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.
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.
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.
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)
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!
Do you also want to help make this world a better place and support Iris and her fabulous book? check out the Facebook page!
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, 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?
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.
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.
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 .
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
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?
 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.
After having seen the images of the horses brought to Damascus for the celebration of Independence Day, I started thinking about Syria and its history as a ‘true horse country’. Usually when we think about ancient horses Syria is not the one of the first places that come to mind, yet it should be. Not only did Syria host some of the most famous horse cultures in history, it is perhaps also a place of origin of the ever so famous Arabian horse.
Although we do not know for certain which peoples introduced the horse to the Near East, or where exactly the horses came from, Maryannu existed in the region of current Syria and Palestine as early as the second half of the second millennium BC. Maryannu were an elite class of chariot warriors that became nobles, based on the idea that their expertise in horse care and chariot handling was an ancestral tradition. Other than the existence of a relation between the Maryannu and chariot warfare in the region, we do not know whether they represented a specific peoples or kingdom. By the end of the second millennium BC this noble Maryannu class had disappeared.
“Thus speaks Kikkuli, master horse trainer of the land of Mitanni”
Kikkuli (approx. 1400 BC) a Hurrian from Mittani (northern Syria), left us instructions on how to exercise and feed a horse for 214 days, in order to prepare it for war. Surprisingly, his work describes much of the things we currently still consider normal horse care, such as stabling, rugging and feeding meals. Interestingly Mittani, together with Ishuwa, a state probably located north of it, are said to have tried to forge an alliance against the Hittites, however ended up becoming vassal states of the Hittites. Ishuwa is thought to mean “Horse Land” however no further research has been done to confirm that.
After the fall of the Hittites and the Assyrian Empire, the region became known as Aram, home to Aramean tribes. They are mentioned in various Bible versions as buyers or receivers of horses, in relation to Solomon’s horse traders. By the 9th century BC the Neo-Assyrian Empire started launching attacks in almost all of the Near East, including Aram, Babylonia and ancient Iran, in order to keep their trade routes open. Slowly the Aramean kingdoms were conquered and became part of the Neo-Assyriam empire, and the Arameans were absorbed by indigenous peoples of Assyria and Babylonia. But their influence did not disappear; Arameic and Syriac became official languages of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Towards the 7th century BC the Empire weakened under influence of civil wars (due to so many ethnic minorities within its borders; Babylonians, Chaldeans, Medes, Persians, Parthians and Cimmerians) and eventually Niniveh fell in 612 BC.
During those wars, hordes of Scythians ravaged through Aram all the way to Egypt. Scythians are considered one of the first peoples to master mounted warfare. They were warlike nomads famous for their equestrian skills and the use of bow and arrow. It is unlikely to think that the Scythians would not have left some of their horsemanship behind in every region they rampaged.
Herodotus describes Syria in the 5th century BC; stretching “from the Halys river, including Cappadocia (in Turkey today ) to the Mount Casius. Cappadocia is of interest to us horse enthusiasts. In Old Persian the name would be Haspaduya, which is said to be derived from Iranian Huw-aspa-dahyu- “the land/country of beautiful horses”. Cappadocia once was a supplier of horses to many places in the Middle East, even Yemen. Various Orientalist writers mention a gift of no less than 400 Cappadocian horses to a Christian Arabian king in Yemen in the 4th century AD.
Arabs and Islamic rulers
Some of those southern Arabian tribes migrated to the Levant during the 3rd and 4th century AD. Syria was then one of the most important Roman provinces and even produced emperors such as ‘Philip the Arab’ (244-249). From a beautiful coin from his rule we learn that horses were definitely part of his life.
But after the Islamic conquests , Syria now added to the Islamic Empire (634-640), the story of the Arabian horse in particular, is connected to various famous rulers. The odd thing however, is that sources on the history of the Arabian horse fail to mention that said rulers were not Arabs, but of ethnic minorities that were all part of the Islamic empire. One such horse loving man was of course Salah al-Din al Ayoubi (1137-1193), the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, almost always depicted mounted on a horse. Famed for his struggle with the Crusaders he is said to have had a specific love for Arab horses and great knowledge of their genealogy.
