Ahead of the opening of The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot, we talk to the curator of the exhibition at the British Museum.
Exhibition celebrates all things equine at the British Museum
Rare material from Saudi Arabia will be exhibited at the British Museum this month in a show that celebrates the Middle East's historic love of horses. Photography of Saudi rock art and wall paintings and figurines from archaeological sites at Al Maqar and Qaryat Al Fau will be on display alongside gold models, trophies and one of the earliest known depictions of a horse and rider: a 4,000-year-old terracotta mould found in Iraq.
Pieces from the museum's own collection include a miniature chariot drawn by four horses, part of the Oxus treasure hoard of ancient Persian gold; and The Standard of Ur, a 4,500-year-old depiction of chariots drawn by donkeys.
"The horse was probably domesticated somewhere like Kazakhstan in about 3,500BC," says Nigel Tallis, the curator of The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot, "but it's in the Middle East that it was first used to its fullest potential, and you see all these incredible inventions appearing. The horse becomes part of these urbanised, civilised societies."
By the second millennium BC, horses were given as diplomatic gifts, as shown in a collection of letters that will be on display in the exhibition. Written to an Egyptian king by his neighbouring kings, they started with a polite statement of good wishes to "your household, your wives, your sons, your country, your horses".
Centuries later, the first Persian Empire introduced "post horses" to deliver messages on the royal road, while the horsemen of a later Persian Empire, the Parthians, were celebrated by Roman authors for the "Parthian shot", in which an apparently retreating rider would shoot arrows backwards while on horseback.
After explaining how horses were first used in warfare, for transport and in royal societies in the Middle East, the exhibition turns to the Islamic World from the 7th century onwards. Mughal miniatures show princes with their steeds, and a beautifully illustrated 14th-century Furusiyya manuscript on horsemanship gives information on riding techniques and parade formations. Horses were celebrated in poetry, too. "Some of the most beautiful, expressive poetry in Arabic is about the horse," Tallis says.
The Middle East didn't just teach the rest of the world how to best use horses, it also produced a breed that changed racing forever. The Arabian, associated with King Solomon and Prophet Muhammad, was prized by the Bedouin for its endurance in the desert and its good temperament around humans. In the 17th century, three Arabian stallions were taken to Britain and bred with native mares to produce the thoroughbred, a horse faster than any other. Racing quickly transformed from casual bets between friends to a huge entertainment industry.
This ushered in the age of the celebrity horse. Portraits and drawings of horses by Rembrandt, Anthony van Dyck and George Stubbs will be on show at the exhibition, some lent by the famous equestrian fan Queen Elizabeth, who has also lent her racing silks, in royal purple and black, and a Fabergé statuette of Edward VII's thoroughbred racehorse Persimmon.
Though the thoroughbred caught on quickly, the Arabian horse continued to attract attention. Lord Byron's granddaughter, Lady Anne Blunt, who travelled widely in the Middle East in the 19th century and translated Arabic poetry with her husband Wilfred, was so enamoured of the breed that she bred the horses in Sussex and outside Cairo in Egypt to ensure the breed's survival.
In the UAE, Arabians are still prized. The President of the UAE Cup Series pits purebred Arabian horses against each other in a highly publicised annual race, while the Dubai International Arabian Horse Championship showcases the animals' beauty, agility and heritage, and is sponsored by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai. You'll find purebred Arabians in many of the UAE's royal stables.
The UK's royal family are also great horse lovers, and the association between horses, nobility and royalty has a long-running history. They are expensive animals to house, feed and care for - plus, there is the advantage, when on horseback, of being literally higher up than others. Perhaps that's why monarchs have always loved equestrian portraits of themselves. Think of van Dyck's portrait of Charles I on horseback, which Tallis calls "his quintessential prestige and monarchy painting".
There is something about man's relationship with horses that goes beyond their usefulness and their status as rich people's toys.
"If you look around this museum, the horse is everywhere," Tallis says. "You see it in all the artworks we have here. It's such a sympathetic animal; you'll see that artists deal with it with an enormous degree of empathy and understanding. You know what it's like when you stand with a horse, they're inquisitive; they'll come over and interact with you and start nibbling."
Tallis tells the story of the Duke of Wellington who was "cold in many ways" but who wouldn't allow his beloved horse Copenhagen to be stuffed when it died. Instead, the animal was given a full burial, and Wellington was furious when he found out somebody had taken a hoof.
Saudi Arabia's minister of education, Faissal Ibn Abdullah Ibn Muhammad Al Saud, who gave a statement in which he expressed his pleasure at loaning several of the exhibition's items, also talked of "the close bond" that exists between horses and men.
In the UK, the number of horses peaked just before the First World War, when London's streets were clogged with horses and carts. ("You think traffic in London is bad now," Tallis jokes.) After that, an influx of cheap army surplus vehicles made cars a more attractive option. The city today is full of relics of the days when the horse was the dominant mode of transport, from troughs to mews, but most Londoners today can't even remember the last milk deliveries by horse, in the 1960s.
In the Middle East, by Tallis's reckoning, there are as many horses as there have ever been. Some of the show's exhibits are contemporary artworks from the Middle East inspired by horses, showing that although the animal has been supplanted by modern technology, it continues to ignite the imagination.
• The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot at the British Museum opens on May 24 and continues until September 30
Follow Arts & Life on Twitter to keep up with all the latest news and events @LifeNationalUAE