All posts by Hylke

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; 

Title:

Straight Egyptian Arabians: Finding the Pharaoh’s horse


Abstract:

“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.

World Congress of Middle Eastern Studies 2018

Tuesday July 17th, Hylke will be presenting her forthcoming paper about the ‘Arabian Improvement Theory’ at the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Seville, organised by Three Cultures of the Mediterranean Foundation.

Abstract:
How an Oriental warhorse became a European trophy horse: The Arabian Improvement theory.

The Arabian horse is one of the most popular breeds in the world, and generally quoted to be one of the oldest and purest breeds. The Arabian is also said to have influenced the development of nearly every modern light horse breed and although the contact between Arab and European cultures predates the 19th century in which many modern breeds were first defined, most of the circulating general knowledge on origin and history of the Arabian horse stems from Orientalist writings. Remarkably the Arabian horse was not considered superior to other breeds until the end of the 18th century, when the European interest in the Orient begins to bloom and the current assumption that the Arabian horse is superior to most other breeds starts to prevail. However very little academic research has been done into the sudden change in European attitude towards Arab equestrian culture and auxiliary horses, or, the motive for the seemingly abrupt transition of the Arabian horse from Oriental warhorse to a European trophy horse.
This paper will analyse the process of the Arabian horse climbing to its current superior status in European equestrian culture and subsequent impact on general knowledge. Examining Orientalist writings that portray the Arabian horse as superior to European breeds, this paper will investigate probable factors that may have played a part in the change in status of the Arabian horse from Oriental warhorse to a European trophy horse.

Book launch: a step towards Animal Welfare Education in Egypt

foto van Abdallah, Bondoq and Other Animals - An Animal Awareness Education Story.
The cover of the new book!

As some of you may know I used to have a Dutch blog about my life with horses in Egypt. I used to write about all the things that are so completely different to European horse culture. Of course much was about the fact that horses are kept differently, with an entirely different diet. The completely different approach to riding was also a favorite topic among the readers. But what I found most important was discussing the state of animal welfare in the Middle East, not just Egypt in general.

People don’t have as many pets in the Middle East as in the rest of the world. Even my Egyptian friends who are animal lovers complain from the terrible behavior towards animals displayed by fellow Egyptians. A failing garbage system caused street populations of cats and dogs to grow exponentially and many “purebred” animals destined to become a pet are kept in horrific conditions in literal pet-stores.

Of course as a horse-girl I felt I should speak out about the situation of many donkeys and horses that are called “working-equines”  in Egypt.  Many of them live hard lives, eat little and work hard.  Very few charities are actually doing something to support the poorest of Egyptian society instead of just pocketing money. (Yes, sadly I have to report that some charities are basically earning big money by scamming Europeans into thinking they are financing sick and weak Egyptian animals) But those charities that actually do something for those animals and their owners deserve all the attention in the world. (please contact us if you want to be pointed in the direction of one of those charities)

One of many wonderful illustrations based on Islamic traditions, this one about the Prophet letting a dog drink from his shoe

The key word in this situation is education. Of course we can join in the “Middle Eastern people bashing” rituals I encounter on Facebook. But having lived in the ME for 8 years has opened my eyes. In the eyes of a European animal lover, there is no excuse for a donkey with overgrown hooves, a horse with improper tack resulting in wounds and the lack of good fly spray.  But what many of us fail to realise is that we have grown up very privileged and everyone around us taught us how to treat animals.

Egyptians and many others in the Middle East (and perhaps the world?) lack this ‘normalness’ when it comes to the topic of animals.  They are not growing up in homes with pets, they are not taught at school that animals are souls that deserve respect. And they are not very frequently exposed to animals other than the starving street populations that run away as soon as you approach them. Cockroaches, gecko’s, mosquito’s and flies… oh the millions of flies… are the only animals an Egyptian generally encounters.

But what about Islam? I can hear you think it. And yes, the Qur’an tells Muslims to respect animals and treat them well. But here is the thing, it brings us back to education, which is lacking. A whopping 20% of Egyptians are illiterate. That is FOURTEEN million individuals!  So now you understand culture rules, and if culture is lacking emphasis on animal welfare, there is still a long way to go.  Poverty does not help.  I always tell people who are bashing another horse owner for bringing his horse in a terrible state to one of the charities that they should praise him for seeking help.  Most of that class of people (yes Egypt has a class-society) are depending on their horse or donkey for daily income. I ask online criticisers: “What would you do, if you made a dollar a day? Would you buy your barefoot child a pair of shoes, or would you get a farrier to visit?”

It is so easy to judge from behind ones computer. But there are those who step up and they deserve some extra attention.  My friend Iris has observed this situation for a long time and decided to make a real change. She wrote a book for children, about animal welfare. It is both in English and in Arabic and is to be distributed across Egypt. Such a project is going to make a real difference because it addresses the roots of the problem: Education.  So thank you Iris,  and all the other people involved in helping animals in Egypt and across the Middle East, know that we support you and encourage you!

Iris delivering her books to one of Egypt’s most well known charities

Do you also want to help make this world a better place and support Iris and her fabulous book? check out the Facebook page!

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.