Thursday August 22nd, 2019 I will be presenting a paper at the ICYE at Leiden University;
Straight Egyptian Arabians: Finding the Pharaoh’s horse
“The pharaohs were able to extend the Egyptian empire by harnessing the Arabian horse to their chariots and relying on his power and courage.” claims Judith Forbis in her book The Classic Arabian Horse. This Orientalist view is based on the fact that some of the ancient depictions share visual characteristics with the current phenotype of many an Arabian horse, and is strengthened by the fact that Arabian horse breeders tend to favour such a desirable ancestry. Tracing the history of the Arabian horse all the way back to ancient Egyptian horse imagery by comparison of visual characteristics is an example of ‘backprojection’, as we project a current idea onto something from the past. It is also not unlikely that this early modern obsession with finding an Ancient Egyptian horse ran parallel to the emerge of Egyptomania. In this presentation, I aim to introduce the misinterpretation of the scenes and the involvement of the depictions in the debate surrounding the mysterious history of the Arabian horse. Subsequently I will shed light on how the idea of an Ancient Egyptian Arabian horse was gradually fabricated and then successfully exploited by many breeders, resulting in a sub type of Arabian horse called the “Straight Egyptian”, which is still marketed as “the Pharaoh’s horse”.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 !
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.
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…
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!
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.