Ancient Arabians? A closer look at ancient Egyptian horses

Written in collaboration with  LonnekeDelpeut, BA Egyptology, specialising in Ancient Egyptian Horse imagery

“The pharaohs were able to extend the Egyptian empire by harnessing the Arabian horse to their chariots and relying on his power and courage.” – Judith Forbis

Most Arabian horse enthusiasts have heard of the ‘ancient Egyptian Proto-Arabian’, which is generally considered a strong argument for the idea that the Arabian horse is one of the oldest breeds in the world. Although the images of horses, that the ancient Egyptians have left us are beautiful, we have to ask ourselves, can they really be considered evidence of ancient Arabian horses?

The ancient Egyptian Prototype revisited

The search for the origin of the Arabian horse has resulted in various interesting theories, among which that of the ancient Egyptian Proto-Arabian.  This idea surfaced in the 19th century, the formative period for many horse breeds. Most material from that period is subject to Orientalism, a Western (mostly European) movement that set out to dominate the East by gathering knowledge about it. During the 19th century any literature about the partly colonised east became very popular and almost nobody criticised the contents of Orientalist literature, including the works on the Arabian horse.

Authors traveled to the colonies and tried to trace the history of the breed back in time in an attempt to answer the question of its origin.  In Egypt they stumbled upon many depictions of horses and argued that these horses looked very similar to the horses they saw ridden by contemporary Arabs and Bedouin.  Although we do not determine whether  or not a horse is Arabian based on its looks[1], there is general belief in an ‘ideal’ when it comes to Arabian horse confirmation. We all seem to agree that the Arabian horse has certain characteristics that sets the breed apart from all other breeds. The depictions of horses from ancient Egypt feature a distinctive silhouette that seems similar to the current standard or ‘ideal’ look of Arabian horses. So when we look at the ancient Egyptian horses, we see Arabians in them. This process is called back-projection. But the typical Arabian traits  we see, such as the arched neck, elevated tail and concave face, cannot be confirmed through archaeological finds.  So the question is, if the ancient Egyptian images are different from archaeological finds, why were they depicted this way and can we actually connect them to the history of the Arabian horse?

Take a closer look, can you see him looking back at you?

Taking a closer look

The ancient Egyptians are well known for the beautiful images inside their temples, royal tombs, private tombs, and so on. Those images can be analysed in two different ways, namely as a source of information for us, and as a piece of art. The things depicted can give us information, for example the variety of animals they had, including horses. We may perhaps also deduce in what setting they kept or used these animals. For example, we know they had horses in many different colors, including multicolored horses. We also know that they used horses to pull the famous chariots, and judging by the lavish decoration of both chariots and horse tack, we may conclude most horse owners were ranked pretty high on the social ladder. This brings us to an important aspect of the ancient Egyptian images, namely that they are pieces of art. We have to ask ourselves, why were they made?  The images of horses inside the tombs were always commissioned. The target audience of these images are the peers and descendants of the tomb owners. They mean to tell the story of the life of the tomb owner, and to impress their colleagues and friends. Being a novelty item in the 18th dynasty (1550 BC–1292 BC), owning a horse was a sign of wealth and prestige, especially taking into consideration that the maintenance of a horse requires a lot of time, effort and money. The images of horses always appear in a certain context, which is interesting for us when we try to analyse the role of the horse in ancient Egypt. Contexts can be tribute scenes, where foreigners bring horses to the pharaoh as gifts from their kings. But most famous are the hunting scenes, where horses are pulling a chariot with the tomb owner on it, hunting for wildlife.  Other than that horses are often displayed as mere ‘mode of transportation’, standing in front of a cart or chariot, assisting the tomb owner’s servants with their daily tasks. In rare cases horses are depicted as part of the tomb owner’s funeral procession.

Mules found in 12 693 TT57-Khaemhet

A concept rather than reality

Throughout time in almost all cultures, depictions of horses have a powerful symbolic function. Horses are generally connected to wealth, power and high ranking social status. We have to keep that in mind when analysing ancient Egyptian horse depictions because most depictions had a certain function: to impress their peers.  In most cases, it was not the artist’s purpose to show a 1:1 representation of a certain horse that was owned by the tomb owner. They represent a concept rather than an actual animal. Since one cannot display something one does not know, the images are all based on truth, but it’s a version of the truth that fulfils a purpose: showing the tomb’s visitors that the tomb owner was associated with horses.