Sultan Baibars (1223/1228 –1277) was a Cuman born near the Volga river. Upon his death he left behind a collection of 7000 horses. It is rumoured that these were Arabian horses. Sultan Baibars also enhanced the postal system between his castles Damascus and Cairo. Chroniclers do not provide us with exact numbers but approximately a dozen horses is said to have been stabled at each of the stations between the two castles. Terms used for the grooms (sayyaas) and the person taking the horses from one station to the other (sawwaaq) are still in use in Egypt today as groom (sayyis/suyyaas) and driver (sawwaaq). Baibars obtained horses for his postal service from Turkoman and Arab tribes. These horses were called khayl al mushaaharah: ‘horses that supply a month of service until they are replaced’. Chroniclers tell us that Arabs did not feed their horses well enough so only horses that had not been in service before were accepted from them, while Turkoman horses were repeatedly serving.
Sultan Qalawun (1285–1341) also of Turkic (and Mongol) bought ‘excellent horses’ for enormous amounts of money. Many of the reports state that the horses were brought to him from Aleppo and Damascus.
Europe imports Arabian horses
After contact was made with the Arab world during the Crusades, we find references to Oriental horses being brought to Europe. Sometimes over land, mostly from Turkey and surroundings, and sometimes by ship, the port of choice almost always being Iskenderun. Horses shipped there were kept in Aleppo until ships were ready to be loaded and depart. A lot of the later imports to Europe in the 17th-19th century were also shipped from that harbor.
I think it is safe to conclude that Syria has long been home to horses, and because of its strategic position it can possibly also be seen as a place of origin to the Arabian horse. The Ghassanids, allegedly one of the first Arab tribes to have Arabian horses, possibly obtained their horses in Syria when they became vassal states of the Eastern Roman Empire.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the equus caballus reached its finest form in pre-Islamic times in Ghassanland. The Arab warhorse, which benefitted from the Byzantine experience of its rider, was also kept fit by Graeco-Roman expertise in two important areas, which also show Byzantine influence. Medically that expertise was directed not only toward human beings but also toward animals, especially horses – hence the rise of hippology and hippiatry, the diagnosis and treatment of horse diseases. The Greek influence is reflected in the term ίππιατρόϛ, which entered Arabic as the loanwords baytar, the veterinary surgeon and baytara, hippiatry. Baytar still survives in modern Arabic as a family name. Another term underscores the debt of Arabic and the Arab federates to the Roman military establishment, namely, istabl, a loanword in Arabic from Latin stabulum, “stable”. – Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Vol 2,Part 2. By Irfan Shahid. p. 231.
Marwan Abusoud is a Palestinian breeder based in Texas, born with a great passion for the Arab horse. He tells us about his encounters with Bedouin and their horses in the al Naqab desert and how he applies this rich heritage to his own breeding program.
Prejudice, about a little A-Rahb??? Try Being an Arab man, from Palestine, East Jerusalem and a Muslim riding an A- Rahb horse–just for one day. I have heard it all about my little A-Rahb. LOL!
Just this last week, I had a week of vacation, a whole week to work with my green broke Arabian Stallion and get him ready for the Native Costume at the Egyptian Event. Sunday came, I woke up excited and ready to start the training. I heard in the distance the thunder clashing and the skies turned gray, as I looked up the clouds opened up to three long days of heavy rain. My pastures and arena filled with water. I remembered a reining ranch nearby where I purchased a donkey not long ago, it had a beautiful large covered arena. I thought perhaps on Sunday afternoon they might let me use it, so I called. The people there were wonderfully gracious and told me to come anytime and jump in with their horses.
I loaded my horse and drove over. As I looked around, I saw a young cowboy on a quarter horse rocketing out of the gate, and roping a calf– it was impressive, to say the least. These people commanded my respect, they were kind, welcoming and worked their horses’ daily. These were working reining performance horses. There was an older gentleman who was an owner, I found to be quite knowledgeable about horsemanship.
