When the Near East is mentioned, our thoughts all too often are filled with stories of conflict and controversy.
But as we prepare to welcome the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, Kentuckians have a unique opportunity to learn more about these cultures and the common love that binds us together — the Arabian horse.
"A Gift from the Desert: the Art, History and Culture of the Arabian Horse" is being held through Oct. 15 at the Kentucky Horse Park's International Museum of the Horse. It features rare art and artifacts, many of which have never before left their native countries and will never be united in one location again.
The story of the Arabian breed is an important focus of the exhibition, but the art and artifacts also explore the rich and varied cultures and peoples of this fascinating region of the world and the important role of the Ancient Near East, Egypt and Arabia in equestrian history.
Near East cultures are responsible for many significant contributions to human advancement — they invented writing, the wheel, a legal system, the calendar, mathematics and many other firsts.
And they made advances in mathematics, astronomy and medicine — preserving learning while much of the world was trapped in the Dark Ages. During that time, Near East cultures preserved and translated the greatest works of the Greeks, including those of Aristotle, and they developed algebra and trigonometry. These achievements later influenced many other civilizations and provided the impetus for the Renaissance in Europe.
Exhibition visitors can witness some of these contributions, such as a 13th century astrolabe, which provides a two-dimensional map of the heavens, and a celestial globe, which was used to teach astronomy. Other advances in ceramic and glassworks also are on display.
But it is the Arabian horse that is the most unifying subject for East and West cultures.
From King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, to the mighty pharaohs of Egypt and sheikhs of the Near East, from Napoleon to U.S. presidents — the Arabian has transcended cultures to become an enduring symbol of beauty, nobility and pride.
The Near East's contribution to the equine world includes veterinary practices and conditioning practices. The exhibition includes the Kikkuli Text, written in cuneiform script on a clay tablet nearly 3,500 years ago. It is the oldest known treatise on horse training. Many of the techniques described there are still used today in three-day eventing and other endurance practices, which can be seen at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
But the strongest connection is the Arabian horse itself, which gave rise to today's Thoroughbreds that are so important to our culture.
And a Kentucky connection can be viewed at the exhibition through the paintings of Edward Troye, who accompanied a Scott County farmer on a historic trip into the Arabian desert in the mid-1800s.
A. Keene Richards, a lifelong horseman, owned and operated a Thoroughbred breeding farm in Georgetown. Richards believed the racehorses of his day no longer possessed the stamina and soundness shown by Thoroughbreds of the late 18th century, a dismay shared by some 21st century trainers.
He was the first U.S. citizen to go to the desert, personally select and import Arabians direct to his native country. Richards experimented by mating his Thoroughbred mares to the new Arabian stallions, but his efforts were interrupted by the Civil War, and its devastation prevented any further experimentation.
Spencer Borden, in his 1906 book, The Arab Horse wrote that Confederate General John C. Breckinridge went to Richards after the Battle of Shiloh and begged him for conveyance to Virginia to escape the Federal troops that were pursuing him. According to Borden, Richards had nothing to offer but a pair of half-bred Arab fillies, which outlasted the federal troops' horses and didn't stop until they had Breckenridge safely within the Confederate lines.
A Gift from the Desert is a much-needed reminder that we have much to learn and much to appreciate about other cultures as well as a common bond — a love of the horse — that has lasted generations and thrives today.