulture/ sometimes eagle





Whiteness in the hair of the forelock or feathers




A vein in the lower part of the tongue

Furusiyya at the Louvre Abu Dhabi

Just  few days after I had booked the flights for a trip to the United Arab Emirates, together with fellow equine historian and Egyptologist Lonneke Delpeut, we saw the advertisement for an upcoming exhibition at the Louvre Abu Dhabi called Furusiyya. 

I couldn’t believe my luck! A holiday to the sun that would now include a visit to an exhibition that was about the topic of my research, as the material I work with is often classified as Furusiyya literature. We were indeed lucky, with the Corona virus quickly spreading around the world many venues and events around us were being cancelled. We had planned on visiting the Dubai International Horse Fair which was also cancelled.  But we managed to visit the Louvre in Abu Dhabi! 

The ultra modern building of the Louvre and its location at the waterfront on Saadiyat Island alone are reason enough to visit this marvellous place.  To my surprise the regular collection also hosts famous pieces such as The Thinker by Rodin and one of the famous depictions of Napoleon on his rearing horse! 

The temporary exhibition of Furusiyya wasn’t very large but it was very well set up and I’m sure people who aren’t as crazy about horses as I am, would also enjoy the collection because it wasn’t just horsey stuff. Fabrics with embroidered patterns featuring knights as well as candleholders and ceramics showed the significance of the horse in military traditions between east and west in the pre-modern period (in academia we now prefer to avoid the term Medieval, because it is a European term.  It reflects a certain state of a civilisation that can not be applied on every society or culture across the world for that particular period of time). 

Mounted elite: knights from east and west

Walking into the exhibition we were greeted by two knights, one was dressed in 15th century German fashion and the other represented 18th century Ottoman fashion. I found the depiction of the Furusiyya tradition as a phenomenon between east and west very refreshing. Generally this tradition is seen as Arab, Islamic or specifically Mamluk. Often translated as Horsemanship, Furusiyya is much more than just that as the literary genre also includes works on falconry, weaponry and training methods of both cavalry and infantry.  We might agree that military tradition varies from culture to culture, but is nonetheless also stimulated by the ‘other’ that one is at war with. In my research so far I have come across material that enables me to argue that we have to be very careful with our definitions of Furusiyya and other Arabic terms from various military traditions from the Middle east. I was thus very happily surprised by the careful set up of this exhibition at the Louvre and the very neutral descriptions of the items displayed. 

The giant crossbow, 15th c

The collection told us of the emerge of a mounted elite (knights) and their place in society. We walked past swords, lances, tack and armour as well as an enormous crossbow. The description told us that knights in the west did not appreciate crossbows and judged their use “unfair”.

Compendium on military arts, 14th c

Several handwritten Arabic manuscripts about the military arts showed us the detail of the descriptions of the manoeuvres that soldiers had to practise, with drawings of the menage figures the knights had to ride. Latin manuscripts such as the Romance of Lancelot and the Book of Tristan were also displayed, showcasing the importance of chivalry in literature of the premodern period. A beautifully illustrated Persian manuscript from the 15th century relating the history of polo, through a romance about the son of the king who visits central Asia to play polo at court there. 

Who says romance is only for knights?!
Furusiyya in the past and furusiyya now

A video at the end of the exhibition showed how certain aspects of the Furusiyya tradition can still be found in the Middle East today as well as in museums across the world. A very well preserved Mamluk saddle, harness and bridle which were obtained from Egypt during Napoleons expedition in 1798, was probably the most impressive piece of historic horse gear from the Middle East that I have ever seen

Mamluk horsegear, 18th c

Meeting Whistlejacket and Eclipse

“All done from nature” 

George Stubbs (1724-1806) himself wrote this sentence on the title page of his work The Anatomy of the Horse (1759).  Most people know Stubbs as the artist who painted the most famous horses of his day for the British elite of the racecourse, but when you visit the current exhibition at the Milton Keynes Gallery, which will also be held at the Mauritshuis later this year, you learn that Stubbs was a more versatile artist. 