I took my Arabian Stallion to the arena. This was his first time in a closed arena and his first time with Arabian halter donning tassels. Naturally, all the new surroundings were all he needed to spook him and put on quite a show. He tried to buck a few times. When that did not get his way, he decided to lift his front legs, reach high into the air and walk on his back feet for a while. The more he spooked, the more he spun, jumped, kicked and reared. As I hung on and held to him, the news of the excitement in the arena reached the stables. I looked over to see a crowd had gathered to watch. They were all in disbelief that I was still on the horses back, and they were making guesses if I could stay on. With each new buck or rear, I could hear someone say “he’s still on there”. Thank goodness, much to everyone’s surprise.
This did a lot of good for my reputation, but not so much for my Arabian Stallion’s reputation. They more or less thought of him as a crazy Arab horse. Being reining Quarter horse owners, Arabs were not too great in their eyes. Considering my heritage, I ride my horse with its head held high and proud, much to the dismay of those doing reining. One of the daughters of the stable owner mentioned they could help get his head down. When my wife told her she appreciated the offer, but I wanted the head up and proud; a visiting patron grimaced at the idea and she was not so sure about Arabians either. Perhaps, another that is just little prejudice about the Arabian. None the less, I worked with him, got him under control and left for the day. The next day I returned, my stallion was more familiar with the surroundings and performed much better.
By the end of the week, he was great – he had changed and he was performing like a champ. He was not looked on as the crazy Arabian Stallion, but the quick learning well behaved performance horse. I was riding him along side mares and stallions with not a reason for concern for he had developed into a gentleman. He was ready for the Event. And as far as being little, my wife looked out over the arena full of their horses and she told me, my stallion looked the largest of the horses in the arena. By the end of the week, everyone was asking how he was doing, asking questions about Arabian horses, petting him and bragging on him. The daughter asked if I washed my horse everyday, she had never felt a horse so silky. They were amazed and respectful of my Arabians stallion. Not only had my horse changed, but the attitude toward the Arabian Stallion had changed also.
I appreciate these people who allowed me to work my horse along with them and I admire that they work and ride their horses daily. I wish more Arabian owners could do so. While I still prefer my- not so little- A-Rahb over all other, I know he is capable all sorts of performance. Just as they learned to respect my Arabian, I also learned to have respect for the Quarters horse who can bullet out of the shoot and perform so well too.
If more Arabian owners worked, rode and raced their horses, I think it would breakdown the prejudices and show how capable they are of all types of performances. The Arabian horse owners are responsible for the prejudices portrayed about the Arabian horse. They are perceived as “Pretty Little Halter Horses” because that is what the owners have concentrated on. Prove your horse, work it, race it, ride it – break these conceptions. Look at their heritage, the Bedouins raced these horse daily both long and short distance, keep the image of this War Horse what it should be.
Decorating one’s horse is something of all cultures. We all do it. But one particular thing caught my eye when I first moved to Egypt and got involved in the horse scene there. Horses and donkeys wear necklaces. Not all of them, but a lot of them do. In all kinds of shapes, from braided cotton or wool to a string with just one bead (mostly blue) or colorful beaded necklaces. When I asked local horse and donkey owners why they would make their animals wear such things they all answered that it was to protect their precious animal from “the evil eye” (al- ᵓain).
Many westerners have probably never heard of this eye, I definitely hadn’t until that moment. In Egypt the notion of the evil eye is largely based on Islamic beliefs, however I think the idea of an evil eye is more common than we realise. Who doesn’t remember the burning eye that represents evil forces in the Lord of the Rings trilogy? But let’s stay in the real world. Explanations of the evil eye frequently quote the Qur’ān: Say, “I seek refuge in the Lord of daybreak..” (113:1) “..And from the evil of the envier when he envieth.”(113:5).
Envy and jealousy are not unfamiliar to us, only in this case those emotions can cause harm to the victim of the evil eye. You could view it as transferable and perhaps even a disease as general belief is that there are symptoms when a person is ‘struck’ by an evil eye of another. Physical and emotional fatigue, cramps, headaches, hair loss, diarrhea and many other ailments and disorders are ascribed to the evil eye. But it cannot only affect humans, but animals too. Symptoms include drying up of the milk in females, impotency in males, horrific accidents and even outbreaks of for example ringworm or strangles is frequently attributed to the evil eye.
