From 1130 B.C. until World War I, when British commanders reluctantly conceded that machine guns and barbed wire made cavalry charges impractical, horses played a key role in warfare. Whether Assyrians coming down like the wolf on the fold, the Light Brigade charging into the valley of death or Jeb Stuart chasing Grant in Virginia, the cavalryman and his mount were tactically important and romantically unforgettable.
This was certainly true of the Arabs. From at least 845 B.C. - when, an inscription says, "Jundah the Arabian" joined the Assyrians as an ally - the desert Arabs were known as effective cavalrymen, though actually they usually confined their attacks to relatively light-hearted tribal raids.
This changed with the coming of Islam. Spurred on by a desire to spread their new faith, the Arabs began to move westward and eastward in the famous campaigns that would establish an Islamic state eventually stretching from the borders of China to the Atlantic's African shore. And in these campaigns, horses - particularly Arabians - played a pivotal part.
Later, this tradition was carried on by the Mamluks. Indeed, the 13th-century Mamluks were possibly the most effective cavalrymen in Muslim military history. At 'Ain Jalut in Palestine in 1260, they defeated the incredibly ferocious Mongol horsemen - thus blunting the Mongol conquest of the Islamic world - and later, in training manuals called furusiya formulated sophisticated techniques of cavalry warfare.
One such manual, written Iby Muhammad ibn 'Isa al-Aqsara'i and titled Compendium of Military Arts , included advice on how to vault onto a horse using a lance as a vaulting pole. The author, admitting that no one had ever done it except himself, warned his pupils to be careful: "You must have trained your horse in the maneuver lest it move away while you're vaulting." And though it sounds theatrical, Carlo Guarmani, an Italian adventurer, later wrote that he had seen Hani Sakhr tribesmen near the Dead Sea mount their horses in a very similar fashion.
Like all cavalrymen, the Mamluks believed there was no other way to wage war and like the British in the First World War they obstinately refused to admit that cavalrymen moulded on superb Arabians and armed with flashing swords could be defeated by something as mundane as firearms. The Mamluks, in fact, refused to use firearms themselves and when one al-Nasir, son of Sultan Qa'itbay, raised a regiment armed with arquebuses, a matchlock musket, Mamluk leaders forced him to disband it. As one result of that, Napoleon easily crushed Mamluk cavalry later.
The importance of cavalry was one reason Arabians spread so rapidly around the world. In 1863, the British bought so many horses from Arabia - 600 Arabians from the Shammar tribe for India - that exports had to be banned. Much earlier, when Polish cavalry helped defeat Ottoman horsemen at Vienna, they seized so many Arabians that Poland to this day is one of the sources for great Arabian bloodlines.
David James is Islamic Curator of the Chester Beatty collection in Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library and Gallery of Oriental Art.