The Anatomy of the Horse

From a young age Stubbs knew he wanted to be a painter and dreamed of being an academician (Royal Academy of Arts). Tradition dictated that he would then have to visit Italy to learn about and from the classical forms of art, Roman and Greek.  He traveled to Rome in the year 1754 and was already back in England by the end of 1755. Stubbs himself recalled that he often differed from his peers in their opinions of old master paintings, probably due to the fact that he thought “nature always superior to art, whether it be Greek or Roman”.  

Back in England he plunged himself back in his passion for anatomy. Stubbs resided in Lincolnshire from 1756 – 1758, where he spent his time dissecting horses to draw them for his The Anatomy of the Horse which was to be published the following year when he moved to London. In the capital he was introduced to his patrons who would commission at least one third of the work he would produce in his lifetime, the prince of Wales himself commissioned nineteen works in the 1790’s. 

A Cheetah and a Stag with Two Indian Servants

But is its questionable whether Stubbs can be seen as part of the aristocratic horse world of his time. It is often said that Stubbs must have loved horses because he painted so many, especially commissions suggest that he was the go to man if one wanted his horse painted. The title of the current exhibition will change when it moves to the Mauritshuis; “The Man, the Horse, The Obsession”, making one feel that Stubbs was obsessed with horses.  He however lived in a time where horses were still part of daily life as a mode of transport as well as an important supportive source of working power. But I have not yet found out if he owned horses himself for either transport or leisure. In his own time Stubbs was famous for depicting animals that were new and exotic to the British public. He was able to paint leopards, eagles, wolves, bears, and much more because many of his patrons owned menageries that functioned as private zoo’s. Of course there was also the public menagerie at the Tower of London where the crowd could see tigers, lions and monkeys. 

In 1763 Stubbs chose to exhibit The Queen’s She’ass (now called Zebra) at the Society of Artists, where he was  a member and eventually took on the role of president in 1772-1773. His painting of a zebra looking quite lost under the trees of a presumably English forest was not a commission.  The subject of the painting was the first ever zebra to voyage to England and became known after having been presented to Queen Charlotte in 1762. It was brought over from Cape of Good Hope, South Africa by Sir Thomas Adams who was the commander of the H.M.S. Terpsichore. He loaded a couple of zebra’s onto his ship but the male did not survive the journey. The female was kept in a paddock at Buckingham gate where the public could see her, drawing such large crowds that extra guards had to be placed to keep it safe, especially at night. Stubbs may have been among the public when he was painting his Zebra, and for unknown reason it is one of the few works that remained in Stubbs own possession until his death in 1806. 

For thirteen years Stubbs exhibited annually at the Society where he showed 35 pictures between 1761-1774, of which nearly half of the works were concerned with ‘wild’ animals instead of horses. In 1775 he switched his allegiance from the Society to the Royal Academy of Arts, getting closer to fulfilling his dream of becoming an academician. In November 1780 he was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy.  In the February 1781 election of full Royal Academicians Stubbs was favoured by the majority.  The only thing left to do was to hand in a work of art presented to the academy that would be his Diploma Work in order to receive the diploma signed by the King. In December of the same year a new rule was imposed stating that every RA elect had to hand in the diploma work within one year of election, and sadly this meant that Stubbs was now too late as he had failed to deliver. In the following years Stubbs did not exhibit annually with the Academy due to anger over not being a full Academician as well as disputes over his works he chose to be shown not being exhibited. Over the years Stubbs exhibited more dogs than horses at the Royal Academy, which can be seen as more evidence for critic Geoffrey Grigson (1940) who asserted that “Horse painter .. is not the right description for him at all. He was a painter who painted horses”. 

Whistejacket and myself for scale

It has been suggested that Stubbs did not love horses or the equestrian circles that he is often said to have been part of. His extraordinary talent to observe and depict nature in the most realistic way made him a favourite by those who wanted their exotic and precious animals depicted. Stubbs however did not always comply; his most famous work, Whistlejacket (1762) was commissioned by the earl of Rockingham as a portret of George III. Rockingham intended the horse to be done by Stubbs, the portrait by Reynolds and the landscape by yet another artist.  When he saw the horse on the canvas he decided to leave it without a background, the lacking of the portrait of the king is most possibly due to Rockingham’s resignation as Prime Minister in 1762. 