Some people will no doubt question the idea of the evil eye but for Muslims confirmation came from Prophet Muhammad himself: “The evil eye is a fact.” (Bukhari 5944: Book 77, Hadith 159) So what can one do when struck by the eye? Sadly not a lot, some say taking a bath may help but the general way to try to get rid of it is by prayer and recitation of the Qur’ān.
Since it is hard to get rid of the evil eye, people logically came up with ways to try to prevent it. And this brings us back to the horses. During the research for my MA thesis I interviewed various breeders and horseowners in Egypt in to figure out how much of their practices are ascribed to Islamic guidelines. The necklaces that are said to protect the horses from attracting an evil eye were one of the topics that I discussed with them as I found contradicting aḥadith on this matter.
“No necklace of bowstring or anything else must be left on a Camels‟ neck, must be cut off. The narrator Malik said “I think this was due to evil eye.” (Abū Dāwūd Sunān, book 15, no. 76) In the book where we find this ḥadith elaboration whether this might apply to other animals is absent. However in the ‘Book on horses’ by Abū Ubaida this very same ḥadith is mentioned to also apply to horses and explaned as a warning from the Prophet against Bedouin tradition. The Prophet is said to have prohibited the habit of decorating horses’ necks with colorful beads to dismiss evil spirits based on the Islamic view that beads cannot repel divine power and fear that horses would endure injury from tight necklaces.
So perhaps the idea of the necklace isn’t as based on Islamic views as we thought it was. But then why does this decorating prevail, and is especially widespread in Egypt? The answer may be in a necklace from the 18th dynasty (1351–1334 BC) found in 1911. It is 95 centimeters long and features 35 blue beads, of which 24 are decorated with the so called ‘fish-eye’ and 11 with the ‘Udjat’ eye. One of the beads has an extra drawing on the back of the ‘ankh’ symbol that stands for life and power. At first the necklace may look like it belonged to a princess or other important person but it was found in the stables. Correspondence from the 14th century BC contains notice of “horse-necklaces”. It is assumed that the necklace found in 1911 was decoration of the harness, but any person who has worked with horses would consider the suggested placement odd if not dangerous. Also the necklace doesn’t look very flexible and horseowners will recognise it’s shape as somewhat reflecting a typical harness collar.
According to ancient Egyptian myth, the Udjat eyes represent the eyes of the god Horus. He and Seth were fighting over the throne of Osiris when Seth poked out Horus his left eye. Legend has Thoth restore the eye and Horus then offered the eye to Osiris in the hope to restore his life. Since that moment the eye of Horus has come to symbolise healing and protection. In modern Egypt the blue fish-eye is still very popular and sold almost everywhere, even in supermarkets, as pendants for the home, car, as jewelry and even as car stickers. Frequently horses and donkeys are wearing some form of necklace, many times in the typical blue of the eye, but other colors are also seen.
Although the tradition of decorating ones horse with a necklace to repel evil is probably older than the Islamic notion of the evil eye, the habit did somehow grow connected to horsebreeds of the Middle East. Especially the Arabian horse can be seen in modern shows around the world and photoshoots wearing large breastcollars featuring bright colours, but also in Iran, North Africa and among Turkish horsebreeds, horses are generally presented with some form of decoration around their necks.
Taking a closer look at Assyrian depictions of horses (7th BC), we also clearly see tassles, once again confirmation that the idea of decorating horses in this specific way is very old and was already widespread in ancient times. The Assyrian horse also seems to be wearing a necklace made out of beads…
Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture, Landry, Donna. The John Hopkins University Press, 2008.
In light of a paper I am working on for WOCMES this year I finally read Noble Brutes. It was long overdue as Donna Landry is an authority in our rather small group of equine historians. She has published on horses as cultural agents throughout history, women writing, travel writing, imperialism and Orientalism. Combining all these elements resulted in the interdisciplinary work Noble brutes, in which she also touches upon Ottoman history, art history and military history.
The book starts with the introduction of “His lordship’s Arabian”, a phrase that characterizes a large part of equestrian discourse in 18th century England (and Ireland). Landry explains how the Eastern/Oriental horse rose to tremendous popularity following the first wave of imports between 1650 and 1750, and shows that it did not matter at that point where the horse actually came from or what breed it may have been, there was a general tendency to call them Arabians. She shows how various identities developed in the British Isles, such as English, Irish, Scots, Welsh etc., and argues that a similar movement happened in the horse culture at the same time. Eastern horses represented a legendary equine ideal that had already been formulated in the 16th century, however had perhaps more to do with the way of riding them than the horses themselves.
