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).
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 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”.
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.
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