Another example of Stubbs work not living up to the expectation of his patron is that which critics call his greatest painting ever; Hambletonian, rubbing down (1800). Sir Henry Vane-Tempest’s Hambletonian defeated Diamond at Newmarket and he commissioned two paintings, one of Hambletonian winning the race and one of him after the race. It is unknown if Stubbs ever produced the first one, but the second shows a horse that is nervous, exhausted and features a trainer and groom that angrily look at the viewer as if the public does not feel enough empathy for the horse.  Vane-Tempest took Stubbs to court because he refused to pay for this painting, which can be seen as Stubbs’ criticism on the industry. 

The greatest painter of racehorses did not like horse racing. The antipathy was part of his greatness.” – Nicholas Clee

Horse devoured by a lion (1763)

Stubbs his work offers us a good view of his time, during which the role of the horse in society was changing as equestrian sports were becoming more popular in the mid 1700’s. The English Thoroughbred was a new breed that was only about fifty years old when Stubbs was alive and just as the newly acquired exotic animals, a symbol of empire and English superiority. For over thirty years Stubbs kept returning to his series of lions attacking horses. Although he himself was not impressed by what he saw in Italy, the model of a lion sinking its teeth into a horse went back into antiquity as Stubbs possibly saw an early Hellenistic sculpture of a lion attacking a horse in the Palazzo dei Conservatori when he was in Rome. Robin Blake has argued that Stubbs exhibited a political point supporting the Rockingham Whigs, showing the white horse, a symbol of Hanover, being attacked by the lion of England.  

For the first time in history Stubbs work is being accompanied by the skeleton of Eclipse (1764-1789) whom he painted four times. Eclipse remained undefeated at the races and is often called the father of all Thoroughbreds as he features in the majority of todays racehorse pedigrees. It was an honour to meet this English historical icon together with Whistlejacket and I can recommend everyone with an interest in horses and art to visit the exhibition for the detail and colour of Stubbs work is truly astonishing!

Eclipse (d.1789) with his portrait by Stubbs

On the concept of Hajīn

As I am working on a chapter about gender and horses in Early Islamic Arabic texts I read my way through numerous academic articles and books about genealogy, gender and politics in Early Islam as well as pre-Islamic times.  

In the work of Majied Robinson on marriage within the Quraysh tribe between 500-750 CE it is explained that concubinage was not a foreign idea to the family of Prophet Muḥammad. Interestingly, children of these concubines were classified as Hajīn,  a term very well known within the Arab horse breeders community.  

An interesting observation is that people classified as Hajīn were not regarded as lesser in Umayyad times, in fact the Nasab Quraysh tells us that they had better chances for a good marriage than the children from wives. 

However in the Abbasid era, the concept of Hajīn became slightly altered, as genealogists and philologist facilitated the consolidation and retrojection of Arab identity and Hajīn became the term for children of a non-Arab mother. Whether this means that Umayyad concubines were often considered non-Arab in retrospect by Abbasid era writers is unclear, as the back projection of Arab identity onto pre-Islamic tribal communities and families was very inclusive and there is no evidence that in Umayyad times they were seen as ethnically different or even valued less. Statistics show they often married well.   

Interestingly the Abbasid definition of Hajīn, a child of a non Arab mother by an Arab father,  leaves out the original requisite of marriage vs concubinage and pushes for the idea that Hajīn is inferior to Arab. But it is in this form that the concept also appears in the system of classification of horses in medieval Arabic texts, following the horse’s Arabisation in the 9-10th century CE. 

International Congress for Young Egyptologists 2019

Thursday August 22nd, 2019 I will be presenting a paper at the ICYE at Leiden University; 