A brief sketch is made of “Horsemanship in the British Isles before the Eastern invasion” when horses were still seen as property yet embodied a powerful symbolic. Owning a good horse and riding it well showed that one possessed all the necessary qualities for social authority and political rule. The idea of the horse as a ideal version of the human self was on the rise and Eastern imports would “revolutionize” this concept, as argued by Landry. She starts by showing that the equestrian culture of England has always been based on immigrants. The phenomena of racing was brought to the Isles by the Romans and during the 16th century, Italian and Spanish equestrian masters of ‘haute d’école, set the trend of riding in the arena. It is generally thought that European horsemanship went through a “renaissance” following the rediscovery of Xenophon’s work, however Landry points out that we might look a bit further east for support of this rebirth of equestrian values. She finds a foundation for her argument that the East was the place to look for the origin of the equestrian renaissance, in the existence of a vast discourse on horsemanship from the Islamic world, called furusiyya. Although furusiyya has not received the scholarly attention it deserves and Orientalism has long been (and still is) so common that Eastern influences on European culture seem absent, the equestrian culture of the east has not gone unnoticed. At first through Italian and Spanish horse masters, English equestrian authorities discovered a more friendly way of approaching the horse, and found confirmation in their observation of the Ottoman’s seemingly very successful handling of ‘noble brutes’.
Landry eases the reader into the idea that there was more to the English admiration of Eastern equitation by explaining of what she calls “The making of the English hunting seat” and the “Stealing of a Turk”. The idea of “riding like a Turk” is very appealing but Landry does not provide much evidence that the development was so directly based on Ottoman example. However, competitive as the English were in the wake of Imperialism, the shortening of the stirrup and posting the trot became viewed as a final departure from European example and the birth of a superior English way of riding. Hand in hand with colonizing various parts of the east, many products from that exotic part of the world were naturalized and now viewed as rightfully English. The equestrian culture was no exception to this rule.
But Landry takes it a step further, arguing that through what Gerald McLean called “imperial envy” and the ideology shaping Edward Said’s Orientalism, the imported horses and their naturalized descendents became valued as the epitome identity of British imperialism; Eastern exotic and English appropriated asset of ultimate Englishness. She uses the story of the Bloody Shouldered Arabian to guide the reader to the various roles this horse has played and perhaps still plays in English equestrian culture. Topics like the trouble of importing horses, marvel over their exotic features, their status as living art and especially the birth of the new genre of “equine portraits” that elevated George Stubbs, John Wootton and others to world famous painters, are discussed extensively. More and more the blood-horse featured in art and literature, while the equestrian society became obsessed with hot blood. Imperial envy was so strong that even horses born on English soil were often called Arabian or Barb, solely as proof of their hot pedigree and not as a reflection of modern ideas of breed identity. The idea that the Eastern horse was superior to any other breed prevailed during the 18th and lasted well into the 19th century.
But what happened when the English Thoroughbred, viewed as the mirror image of the perfect English self was a well established breed of its own towards the second half of the 19th century? I was happily surprised that Landry does touch upon that question a bit. As she opened the book with “His lordship’s Arabian” she closes it with “Her Ladyship’s Arabian”. The Eastern horse had now fallen behind its product, the ever faster and taller Thoroughbred and Landry shows that men now preferred their own ‘hunters’ to the imported stock, a shift that left the once so sought after Oriental horses in the hands of women. The “graceful and short-coupled” horses were perfect for carrying a side saddle and their willingness to cooperate with their rider gave women something of their own as men didn’t show much interest anymore. A second wave of imports did happen at the end of the 19th century as European travelers went to the Orient in search of fresh Eastern blood to replenish the Thoroughbred stock. As women were not yet ready to let go of their beautiful and exotic mounts, a new preservation theory was born and the idea to breed purebred Oriental horses ‘back home’ was on the rise, with the efforts of the Blunts mentioned as an example of these expeditions. Landry concludes that with this newly found purpose for the imported stock, namely to not only use it as a source for the English thoroughbred but to breed them as a breed of their own, the Turkish roots were buried in favor of the Arabian. She supports this argument with examples of anti-Turkish prejudice prevailing in Britain at the time, but I personally believe that this issue requires a closer look, not only in terms of the historical or political context but also into the motives of the individual promoters of the ‘newly’ created breed that we now know as Arabian horse.
