London, Asharq Al-Awsat – “The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot” exhibition opens today at the British Museum. This exhibition will explore the influence of horses in Middle Eastern history, from their domestication around 3,500 years ago to the present day.
The exhibition will also shed light on Britain’s long equestrian tradition from the introduction of the Arabian breed in the 18th century to present day sporting events such as Royal Ascot and the Olympic Games.
Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah Bin Mohammed Al Saud, Saudi Education Minister and Chairman of the Saudi Equestrian Fund, toured “The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot” exhibition at the British Museum yesterday. Commenting on the idea behind this exhibition, Prince Faisal told the press “it began in the19 90s, when we joined the International Federation for Equestrian Sports [FEI]. Princess Anne told us ‘you are a wonderful new addition [to the FEI], particularly as King Abdul Aziz was the last person in history to unify a country from the back of a horse.’ This is where we got the idea to highlight the Arabian horse. This resulted in an [equestrian] book which we worked on for 7 years, bringing together every work of art that depicts the relationship between man and horse, as well as a number of exhibitions. The first such exhibition took place at the King Abdulaziz Public Library in 2000, and then another [exhibition] took place in Kentucky in 2010. I am very happy to be here at the British Museum today, because we began with them, and they provided us with a lot of help to prepare for this exhibition, thanks to the special committee.”
Exhibition curator John Curtis accompanied Asharq Al-Awsat on a tour of “The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot” exhibition, revealing that this exhibition is split into five sections, starting with the pre-Islamic period, then the Islamic period, followed by a section focusing on the Arabian Peninsula. There is also one section focusing on British explorer and well-known horse-breeder Lady Anne Blunt, whilst the exhibition concludes with a section on Britain, as well as the role of horses in the Olympic Games.
Curtis informed Asharq Al-Awsat that this exhibition is like a circle, starting with an exploration on the origin of the Arabian horse and its presence in antiquities found throughout the Arabian Peninsula, as well as tracing the arrival of the Arabian horse to Britain – looking at three horses in particular – and then concluding with the part that the Arabian horse has played in previous Olympic Games, including the medals Arabian horses have won. He added that this conclusion brings us up to date, with the London Olympic Games scheduled to begin in the near future.
The British Museum curator stressed that this exhibition begins with the “pre-horse” period – pre 2,500 BC – where horses were not domesticated, and rather artifacts and antiquities of this period show donkeys being used for transport. Curtis told Asharq Al-Awsat “horses came to the Middle East and Mesopotamia around 2,300 BC.” Whereas prior to this, donkeys were used for transport, predominately as harness animals, pulling cumbersome but technologically advanced vehicles, as seen on objects found at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. The exhibition also includes one of the earliest known depictions of a horse and rider: a terracotta mould found in Mesopotamia dating to around 2,000 – 1,800 BC.
Curator John Curtis also made reference to wall murals that dates back to the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt, saying “some might say that the horses that are depicted here resembles Arabian horses, particularly due to their defining characteristics, namely the head-shape and high-tail carriage, but I think that it is impossible to say whether these are truly Arabian horses or not.”
He added “until 400 years ago, we did not possess the capability to trace a horse’s bloodline; therefore some might say this horse resembles an Arabian horse, but we cannot confirm this because of the inter-mixing of bloodlines.”
In the midst of the “The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot” exhibition, there is a glass cabinet housing a three-dimensional horse bust that is adorned with an ancient bridle – on loan to the exhibition from the British Museum – dating back to the Assyrian period. Curtis informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “the bridle and saddle are made of ivory and bronze. We also know from wall reliefs and engravings from this period that they [the Assyrians] were very concerned with horse ornaments, and this is what we have tried to show here.”
Drawings and manuscripts from this period reveal that horses were used for transport and war, and Curtis stressed “horses, as we can see in this exhibition, were primarily used for war, as well as transport and hunting…but we do not see horses being used for entertainment, for racing, for example [during this period].”
Whilst in the section of the exhibition focusing on the role of horses during the Islamic period, there is a modal of a knight on horseback dressed in Ottoman-era armor, whilst the horse itself would also have been fitted with special armor to protect it during battle, as well as to inspire fear amongst enemy ranks. This model was on loan to the British Museum from The Royal Armouries in Leeds.
Islamic art from Syria, Iran and Turkey depicting horses on copper plates, jars, and pottery fragments, were also present at the exhibition. These exhibits prove, according to Curtis, that Islamic art used animal depictions as part of the creative process, contrary to the commonly held belief that Islamic art shied away from depicting living things.
The role of horses in the Islamic world is reflected in the group of Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Mughal wall reliefs, ceramics and manuscripts from the 7th century onwards. Mughal wall reliefs show images of princes riding Arabian horses, which are known for their speed and endurance. The exhibition also includes a manuscript on loan from the British museum that was published in Cairo in the 14th century which contains information about horses, including information on how to care for a horse, and even how to deal with horses in battle, including maneuvers and battle formations.
The exhibition also contained the Abbas Pasha manuscript, the famous book on horses and horsemen of Arabia and Egypt compiled during the 18th century and which highlights the important role horses have played in Middle Eastern history. This document is an important source of information regarding Arabian horse breeds gathered by Abbas I of Egypt from across the Middle East.
“The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot” exhibition was loaned exhibits from a number of different organizations, including the Royal Armouries, the British Library and the Fitzwilliam Museum, as well as the King Abdulaziz Public Library in Riyadh.
As for the Arabian Peninsula section of the exhibition, this contained a large panoramic image of drawings of horses on rocks fond in different regions throughout Saudi Arabia, dating back to different eras. In addition to this, there is also a number of beautiful wall reliefs and murals of horses from the Qaryat al-Faw, located about 700 km southwest of Riyadh.
Another section of the exhibition is dedicated to Wilfrid Scawn Blunt (1840 – 1922), poet and agitator, and his wife Lady Anna Blunt (1837 – 1917), the granddaughter of Lord Byron. The Blunts travelled widely throughout the Middle East and established a celebrated stud for purebred Arabian horses at Crabbet Park in Sussex, and another outside Cairo in Egypt, which were crucial for the survival of the Arabian breed. Britain has been a strong importer of Arabian horses, and in the 17th century they inter-mingled the bloodlines of three famous Arabian horses with local bloodlines, giving rise to the “Thoroughbred” horse breed, which is one of the most famous horse breeds in modern horse racing. 95 percent of Thoroughbred horses trace their paternal roots to these three Arabian horses. Artworks and paintings, not to mention the success achieved by the bloodline of these horses, particularly in the field of horse racing, reflects the huge influence of Arabian horses. The exhibition also includes paintings by English artist George Stubbs, who is best known for his paintings of horses, as well as artworks depicting the Epsom races.
The exhibition ends by drawing attention to the Olympic Games, with a number of medals won by Saudi Arabia in equestrian events during at the Olympics on display.
The “The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot” exhibition is being held by the British Museum between 24 May and 30 September under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth II, funded by the Saudi Equestrian Fund, to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.