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.