When we speak of a desert horse most people will immediately assume the conversation is about Oriental horses, or just Arabian horses. But the Desert Bred horse is generally also seen as a concept that no longer exists. But it does, in the Namib desert.
The past century feral horses have been living in this vast land surrounding the Garub water hole, which has allowed them to survive. Although the Namib is called a desert, the areas in which the feral horses are found vary in topology, geology and climate. Plains of sand and dry rivers aren’t the only features of the roughly 2000 km long Namib. There are also low mountains and desert gravel, which provide the horses but also their grazing competitors the gemsboks and springboks, their main diet. When we think of desert climate we imagine a searing heat but the average temperature in the Namib throughout the year is 18°C, making it a ‘cool desert’.
Due to the scarcity of water, grazing competition and predators such as the spotted hyena and the jackal, the feral horse population of the Namib has always remained small. The total number never exceeding 280 horses. Studies have shown their ability to adapt to harsh environments to stem from their behavior rather than genetic extraordinary resilience. Patterns were discovered in their ratio of feeding, travel and resting as well as temperature.
The genetic makeup of the Namib desert horses is however very interesting as there are many theories about their origin. Since horses are not native to the south of Africa it still somewhat a mystery where these horses have come from. Among the theories about the origin of the feral horses is the idea that the Dutch and English colonists from the Cape moved upwards to what is now Namibia and took their (war)horses with them. Another possibility was that the indigenous peoples such as the Khoikhoi, who are known to have stolen some of the immigrant horses and started keeping them, were responsible for the arrival of horses to the Namib.
Because the Namib desert horse resembles the TB and other European breeds, a theory about how a ship carrying English TB’s stranded on her way to the Cape surfaced. Although a romantic idea , it is unlikely that horses would first swim to shore in large numbers and then traveled approx 318 km to reach the Garub water hole. Another, more detailed, theory is that of the horses escaping from Duwisib Castle, about 200 km from Garub. German Baron Hans-Heinrich von Wolf bred horses there from 1908 until WWI broke out in 1914. Although this story gives us a bit of an idea towards the time we think the first (feral?) horses may have appeared in the Namib, the distance to the water hole still remains an issue.
The first more serious reports of larger number of horses in the area do stem from the same time period. Union of South Africa troops were stationed near Garub during the war with reportedly up to 6000 horses. A German military report from 1915 describes the bombing of the encampment and 1700 grazing military horses. It is thought that in the heat of the moment the Union forces did not manage to retrieve all of the horses as they quickly marched on the Germans, and the horses left behind considered the foundation stock of the feral Namib desert horse. Although this theory is very attractive because there is no large distance for ‘lost’ or ‘escaped’ horses to travel, it seems that it is unknown whether or not the ‘forgotten’ horses were retrieved by anyone or remained lost.
Kreplin among his stud animals on the farm Kubub near Aus. (photo: private collection Mannfred Goldbeck)
The most plausible theory towards the origin of these feral horses is the stud farm of Mr. Emil Kreplin (gestüt Kubub) in Lüderitz. Kreplin was the mayor of Lüderitz and responsible of building the new train tracks up-country following the diamond rush in 1908. He bred horses for both the work in the mines and the railways as well as for the luxurious races as his town grew larger between 1909-1914. The Kubub studfarm was located close to the Sperrgebiet, a marked out area which the colonial government tried to protect by giving mining rights to just one company (Deutsche Diamantengesellschaft) and thereby rendering the Sperrgebiet forbidden terrain for all others. When the German forces fell and South African forces took over the Sperrgebiet remained intact under new ownership (De Beers).
Being one of the founders of the Deutsche Diamantengesellschaft, Kreplin used his diamond wealth to import horses for his stud. During the war he fell in Union hands but returned to his post as mayor of Lüderitz after the war, however he eventually left Namibia in 1920. His horses now left ownerless and fenceless are assumed to have wandered into the Sperrgebiet where they would be safe from hunters and other human dangers.