So what does the concept entail? Starting in the 18th dynasty the general ‘shape’ of the horse is somewhat uniform and donkey-like, with ‘add-on’ details to clarify the stories that the artists wanted to convey to their public. Gender markers such as udders, sheaths and scrotums are very straight forward details but when it comes to posture, which could distinguish a chariot horse from other horses, we have to be careful not to take these images at face value. Over time certain attributes of the horse are displayed differently as the concept of the horse imagery develops. The horse is not a ‘new’ feature anymore, artists are now more familiar with the use and the behaviour of the animal, and the concept gets more horse-like rather than donkey-like or just four-legged. The image of the horse now gets its own character. What we see is that horses are less frequently depicted with all four feet on the ground, their backs are more hollow and their tails are placed higher up their voluminous bum. The changed features serve a purpose: to make sure the public is not confused between donkey, horse and mules anymore. The problem with defining these traits as actual physical characteristics is that the image of the horse keeps changing over time. As long as the image keeps changing, the way the horse is displayed should not be interpreted as closely resembling the truth. The most important thing in ancient Egypt was to display the concept of a horse, and the way it is actually displayed depended on the artist, the time period and the tomb owner’s preferences.

A daily life scene featuring a Tobiano and chestnut coloured horse in the tomb of Menna, Theban Tomb 69

Breeding ancient Egyptian horses

If we cannot take the images for a practical reality, however, can we learn anything from them as to whether the ancient Egyptians bred horses or had some sort of notion of breeds? An intensive study of the colours of horses shows that all the colours that found in depictions, are colours that could have indeed existed in reality. This means that the artist had to stay within certain boundaries to make sure he depicted the horse correctly. Artists used colour to express their creativity, for example in tombs where there are multiple horses displayed. The most common image is that of two horses: this is the amount of horses one needs to pull an Egyptian chariot. If more horses are brought in, sometimes the artist uses that to show his array of possibilities, painting horses different colours. Of course we know that in reality certain colours are more common than others, and so when we see more white horses depicted than chestnut ones, we know that the artist had an ulterior motive here: showing the high status of the tomb owner. If we see a scene with horses showing various different colours, we know that this is not a representation of the truth, but the artist showing all the different possibilities, and therefore his craftsmanship. In terms of breeding, this is interesting too. White horses are rather common in depictions at the beginning of the 18th dynasty. Often the combination white-chestnut is used, but as said before, this was probably related to status since white is a generally less prevailing colour .

The mares in TT123. Udders visible and foals playing in front of them

We do believe the ancient Egyptians were breeding horse because  they were very well aware of the differences between stallions and mares. There is one scene in TT123, the tomb of Amenemhat, that shows a group of five horses, with a pair of foals in front of them. The udders of the mares are clearly visible, meaning they are probably the foals’ parents. These horses are being brought in as tribute. The scene is preceded by two more horses, being brought in as a pair, with no udders visible. This probably means that the first two horses are being brought in as chariot horses, since they are a pair, and that the other five horses were used for breeding. Breeding horses into a certain ‘breed’ the way we define it however, is unlikely. Horses of different colours however, might indicate difference in origin. Horses from the beginning of the 18th dynasty were probably mainly gathered either as tribute or as booty of war. Texts from the time of Thutmose III list great amounts of chariots, mares, yearlings, foals and stallions. Later in the 18th dynasty the Egyptians most likely established their own breeding centres, keeping in mind that caring for a horse costs a lot of money, it is likely to assume that most establishments that kept a lot of horses belonged to the government. This makes sense considering the pharaohs were very keen on using them as part of their newly acquired machine of war.

Ancient Egyptian horses are just Egyptian horses

A young Baladi horse, just brought in for medical care at Egypt Equine Aid, Cairo, Egypt. (2018)

Some have argued that the change in depiction might also be an indication of a different breed. Since there are not enough archaeological remains of horses however, this is not a correct assumption to make. We also should not forget the rules of the images: we should not take them at face value, and as long as the image of the horse keeps changing, we cannot interpret the way it is depicted as naturalistic display. The only archaeological remains we have are indications of the size of the horse, which are always between 1.35-1.50 meters high. Unfortunately, this tells us nearly nothing about a potential breed, keeping in mind that 3.500 years ago all species, including humans, were smaller.

Although we cannot conclude that the ancient Egyptians had Arabians, or any notion of breeds altogether, we can perhaps learn something else from the ancient depictions.  What if we were looking at this the wrong way? Our back-projection of the Arabian ‘ideal’ onto ancient Egyptian horse imagery has perhaps prevented us from seeing something remarkable on the Egyptian streets today. Traveling through Egypt you will come across what Egyptians call “Baladi” horses literally everywhere. Balad meaning either town or country and i being the case end for possessive: “native horses”.  Many of these horses feature distinctive coat patterns that look very similar to those in the ancient depictions and until today it remains a mystery that especially in Egypt, also famous for its Straight Egyptian Arabians, there are so many multi coloured horses. Sadly we cannot trace their origin to a specific breed or geographical location, as they have been interbred with both Arabians and various European horses brought over since the colonisation of Egypt. But it raises an important question: did we overlook a historical treasure, alive today, as far descendants of ancient Egyptian horses?

D.F. Huth riding a multi coloured Baladi at a beach in Dahab, Egypt (2017)

[1] WAHO does not provide us with a breed-standard standard that contains a description of what an Arabian horse should look like in order to be considered acceptable to be registered.

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