Sunday, July 01, 2012

Secrets of the Arabian Horse

Standard of Ur, southern Iraq, circa 2600-2400 BC - Full Article

Equestrianism through the ages

In the year of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee comes The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot, the title of a major exhibition at the British Museum.

How many courtly poems have been written to the Arabian horse? How many evocative Bedouin songs have risen into the night sky above a desert encampment in praise of this noble animal? These petite-but-tough galloping champions of the sands have been treasured in the West, too. This horse, the most iconic symbol of Arabian romance and pride, has been as much admired for its sensitive beauty as it has for its speed and powers of endurance in the inhospitable territories in which it has been bred since at least 3,500 B.C.E.

Entire peoples and cultures have been characterised by the horse and its central role in society—in peace and war, in mythology and literature. As travel is one of the defining features of human development, so the history of the horse is in essence the history of civilisation, a force for change in ancient cultures. Both pure Arabian bloodstock and its descendant thoroughbreds continue to win world-famous races today.

The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot is the title of a major exhibition at the British Museum and its accompanying book. This is the year of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, and the exhibition is organised this year, no doubt because the Queen so loves horses. She rides them, breeds them and cheers her own on to win so many classic equestrian events.

The exhibition shows the influence of horses in Middle Eastern culture from their domestication around 3,500 B.C.E. to the present day, with Olympic trophies on the horizon. Famous pieces from the British Museum and Saudi Arabian collections demonstrate this ancient history, such as the cylinder seal of the Achaemenid Persian King Darius, dating from 522-483 B.C.E., showing him hunting lions in a chariot. The ‘breaking’, or training, of wild horses for domestic use probably took place on the steppes of southern Russia, with horses introduced into the Middle East around 2,500 B.C.E.

Another thesis is that the Arabian horse originated in the Sabean kingdom of what is now Yemen. With the frankincense trade routes linking so much of the Middle East, King Solomon (r. 970–931 B.C.E.) obtained horses from the Queen of Sheba and gave one to some visiting Omanis. In just a few decades this stallion had 157 descendants, which were famous all over southern Arabia. In subsequent centuries countless numbers were exported to India...

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