Straight Egyptian Arabians: Finding the Pharaoh’s horse


“The pharaohs were able to extend the Egyptian empire by harnessing the Arabian horse to their chariots and relying on his power and courage.” claims Judith Forbis in her book The Classic Arabian Horse. This Orientalist view is based on the fact that some of the ancient depictions share visual characteristics with the current phenotype of many an Arabian horse, and is strengthened by the fact that Arabian horse breeders tend to favour such a desirable ancestry. Tracing the history of the Arabian horse all the way back to ancient Egyptian horse imagery by comparison of visual characteristics is an example of ‘backprojection’, as we project a current idea onto something from the past. It is also not unlikely that this early modern obsession with finding an Ancient Egyptian horse ran parallel to the emerge of Egyptomania. In this presentation, I aim to introduce the misinterpretation of the scenes and the involvement of the depictions in the debate surrounding the mysterious history of the Arabian horse. Subsequently I will shed light on how the idea of an Ancient Egyptian Arabian horse was gradually fabricated and then successfully exploited by many breeders, resulting in a sub type of Arabian horse called the “Straight Egyptian”, which is still marketed as “the Pharaoh’s horse”.

Horse sessions at the International Medieval Congress 2019

This year I participated for the first time in the horse sessions at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds University (1-4 july 2019). My paper on the horse book by Ibn al Kalbi (d.819/821) was part of the first panel, Horses to the East, of a whole day of equine and equestrian themed papers. During my paper presentation I introduced the audience to Ibn al Kalbi, one of the first Islamic scholars to write on the topic of horses in Arabic in the 9th century CE. Considered an authority in the field of Islamic genealogy (‘ilm al nasab) he also produced his horse book (kitāb al khayl) which contains a list of 175 names of horses that were ridden and/or owned by select early Muslims. I showed how the book often contains more information on the rider than the horse itself, and posed questions as to whether or not this work is fairly considered evidence of practical reality to the purported early Islamic equestrian culture. After all, important Islamic symbols as well as mounts of legendary literary characters are featured in this particular kitāb al khayl. The paper will be published in the forthcoming proceedings Materiality of the Medieval Horse.

Surprisingly I wasn’t the only one discussing Eastern or even Arabic work on horses, as there were various papers presented in the horse sessions that touched upon the topic. Jürg Gassmann presented to us an examination of Byzantine cavalry units and the question whether or not we may consider those “Arab”. Miriam Bibby suggested that the evidence surrounding the presumed “first ever imported Arabian” under Alexander the first, could be interpreted as an exotic import such as an oryx, which were often identified as unicorns, thus leading to the establishment of the unicorn as Scotland’s national animal. Jennifer Jobst gave us insight into the lance work exercises that are discussed in a 14th century Mamluk manuscript that has been translated by Kjersti Jensen and Mattia Caprioli showed us archeological finds related to horse equipment from the Byzantine empire. Even though the majority of the papers were in the field of European medieval studies, the overlap of topics and subjects within equestrian knowledge was fascinating! It was exceptionally educational to spend a day in the company of horse-scholars from various disciplines, who study horses from various historical times. 

Jennifer Jobst explaining what lance exercises can be found in the 14th c Mamluk manuscript and her husband Sean demonstrating how to hold the lance

Where the Middle East studies were quite well represented in the horse sessions, I sadly found little other sessions on topics such as Islam, Early Islamic science and other subjects relating to the medieval middle east. But the influence of the east was tangible in Leeds however! Most notably in the Royal Armoury that contains an extensive collection of armour and weapons from the Middle but also Far East.

Stompy the Indian War Elephant

The harness of the Indian war elephant, nicknamed “stompy” by museum staff, being the highlight of the museum. On the topic of horses, there were fascinating jousting plates for horses to be seen as well as lots of chanfrons. Not only European horse armour was displayed, as the Ottoman and Japanese horses were very prominent in the collection.I personally loved the Japanese chanfron best, as it probably would seem that the horse wearing it had four ears, very frightening!

Interesting fun fact was that the armour of the Indian horse, was made out of bits and pieces of elephant armour, after the elephants were no longer being used in warfare.

The reused elephant armour now on a horse

I also enjoyed going on an excursion to the Museum of the horse in Tuxford, with (of course!) many of the other horse-scholars that also presented in the horse sessions. A lovely museum in the English countryside that has an extensive collection of bits, stirrups, saddles, curious medical items such as drenching bits and docking sheers, but also a fantastic and rare Mail Coach. Sally Mitchell, who runs the museum is a very knowledgeable horsewoman and it was wonderful how she was around for all of our questions. The museum has a room full of “oriental” horsegear and features not only Ottoman and North African Barb saddles but also Indonesian saddles and bits. I recommend anyone with an interest in history and horses to visit this gem of a museum!

