LEXINGTON, Kentucky (Reuters Life!) - While the camel may have carried civilization, the horse conquered it.
On the back of this noble beast, wars were lost and won, brides were delivered to royal weddings and the words of the Prophet Mohammed were spread. On its swift feet, the strong pushed past the village and created the nation.
The role of the horse in history is the focus of “A Gift from the Desert: The Art, History and Culture of the Arabian Horse,” an exhibit at The Kentucky Horse Park’s International Museum of the Horse in Lexington, which runs through October 15.
“The horse had more impact than any other animal in the story of culture, politics and religion. It affected the cradle of civilization,” said Sandra Olsen, co-curator of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and a curator of the exhibit.
Many of the 408 works in the exhibit have never been displayed outside of Saudi Arabia, or the 19 countries which contributed to the landmark study of a single animal on human history.
Treasures include the 4,500 year-old Standard of Ur, with only its second visit outside of the British Museum in London since its discovery in the 1920s. The ancient piece is remarkably vivid with bright blue and red colors.
A gold headband, also from Ur, which bears the earliest depictions of horseback riding from 2600 BCE is also on display, along with bas-reliefs dating from the time of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, husband of Nefertiti and father of King Tutankhamen.
A gold chariot horse from the Oxus Treasure, a hoard of 180 gold and silver items from Tajikistan, dates to the 5th century BCE. Paintings encompass Orientalist pieces from Delacroix, and Adolph Schreyer to modern sports artist Andre Pater. Jeweled bridles and daggers, ancient embroidered saddle blankets, pottery, glassware and ancient texts paint a complete picture of cultural influence.
“There truly is something for everyone in this exhibit: history, weaponry, jewels, artifacts and great art,” said Cynthia Culbertson, another co-curator of the exhibit.
The curators combed the world for nearly three years searching for art that visually captured the history of the Arabian horse.
At All Souls College in England, museum director Bill Cooke found the small Hittite horse and rider terra cotta figurine that once adorned the rooms of author and adventurer T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia. Within minutes the college agreed to display the art in Kentucky. Lawrence’s robes, ring and dagger are also displayed.
“Of course we wanted the pieces,” said Cooke. The Hittite piece dates to 2300 BCE.
The exhibit is sponsored by The Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation, which is headed by Prince Faissal bin Abdullah bin Mohammad and Prince Nawaf bin Faisal bin Fahad. The Saudis donated more than $2.3 million to bring the exhibit to the United States.
According to Prince Nawaf, his grandfather was the last of the knights who united the country on horseback.
“We wanted to show our long-term and warm relationship with the U.S. outside of political frames. Lexington chose itself as the spot for our exhibit with is history of the horse,” he explained.
The Derby-winning Kentucky thoroughbred comes from a bloodline started in 1680-1724 by three Arabian stallions: Darley, Godolphin and Byerley Turk, according to the British Horseracing Authority.
Horse lovers ranging from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth to the ruler of Dubai have kept their horses in Lexington, where limestone, clear water and blue grass come together to build the ultimate racing horse.
“To chose any other city would be a mistake,” said Narwaf.
In a city where horse training reaches an art form and bloodlines equal gold, several of the artifacts date these obsessions to the ancients. A clay tablet, inscribed in cuneiform, describes interval training in carrying gates, techniques used today. A Chariot Horse Training tablet discusses breeding and training. One book contains the first genealogies of horses.
In September, Lexington will host the World Equestrian Games, the first time the event will be held outside of Europe.