The story of the Arabian horse is thousands of years old, filled with poetry, art, and romantic legends.
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.
The exact origins of the Arabian horse are still a mystery. Its distinctive silhouette is first seen in the art of ancient Egypt more than 3,500 years ago, but it was the nomadic peoples of the Arabian desert, known as the Bedouin, who created and refined the pure breed that exists today.
This awe-inspiring horse of the east appears on seal rings, stone pillars and various monuments with regularity after the 16th century B.C. Egyptian hieroglyphics proclaim his value; Old Testament writings are filled with references to his might and strength.
From the 7th century C.E., the growing importance of the horse to the Islamic world became apparent in exquisite Persian, Turkish, Arab and Mughul miniature paintings, ceramics and manuscripts. The lightweight, fast-moving Arabian horse was instrumental in spreading the Islamic faith as far as China to the east, and Spain to the west.
The origin of the word “Arab” is still obscure. A popular concept links the word with nomadism, connecting it with the Hebrew “Arabha,” dark land or steppe land, also with the Hebrew “Erebh,” mixed and hence organized as opposed to organized and ordered life of the sedentary communities, or with the root “Abhar”-to move or pass. “Arab” is a Semitic word meaning “desert” or the inhabitant thereof, with no reference to nationality. In the Koran a’rab is used for Bedouins (nomadic desert dwellers) and the first certain instance of its Biblical use as a proper name. The Arabs themselves seem to have used the word at an early date to distinguish the Bedouin from the Arabic-speaking town dwellers.
Known for intelligence, courage, loyalty and a spirited yet gentle disposition, the Arabian breed has an amazing affinity for humans. For centuries the Bedouin treated their horses as members of the family. Over time this became a genetic characteristic of the breed and one of its most endearing traits.
An example of ancient art is the bas-reliefs of an Arabian horse of Assyrian culture.
Between 900-600 BCE, the relatively small polity of Assyria grew into one of the most powerful empires in the Near East. We know incredible details of the Assyrians because of the abundance of written texts and their extensive and finely executed palace wall reliefs of hunting and battle scenes.
Because so many of the reliefs depict horses and chariots, it is simple to recreate minute features of tack, as well as the construction of their chariots. Whether it was primarily for pageantry and to tout the prowess of the royalty, the reliefs show that regal horses were flamboyantly adorned.
Created for king Ashurbanipal, these 2,500-year-old wall panels are some of the finest examples of Assyrian art. Ashurbanipal meaning "Ashur is the creator of the heir" was the king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from 669 BC to his death in 631. He is generally remembered as the last great king of Assyria. At its height, the empire was the strongest military power in the world and ruled over all of Mesopotamia, the Levant and Egypt, as well as portions of Anatolia, Arabia and modern-day Iran and Armenia.
Detail of the horses of the king Sargon II, king of Assyria 721-705 BC, showing a very rich ornamentation testifying to the importance that the Assyrians carried to horses as elements of prestige (gypsum alabaster, Musée du Louvre, Paris).
A Gift from the Desert: The Art, History and Culture of the Arabian Horse