Indonesian Saddle and bits

Coming into Leeds by bus, the first thing one sees is a gigantic statue of Edward the Black Prince on his horse, and the tone for a fantastic horsey presence at the IMC 2019 was set immediately. Thank you to everyone I had the chance to hang out with, talk horses with, and brainstorm over new horsey topics !

Presenting horses at the Current Research in Egyptology in Alcalá, Madrid

Written by Lonneke Delpeut, MA Egyptology

From June 17-21, 2019,  the Current Research in Egyptology (CRE) took place at the University of Alcalá, a small city right outside Madrid. The CRE is an annual conference offering a chance to Egyptologists to present whatever they are working on at the moment. For the current authors, this was the perfect opportunity to present our research, which consisted of my MA-thesis, and Hylke’s interest in the relationship between depictions of horses and the modern Arabian horse. It was pretty much a summary of the blog we’ve written before.

Lonneke pointing out circulating ideas about the origin of the Arabian horse in connection to the ancient Egyptian horse imagery

It started by explaining the fascination with the so-called ‘proto-arabian’, and why it is so important for modern Arabian horse breeders to show pedigree. The tradition of relating the Arabian horse breed with depictions of ancient Egyptian horses has been alive for quite some time, even though there is no scientific evidence that this is actually the case. The presentation showed how Orientalism is partly responsible for this interpretation, as Western people are very fond of choosing particular parts of history and presenting it in a way that is favourable to them, true or not.

It continued by explaining the difficulties of interpreting ancient Egyptian depictions. The images we know are representations of the concept of a horse, not depictions of an actual horse. We can analyse the images in two ways: what is depicted, and how they are depicted. What is depicted focuses on it’s physical attributes, it’s harness and the context in which the horses appear. How it is depicted focusses on the shape, form and colour of the horses. Both what and how carry a degree of naturalism, but they are in no way a 1:1 representation of reality, and therefore not a reliable source of what ancient Egyptian horses looked like at all times.

The lecture was well-received by the audience, as the focus on the image as a concept is rather new. Many colleagues recognised the interpretation as acceptable, and I’ve even been invited to give a workshop on it! To be continued…


A Famous Desert horse from California

In November 2018 one of my many dreams came true. The opportunity to speak at the inaugural conference of the Equine History Collective also resulted in the long dreamed of visit to the Kellogg Arabian horse library and the W.K. Kellogg Arabian horse center in Pomona, California.  Most Arabian horse enthusiasts will have heard of the breeding program and the library but in general people know of this place because of one single horse: Jadaan (1916). The stallion that Rudolph Valentino rode in the 1926 movie The son of the Sheikh.

It was absolutely wonderful to learn about the story of this stallion during the conference, as several paper presentations included details about him. If you are not very familiar with his story you can read a bit more here.

The fact that the Kellogg Arabian horse library holds the saddle of  Jadaan made history tangible to me. It was very special to see how they created the supposedly Arab costume for the horse, while Valentino himself tried to distance himself a bit from the general stereotype of the Arab. It was an excellent illustration to the core argument of my own paper presentation: that the concept of the Arabian horse is heavily entangled in Orientalist culture production. Nevertheless, as an Arabian horse enthusiast myself, I was delighted to learn more about this exceptional stallion, who apparently drew thousands of visitors to his box at the Kellogg Ranch until his death in 1945.

A day after the conference, while roaming around Los Angeles with one of my fabulous hosts and dear friend  Dr. Kathryn Renton, we wandered into the Hollywood Forever cemetery and discovered that Jadaan’s influence on my trip to California wasn’t over yet. This cemetery is the final resting place of his rider! And the kisses on the plaque with Valentino’s name show that their legacy is ever present!

I choose to highlight Jadaan’s story here because perhaps we can see him as a famous desert horse as he was often pictured in the desert with Valentino.  But the Equine History Collective conference was full of amazing people who presented extremely well put together papers about horses and #Burro’s. Many of them about Arabian individuals as well. I was very impressed and please with the quality of the entire event and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire 10 days I spent in California. Many special thanks to Katrin Boniface for also hosting me and making it all possible for me!