A study of the genetical makeup of the Namib desert horse showed extraordinary results. Only Blue Star Arabians have a lower genetic variation than the desert horses, meaning they descend from a very small number of foundation horses. Surprisingly, the Namib horses fit within the ‘Oriental’ cluster, having a lot in common with the Arabian, Turkoman, Akhal Teke, Kurd, Khuzestan Arabian, and most interestingly, the Shagya (Hungarian) Arabian. A bit further away they have a connection to Iberian breeds, TB and North American gaited breeds. Most of the breeds listed here can be explained by the fact that there would have been Union horses among the foundation of the Namib desert horses. South African forces would have had both TB and local horses, that were the result of earlier colonial efforts of creating the perfect warhorse. Indonesian horses, carrying both Spanish and Arab/Persian blood were brought to South Africa by the Dutch settlers. British immigrants later added the TB and Indian blood. The only odd name on the list seems to be the Shagya Arabian. Who brought that influence to Africa? It may have been Kreplin as the Hungarian horses were popular warhorses at the time, but I have not been able to find records yet.
A couple of photos raise a few more questions. For example the fact that there are clearly some grey horses in the German herds and the various studies and sources about the Namib Desert horse state that there are no greys among the current population. It almost seems as if grey is not a ‘natural’ color, which leaves question marks at the idea of the grey DesertBred Arabian for example.
Horses of the German colonial forces near the city Aus. Source: National Archive of Namibia
The size of the horses of the German forces in some of the photos also seems a bit odd. Most sources state that they rode imported horses and also bred their own, suggesting they were not interested in using locally available horses, if there were any. However in the photo below it is clear that these horses are smaller than the suggested Trakheners of the German cavalry… Another photo shows an officer on a rather large horse, probably imported as it looks similar to the ones featured in images from Europe during WWI.
For now the ‘origin’ of the Namib desert horses will remain an unanswered question, however there is a very important lesson to be learned from their existence. They may perhaps represent the only ‘breed’ not created by man. The extremely low genetic variation suggests that they are now ‘purebreds’ in their own right. As such, the SA Boerperd registry has accepted the crossbreeding of Namibs in their studbook following an experiment that isolated some of the Namibs in order to see if they could add beneficial qualities to domestic stock. Because it is still assumed that any Desert horse has to possess certain qualities to be able to survive in the extremely hostile environment. Much of the talk surrounding the Oriental horses has claimed their appearance, and especially that of the Arabian, is a direct result of the breed being ‘shaped’ by the desert. Yet the Namibs have survived without the help of humans and do not resemble the Oriental horses they are so genetically close to, leaving a serious question mark in relation to a ‘unified shape’ of the concept of the Desert horse.
Of the many legends told about the Arabian horse, that of the Bloody Shoulder is one of the most popular. At least, that’s the case in the West, because to date I have found no Arabic version of it. While this color mutation can happen in any type of horse (and appears in various coat colors) it is frequently seen in grey Arabian horses, thus providing the fuel that keeps the legend burning brightly. Like so many other stories, this one is also set in an unspecified time amongst the Bedouin and within the space of the desert, all concepts perceived as being closely connected to the identity of the Arabian horse. On closer inspection of this legend, it’s still not immediately clear precisely how the tale of the Bloody Shoulder should have become so firmly established and so popular amongst today’s Arabian horse community.
The modern version of the story of the bloody shoulder appears to date back no further than 1982. In this tale, which first appeared in print in Arabian Horse World, a Bedouin chieftain is surprised by a group of robbers while riding on his mare through the desert. The robbers open fire and although his mare runs for their lives, a bullet pierces the heart of her rider, causing him to slump forward onto her shoulder and neck. The mare keeps going and doesn’t stop until she has returned her master to the camp they call home. There, his people take his lifeless body off her back to discover a large bloodstain that has dried on her shoulder. That same night the mare foals a colt who has the same mark on his shoulder as his dam, and ever since it is believed that every horse carrying a bloodlike stain on its shoulder descends from that very brave mare.
