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Arts of the Arabian horse

With its concave face, arched neck and high tail carriage, the Arabian horse has long been a favourite subject for artists. Yet it has also played an important cultural role, not least in Arab ideas of chivalry and horsemanship, writes David Tresilian
from: Al Ahram weekly,

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Cavalaries heading to battle from an illuminated manuscript of Al-Hariri's Maqamat,1237
The Arabian horse, famous for its refined physical appearance, stamina and endurance, as well as for its remarkably long memory, quick comprehension and sociability, has long been a favourite of breeders worldwide, giving rise to sub-types such as the half-Arabian and the Anglo-Arabian. However, in the Arab world such horses have also traditionally played an important cultural role, occupying a significant place not only in warfare but also in an aristocratic ethic linking man and horse that can be compared to that of the knight in the European Middle Ages.  

It is this Arab tradition of al-furusiyya -- horsemanship, chivalry and the mutual dependence of man and horse -- that forms the centrepiece of Chevaux et Cavaliers arabes dans les arts d'Orient et d'Occident (Horses and Knights in the Arts of East and West), an exhibition at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris that opened last week, running until 30 March 2003.

Arab traditions of horsemanship began in the eighth century at the court of the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. However, it was under the Mamluks, the military caste made up of former slaves that ruled Egypt, Syria and Palestine from 1250 until their defeat by the Ottoman Turks in 1517, that these traditions were codified and set out in treatises dealing with the proper care of horses, their role in warfare and in sport, and in the training in handling horses necessary for a young man's entry to the ruling Mamluk caste. Many of these volumes, often beautifully illustrated, are on display at the Paris exhibition, showing the central and sometimes spectacular role played by horses.

As Shihab Al-Sarraf writes in the catalogue produced to accompany the exhibition, these works of furusiyya, linking the 'ulum (science), funun (arts) and adab (literature) of horsemanship, reinforced the Mamluk conception of al-faris, the knight or horseman, bearer of a moral code that linked virtues such as courage, valour, magnanimity and generosity and that was expressed in courtly and military-style spectacles and competitions.

Al-Sarraf identifies the 9th century writer Ibn Akhi Hizam, based in Baghdad, as the founder of this literature, producing two manuals for the use of knights in the army of the Abbasid Caliph Al- Mutawakkil. These volumes, dealing with the proper care of horses, riding techniques, the horse's role in warfare and in spectacles such as archery and games that seem to have been a little like mediaeval European jousting, served as models for later Egyptian Mamluk treatises along similar lines, such as the works of Mohamed Ibn Isa Al-Aqsara'i, Mohamed Ibn Yaqub Ibn Khazzam Al-Khuttali and Nasir Al-Din Ibn Tarabulusi.

Illustrated pages from Al-Aqsari's curiously named 14th century text, Nihayat Al-su'l wa Al- Umniyya fi Ta'lim A'mal Al-Furusiyya (An End to the Desire to know more of Exercises in Horsemanship) are on display at the exhibition, taken from an illustrated copy made in 1371 by Ahmed Ibn Umar Al-Misri and lent by the British Library in London. Various illustrations of horse-games from a 15th century copy of Al- Khuttali's Kitab Al-Makhzun Fi Jama' Al-Funun (Precious Book of all the Arts), lent by the Institute of Oriental Studies in St Petersburg, are also displayed, as are pages from Tarabulusi's 16th century work on military training and jousting.

Such works, produced in Egypt between the 14th and the 16th centuries, show various horse- games, such as al-qabaq, in which the aim is to hit targets with specially produced arrows while seated on a horse, al-tasrih 'ala al-suyuf 'ala al- bayd 'ala al-qabqab, horseback acrobatics standing on a structure composed of swords and wooden eggs mounted on the horse's saddle, and ramy al-faris, an exercise akin to jousting in which the aim is to dislodge one's opponent with a lance while on horseback.

These games, part of the training for any young Mamluk, would have been performed chiefly at the Citadel overlooking Cairo, their aim being to build and reinforce martial values of courage and competitiveness as part of the Mamluk honour code. However, the Mamluks also constructed numerous hippodromes in Cairo itself, building on a tradition carried forward from earlier times by their Ayyubid predecessors, at least one of whom, the Emir Al-Salih Najm Al-Din Ayyub, apparently excelled at polo.

According to Mamluk historians, members of the elite ruling caste would descend one or two days a week for horse-games in the hippodromes they had constructed in Cairo, such as Al- Maydan Al-Zahiri or Al-Maydan Al-Nasiri, before sumptuous feasts and entertainment. These horse-games apparently also served as popular entertainment. In addition, twice a year, in a tradition started by the Mamluk Sultan Baybars in 1276, the mahmil, a procession of pilgrims destined for Mecca, would start out from Cairo accompanied by Mamluk knights mounted on horses wearing decorative armour and trappings, some examples of which are also on display in the Paris exhibition.

While this material from Mamluk Egypt and from the Arab culture of al-furusiyya that flourished with it makes up the heart of the exhibition, Persian, Maghreb and later Ottoman and Arab materials relating to horses and horsemanship are also on display. Some of these materials are of very high, though perhaps incidental, interest, such as the illustrated pages from Al-Qazwini's 13th century text Aja'ib Al- Makhluqat Wa Ghara'ib Al-Mawjudat (The Marvels of Creation and the Curiosities of Existing Things) that have been lent to the exhibition from St Petersburg, and the wonderful illustrations of horses and knights from an 13th century Iraqi illustrated copy of Al-Hariri's Maqamat (Scenes) showing episodes from this picaresque mediaeval Arab narrative.

According to the exhibition catalogue, Al- Qazwini, inheritor of a philosophical tradition that included Ibn Sina and Ibn Al-Arabi, wished to show that "man, having been blessed with reason, a desire for knowledge and consciousness that distinguishes him from animals, can find in everything that exists the key to understanding creation and the place he occupies in it. Everything that exists is a sign that, properly interpreted, can yield such understanding." Within this large conception, Al-Qazwini describes the horse as an animal deserving special praise, the Prophet Mohamed having owned five, nine or 19 horses, according to different hadith, and being borne to Jerusalem on the back of Buraq, a horse with wings.

In a final section the exhibition shows how the Arabian horse has been treated by Western artists, notably in 19th century European orientalist painting. French artists such as Delacroix and Géricault, discovering Arab horses and horsemanship in the wake of Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1799, and of the later French invasion of Algeria in 1830, produced a series of spectacular canvases for exhibition in the Paris salons, such as Delacroix's Exercices militaries des Marocains (1832) and Le Kaid, chef marocain (1837), as well as series of drawings, such as Géricault's Mamluck retenant un cheval and Mamluck désarconné, showing scenes from battles waged by Napoleon against the Mamluks in Egypt.

Unlike the somewhat matronly studies of horses done by the English painter Stubbs in the 18th century, showing the horse as part of the settled, commercial life of the country gentry, these images stress the energy and agility of the Arabian horse, with its dished or concave face, large expressive eyes, arched neck with clean throat latch, high tail carriage and fine muscling.

This unusual exhibition, drawing together material from over a thousand years of equine history from across the Arab and Islamic world, together with 19th century European visual commentary on it, successfully draws attention to an intriguing subject, making connections with horse culture in the Turkic countries and in Central Asia, where the horse has played a similar military role, this time linked to nomadism. The 300-page catalogue accompanying the exhibition, published by Gallimard, will be a work of reference on the subject for years to come.

Chevaux et Cavaliers arabes dans les arts d'Orient et d'Occident, Institut du Monde arabe, 1, rue des Fossés-Saint-Bernard, Paris, until 30 March 2003.


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