As said, the visit to the Kellogg Arabian horse library and W.K. Arabian Horse Center was very special to me. Researching parts of the history of the Arabian horse, I had been dreaming of visiting the only Arabian Horse library in the world. And it was absolutely fabulous and everything that I had hoped for. I discovered a few very interesting things in the titles they pulled out for me and I felt like a little child in a candyshop. So much material! Now I can only dream of being able to visit once more in the future to continue the adventure of discovery.

Another person making my trip even more special was Jéanne Brooks, director of the W.K.Kellogg Arabian Horse Center.  Not only was I honoured to be part of the panel that she chaired during the conference, she also made my visit to the center one to never forget; I got to meet CP Khavalier (out of a Monogramm daughter)! She explained to us that they are still breeding according to the guidelines set out for them in the will of the late W.K. Kellogg.  Due to the bad weather in the days before the conference the Sunday show at the center had to be cancelled, but the chance to take a picture with a Kellogg Arabian made up for it!

Many thanks to everyone involved in the conference, my hosts, tour guides, roommate, fellow presenters and so many more! Many thanks to my academic buddies from across the world (you know who you are 😀 ) and all my other supporters, you all have made sure that my trip to California was a tremendous success!


Horses on a Minaret

During my recent trip to Sevilla (Spain) for my participation and attendance of the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies, hosted by the Three Cultures of the Mediterranean Foundation, it was once again confirmed that horses are always everywhere.  Not only were there numerous actual horses pulling authentic looking carriages filled with tourists  all over the beautiful city center, but at most historic sites across Sevilla depictions of horses can be found.

However what most fascinated me were the horses we can no longer see, namely those that ascended the 104.1 m (342 ft) Giralda tower!  The minaret was part of a mosque commissioned in 1171 by the second Almohad caliph Abu Ya`qub Yusuf. The mosque, which was built to replace the existing Umayyad mosque because the congregation had grown larger than the prayer hall could welcome, was completed in 1176 but construction of the minaret did not start until 1184.

Moulay Yacoub , also known as Al-Mansur, was the third Almohad caliph and in 1188 he picked up where his father had not been able to see the construction of the minaret finished.  He recruited several architects from Sevilla, Rabat and even Sicily to build the tower we now know as the Giralda. It was finally finished ten years later and looked slightly different than it does now. It had four balls or spheres made of precious metals (bronze, copper or gold) at the top.  It is said they were a symbol of al-Mansur’s victory over the Christians four years earlier, at the battle of Alarcos.

In 1248 Sevilla fell in Christian hands during the Reconquista and of course the mosque was turned into a cathedral. Following an earthquake in 1356 the damaged cathedral and tower were renovated, the spheres removed and replaced by a single bell and a cross at the top of the tower. During the renaissance the top of the tower was once more altered and assumed the shape we can still admire today.

The Giralda is magnificent, inside and out, but what caught my attention was the fact that the tower is very different from most minarets. It has ramps instead of stairs for those wanting or needing to climb it. The caliph had ordered the 35 ramps instead of endless steps so that the muezzin could ride a horse (or donkey?) to the top in order to call out the adhan (call for prayer). To my knowledge only two other minarets have this feature;  the sister tower to the Giralda, the Hassan Tower in Rabat (Morocco) and the Malwiya Minaret in Samarra (Iraq).

The Hassan Tower was also commissioned by al-Mansur so it is no surprise that it would have the same structure, sadly the minaret was never completed as the caliph passed away in 1199 and the tower reached only about half of its intended height.  The Malwiya minaret in Samarra however is much older than both the Almohad towers. It was built as part of the Great Mosque of Samarra between 848 and 851 as ordered by Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil.  Although the minaret was used for the call of prayer it is said that the caliph used to ride his donkey (or horse?) up the ‘snail shell’ to enjoy the view from the top. Whether or not the Malwiya minaret served as an example for the other two towers, I have not yet been able to figure out. But it was rather special to climb inside the Giralda and imagine a horse going up the steep ramps on its way to make sure the Muezzin had enough breath left at the top to call for prayer.