Although it is not possible to pinpoint the exact source of the legend, the story itself resembles that of a very old Shia Islamic ritual that is still found today: the mourning of the death of Hussayn ibn Ali on the Day of Ashura. Commemorated primarily among Shia Muslims in India and Pakistan, the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson is mourned during processions that include a horse. Mostly white horses are used, to represent the grey stallion that is said to have carried the wounded Imam Hussayn away from the battlefield and back to his camp. Another striking similarity to the story of the Bloody Shoulder is the fact that the rider, in this case Hussayn, was also shot in the heart, causing him to fall forward on his horse. During processions, the horses are smeared with red paint to look as though a rider has bled on them and often wear sheets with arrows attached, to emphasize the bravery of the horse that brought its rider home despite the rain of arrows or, in the case of the modern legend, bullets.
Whilst there are different versions of the role that the horse played during and after the death of Hussayn, the horse is always hailed as a hero, much like the horse in the legend of the Bloodied Shoulder. Maymun, Hussayn’s grey stallion, is praised so highly that he even receives a new name; Dhu al Janah, Owner of Wings. Not only is he celebrated by poets and in processions, some rumors even try to connect the winged horse to Prophet Muhammad himself, claiming that he was in fact the stallion al Murtajiz. This horse is said to have sat down to let Hussayn mount him as a child, a detail returning in the Dhu al Janah tradition where the stallion lowered himself to gently release the wounded or slain Hussayn from his back. Although it’s very appealing to believe that the two horses were one and the same, al Murtajiz would have had to be at least 54 years of age at the battle of Karbala, after which Hussayn passed away.
Because of the similarity of the two tales, it might be possible that one derived from the other; and the introduction of the story into at least the English language may have focussed on one special horse: the Bloody Shouldered Arabian, a stallion imported into England in 1719/20 from Aleppo. Was this then the colt who provided the inspiration for the modern legend? On the one hand it doesn’t seem very plausible, as in a letter from Nathanial Harley, who shipped the horse to his brother Edward Harley, it is explained that the stain on the horse was “red as blood” when he bought him,but faded as he aged. But, on the other hand, the story may have boosted interest in the stallion among other breeders in Britain.
The first lead in English literature to the story of Hussayn’s death I found in the work of historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). It surprised me how his lifespan so closely paralleled that of Shia poet Hassan al Damastani (d. 1759), who wrote a poem about the battle of Karbala, titled Dhu al Janah. Gibbon does not mention any horse in his version of the tale but refers to his source: Simon Ockley (1678-1720). Although Ockley does not pay special attention to the character or name of the horse in his very long description, he may have been the one to transfer the story into the world of Arabian horse breeders as he exchanged letters (1714) with Lord Harley, the last owner of the Bloody Shouldered Arabian.
Perhaps the one is not the source of the other, but both stories are legendary, adapted to early modern orientalism; in the latter, modern version, the horse became a mare to fit the romantic image of Arabs and the Bedouin, and perhaps also to insinuate in some way that the stallion was in fact the colt born to the mare.
While it is not absolutely certain whether or not the two stories – that of the Bloody Shouldered Arabian and the heroic horse with wings – are indeed connected, it is certainly a possibility. Both these legendary tales are known in several different versions and the horse in question is celebrated. Furthermore, it is very interesting that Hussayn’s horse is now known as Dhu al Janah rather than Maymun. The idea of giving the horse wings may be related to the important position Hussayn holds within Shia Islam, much like the mystical creature Al Buraq that Prophet Muhammad rode during his visit to the heavens. Although Al Buraq is not a horse but composed of various animals, he is usually depicted as at least part horse and having wings.
Assuming it was understood that Dhu al Janah also had a mystical aspect to his being, it is possible that the story of the Bloodied Shoulder was regarded in similar fashion. The legend was then perhaps adapted to a more tangible and appealing setting for the interested European public, a Bedouin Arabia, possibly to help promote the stallion with the bloodmark on his shoulder. In order to further convince the public, the role of the hero was now shifted from stallion to mare because the Orientalists had met Bedouin with a tradition of riding mares into battle. If the legend was to help promote the stallion it may have also helped people overcome the fact that he had a “strange” color and was somewhat odd, not fitting in with existing views on attractiveness in horses.