One of the most well known early Islamic works on horses is the Kitāb al-Khayl (Book of horses) written by Abū ‘Ubayda (d.822 CE). In it he features a chapter called “The names of things that fly in the horse“.
Below I’ve listed the 16 terms that he includes in this chapter and their literal meaning and the part of the horse they refer to as recorded in the many other chapters of the Kitāb al-Khayl by Abū Ubayda.
Part of horse
Any small bird(s)
Parietal crest (on the muzzle)
Owl that visits burial places
Bregma or crown
Point of the ear
Black bird with a white belly
The white hair that appears after a healed saddle sore
Muscle beneath the tongue
The king of the bees/male bee
a blaze that ends before the nostrils and extends no further than the beginning of the forehead
A whirl in the middle of the neck of the horse (on the side of the neck)
A young bird whos wings have become complete and is able to fly
Justfew days after I had booked the flights for a trip to the United Arab Emirates, together with fellow equine historian and Egyptologist Lonneke Delpeut, we saw the advertisement for an upcoming exhibition at the Louvre Abu Dhabi called Furusiyya.
I couldn’t believe my luck! A holiday to the sun that would now include a visit to an exhibition that was about the topic of my research, as the material I work with is often classified as Furusiyya literature. We were indeed lucky, with the Corona virus quickly spreading around the world many venues and events around us were being cancelled. We had planned on visiting the Dubai International Horse Fair which was also cancelled.But we managed to visit the Louvre in Abu Dhabi!
The ultra modern building of the Louvre and its location at the waterfront on Saadiyat Island alone are reason enough to visit this marvellous place.To my surprise the regular collection also hosts famous pieces such as The Thinker by Rodin and one of the famous depictions of Napoleon on his rearing horse!
The temporary exhibition of Furusiyya wasn’t very large but it was very well set up and I’m sure people who aren’t as crazy about horses as I am, would also enjoy the collection because it wasn’t just horsey stuff. Fabrics with embroidered patterns featuring knights as well as candleholders and ceramics showed the significance of the horse in military traditions between east and west in the pre-modern period (in academia we now prefer to avoid the term Medieval, because it is a European term.It reflects a certain state of a civilisation that can not be applied on every society or culture across the world for that particular period of time).
Walking into the exhibition we were greeted by two knights, one was dressed in 15th century German fashion and the other represented 18th century Ottoman fashion. I found the depiction of the Furusiyya tradition as a phenomenon between east and west very refreshing. Generally this tradition is seen as Arab, Islamic or specifically Mamluk. Often translated as Horsemanship, Furusiyya is much more than just that as the literary genre also includes works on falconry, weaponry and training methods of both cavalry and infantry.We might agree that military tradition varies from culture to culture, but is nonetheless also stimulated by the ‘other’ that one is at war with. In my research so far I have come across material that enables me to argue that we have to be very careful with our definitions of Furusiyya and other Arabic terms from various military traditions from the Middle east. I was thus very happily surprised by the careful set up of this exhibition at the Louvre and the very neutral descriptions of the items displayed.
The collection told us of the emerge of a mounted elite (knights) and their place in society. We walked past swords, lances, tack and armour as well as an enormous crossbow. The description told us that knights in the west did not appreciate crossbows and judged their use “unfair”.
Several handwritten Arabic manuscripts about the military arts showed us the detail of the descriptions of the manoeuvres that soldiers had to practise, with drawings of the menage figures the knights had to ride. Latin manuscripts such as the Romance of Lancelot and the Book of Tristan were also displayed, showcasing the importance of chivalry in literature of the premodern period. A beautifully illustrated Persian manuscript from the 15th century relating the history of polo, through a romance about the son of the king who visits central Asia to play polo at court there.
A video at the end of the exhibition showed how certain aspects of the Furusiyya tradition can still be found in the Middle East today as well as in museums across the world. A very well preserved Mamluk saddle, harness and bridle which were obtained from Egypt during Napoleons expedition in 1798, was probably the most impressive piece of historic horse gear from the Middle East that I have ever seen
As I am working on a chapter about gender and horses in Early Islamic Arabic texts I read my way through numerous academic articles and books about genealogy, gender and politics in Early Islam as well as pre-Islamic times.
In the work of Majied Robinson on marriage within the Quraysh tribe between 500-750 CE it is explained that concubinage was not a foreign idea to the family of Prophet Muḥammad. Interestingly, children of these concubines were classified as Hajīn, a term very well known within the Arab horse breeders community.
An interesting observation is that people classified as Hajīn were not regarded as lesser in Umayyad times, in fact the Nasab Quraysh tells us that they had better chances for a good marriage than the children from wives.
However in the Abbasid era, the concept of Hajīn became slightly altered, as genealogists and philologist facilitated the consolidation and retrojection of Arab identity and Hajīn became the term for children of a non-Arab mother. Whether this means that Umayyad concubines were often considered non-Arab in retrospect by Abbasid era writers is unclear, as the back projection of Arab identity onto pre-Islamic tribal communities and families was very inclusive and there is no evidence that in Umayyad times they were seen as ethnically different or even valued less. Statistics show they often married well.
Interestingly the Abbasid definition of Hajīn, a child of a non Arab mother by an Arab father, leaves out the original requisite of marriage vs concubinage and pushes for the idea that Hajīn is inferior to Arab. But it is in this form that the concept also appears in the system of classification of horses in medieval Arabic texts, following the horse’s Arabisation in the 9-10th century CE.
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…
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.
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…