LEXINGTON, Ky. – The largest collection of Arabian equine art and artifacts to ever be assembled will be exhibited in A Gift from the Desert: The Art, History and Culture of the Arabian Horse from May 29 to Oct. 15 at the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park.
More than 4,000 years of the recorded history of man – and the Arabian horse – will be represented within the display of more than 400 artifacts and works of art from 26 museums and private lenders throughout the world. The priceless works come from the most prestigious institutions in the world including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Egyptian Museum of Cairo and several other such venerable institutions.
The story of the Arabian horse and man begins with the invaluable Standard of Ur (2600-2400 BC) on loan from London’s British Museum, excavated from the ancient city of Ur (located in modern-day Iraq, south of Baghdad) and continues to present day. This hollow box is made from shell, red limestone and lapis and features a four-paneled mosaic. The two main panels are known as War and Peace.
“This exhibit pretty much tells the story of human civilization, by telling the equestrian history. There’s no other way to tell the story,” says Bill Cooke, director of the International Museum of the Horse. “It’s a fascinating story to trace.”
Many wonders surface at A Gift from the Desert, including the world’s earliest known treatise on horse care and training from the Hittite civilization, the robes and dagger used by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in his famous march across the desert, spectacular 18th and 19th century original oils and watercolors, and a stunning collection of saddles, tack, armor and arms (many bejeweled) from the Ottoman Empire.
The historical exhibit, nearly three years in the making, has been funded at the cost of $2.35 million by the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation. The exhibit is, in part, planned to complement the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games held at Kentucky Horse Park from Sept. 25 to Oct. 10.
The 2010 Games are comprised of the world championships for eight equestrian sports including jumping, dressage, eventing, driving, endurance, vaulting, reining and para-equestrian. The FEI World Equestrian Games are held every four years, two years prior to the Olympic Games. This is the first time the event will be held outside of Europe.
Complementing the exhibit will be a one-hour historical documentary, showing much of the museum exhibits as part of the storyline describing the movement of the proto-Arabian and other horses of the ancient Near East to the development of the Arabian as the world’s first true breed of horse. Museum officials are in hopes that the documentary will be aired nationwide by the Public Broadcasting System sometime next year.
Among scholars, there are different schools of thoughts about where the wild ancestor of the Arabian originally can be found. Much evidence suggests that the “proto Arabian” or “Oriental” horse came from the area along the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent. Others argue that the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula in modern-day Yemen may have been the early native home of the horse.
“But from 300 BCE to the 20th century, it is undeniable that many civilizations evolved around the relationship between man and the Arabian horse,” Cooke says.
The Bedouin way of life depended on camels and horses, with Arabians bred as war horses with speed, endurance, soundness and intelligence. But, Cooke says, the Arabian horse depended as much on man, as man did on the animal.
“The early Arabian horse was totally dependent on humans for their survival,” he says. “If were not for humans and the camel, the horse would never have survived. There was no water, no vegetation; the horse completely survived on camels’ milk and figs, both provided by man.”
However, on the backs of the Arabian horse, the religion of Islam would spread to two-thirds of the known world in the seventh and eighth centuries. The spread of all aspects of the Mid-East culture – including its art, items of warfare and examples of day-to-day utilitarian evidence of civilization – will come alive at the museum.
The horses – themselves – are a novelty of history, according to the museum director.
“The horses were built for the desert,” Cooke says. “With their high tail carriage, large nostrils, thin and fine skin and hooves that were adaptable to the desert terrain” they built and rebuilt civilizations in the desert.”
As the exhibit adeptly demonstrates, the Arabian horse also carried its influences and art far beyond the Mid East.
Later, in the late 11th and 12th centuries, the Crusaders returned from the Mid East with the Arabians, ultimately discarding their heavily-armored war horses for the more agile, faster cavalry horses.
Only a few centuries later the Ottoman Empire again introduced the horses, warfare and art further into Europe, mounted on pure-blooded Arabians captured during raids into Arabia. History records one major infusion of Arabian horses into Europe occurring when the Ottoman Turks sent 300,000 horsemen into Hungary in 1522.
Throughout the 16th century to modern times, the Arabian horse continued to bring the art, culture and history throughout Europe and, consequently, into the United States.
Focusing on this part of history are several oils from the National Museum of Warsaw, painted by one of the country’s more prominent artist, Juliusz Kossak, in the 19th century.
In 1893, 45 Arabian horses from today’s Syria were exhibited at the World Fair in Chicago. Today, the Arabian horse – and attendant artwork and historical collectibles – has the strongest following among equine enthusiasts. As a result, the International Museum of the Horse – a Smithsonian Affiliate – expects to see some half million visitors this summer.
And, ironically, the main impetus behind the celebration of this magnificent creature of civilizations, religions and legends would once again – after 4,000 years – come from where it all began, Saudi Arabia.
“The largest market today is in the Arabian Peninsula,” Cooke says. “It’s somewhat amazing … that after that this great Diaspora … that once the Arabian horse has gone all over the world, it all returns full circle. It’s really amazing.”
Contact: (859) 259-4209
Eric C. Rodenberg