Fragment of a carved relief featuring three horses drawing a chariot.
From the north-west palace, Nimrud, Assyria (modern-day Iraq).
Neo-Assyrian, 9th century BC.
Source: British Museum
The domestication of the horse more than 5,000 years ago dramatically changed human history. Domestication is thought to have first happened on the steppes of South Russia with horses being introduced into the Middle East around 2,300BC. Before this introduction, asses and donkeys were used for transport, predominantly as harness animals pulling cumbersome but technologically advanced vehicles - as seen on objects found at the Royal Cemetery of Ur -but gradually horses became the means of faster transportation for these early societies. The exhibition includes one of the earliest known depictions of a horse and rider: a terracotta mould found in Mesopotamia (Iraq) dating to around 2,000 – 1,800 BC.
Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Mughal miniature paintings, ceramics and manuscripts all attest to the growing importance of the horse in the Islamic world from the 7th century AD. The horse has a long history on the Arabian Peninsula, becoming an important cultural phenomenon and a noted part of the traditional Bedouin way of life. The ‘Arabian horse’ was developed through selective breeding, and with features including a distinctive head profile and high tail carriage, the Arabian is one of the most familiar horse breeds in the world. The exhibition includes ‘Gigapan’ panorama photography of rock art which show horses in scenes of various dates from sites in Saudi Arabia, as well as loans of objects from Qaryat al-Fau which include wall paintings and figurines.
The importance of fine horses in the Middle East is explored through the fascinating Abbas Pasha manuscript (dating to the 19th century and on loan from the King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riadyh). This document is the primary source of information about the lineage of the purebred Arabian horses acquired by Abbas Pasha (the viceroy of Egypt) throughout the Middle East. The story of the Arabian breed of horse is examined in parallel to that of Wilfrid Scawan Blunt (1840-1922), poet and agitator, and Lady Anne Blunt (1837-1917), the granddaughter of Lord Byron. The Blunts travelled widely in the Middle East and established a celebrated stud for purebred Arabians, which was crucial for the survival of the Arabian breed, at Crabbet Park in Sussex, and another outside Cairo in Egypt. Horses, including Arabians had long been imported from the Middle East to Britain, but from the 17th century, three Arabian stallions in particular were introduced, which, bred with native mares, produced the Thoroughbred breed, now the foundation of modern racing; some 95% of all modern Thoroughbreds are descended from these three horses. Paintings and prints, trophies and memorabilia explore their remarkable success and their influence on sport and society, from early race meetings through to modern equestrian events.