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Volume 52, Number 6November/December 2001

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The Polish Quest For Arabian Horses

Written by Peter Harrigan
Additional photographs by Teresa Zoltowska-Huszcza

He swims in the desert sea, my stallion,

Carving the waves of sand.

Snowy peaks he plows

As a dolphin plows the breakers,

Ever faster, still faster,

Skimming over the gravelly footing.

Higher, still higher,

He soars from the dust like a cloud—

A storm-cloudthis stable stallion of mine.

The star on his forehead gleaming like the dawn,

He tosses his ostrich-feathery mane to the wind.

Fly, white-legged kite, oh fly!

Vanish, footpaths; forests, recede!


Izabella Pawelec-Zawadzka stood up, rested her cane with its silver horse-head handle against the oak table, and leaned over to unroll her map of Ukraine. "I am so excited about our journey of discovery this coming spring. We are planning to visit the sites of famous old Polish stud farms," she said. "It will be the first visit of its kind. We have no idea what we will find."

Whether for neighboring Poles or Ukrainians themselves, nearly a century of communist rule had made investigation of the equestrian pursuits of a fallen aristocracy nearly impossible. Until last year, even tourist visas restricted travel to Ukraine's main cities. "Even if the estates have been destroyed, at least we will breathe the air and savor the smell of the grass of the steppes on which those Arabian horses once grazed and ran," she says.

That air will be sweet indeed to Pawelec-Zawadzka, for Arabian horses have been her life's work and study. She was Poland's state inspector of Arabian horse breeding for 25 years, years that saw the breed grow from relative obscurity to world renown. She is the head of the Polish Arabian Horse Breeders Society, and a member of the executive committee of the World Arabian Horse Organization. Now retired, she still puts in three days a week of research and consultancy at Warsaw's Sluzewiec Racetrack. It was here, in its paneled library, that she laid out the map, talked of Arabian horses, and pointed to a town named Sawran.

A little more than halfway from Kiev to Odessa, Sawran lies a few kilometers west of an ancient route of trade, culture and conquest. Baltic amber passed this way for millennia. In the other direction passed bloodstock of immense strategic value in its time: Arabian horses. Until the coming of mechanized warfare, horses—cavalry armed with lance, pistol and sabre—represented military strength in continental Europe, nowhere more so than in northeastern Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries. Then, Poland passed from a century-old Polish-Lithuanian union that encompassed Ukraine and stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, through Russian, Prussian and Austrian dismemberments and disappearance from the map for 123 years, and, finally, to national rebirth in 1918.

It was to his family estate near Sawran that one remarkable Polish nobleman, Count Waclaw Rzewuski, returned 180 years ago from his own journey of discovery to the heartland of the Arabian Peninsula. A year after the count, the treasures he had acquired on his travels arrived at Sawran—on the hoof—and he spent the next decade living in an obsessive, self-created milieu that combined Ottoman and Bedouin lifestyles. When he disappeared in battle at age 54, with him went also Europe's finest Arabian brood mares.

I had come to Poland to seek out the story of Count Rzewuski and other Polish adventurers who had traveled from the Ukrainian farmlands and Russian steppes south to the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula in their quest for the pure-bred Arabian horses that gave any cavalry an enormous military advantage—an advantage so great that it justified such arduous journeys. Most of their stories have been obliterated by two centuries of wars, uprisings, revolutions and the long fog of communism.

Polish-Lithuanian dominion once extended east into Ukraine and Byelorussia (modern Belarus). Looking eastward, Poland stood as an occidental bulwark against the incursions of Mongols, Tartars and Turks; at the same time it acted as a porous European interface with the eastern and Islamic lands.

To that dominion, the horse was essential. "The life of a Pole was lived in the saddle, and for him indeed 'a horse was half his well-being,'" wrote Erika Schiele in her 1970 book, The Arab Horse in Europe. "He was so much one with his horse that it was like part of him, hence the Polish saying, 'A man without a horse is like a body without a soul.'"

Extensive European trade brought to Poland horses of all extractions: Hungarian, German, Dutch, Danish, Friesian, English, Spanish, Moravian and Italian. Over time, as its advantages became better known, "oriental" bloodstock became highly, even obsessively, prized over all other strains. Pure-bred horses from the Arabian Peninsula, known then as today as kuhailans, were renowned as light and swift, with even temperament and enormous endurance under the harshest conditions. Moreover, because they developed as a singular breed, they were famed for the uniquely consistent, predictable way in which they passed on their qualities to successive generations.

Peter Upton, author of The Classic Arab Horse and a former president of the British Arab Horse Society, who has scoured the world for records of horses out of the desert, explains that "the purity of the kuhailan is well-established, because the desert of the Arabian Peninsula was geographically isolated, and so the origins of the Arabian horse are known. It appears Arabs believed strongly that the influence of a sire could affect even the offspring resulting from the subsequent mating of the dam with other males, and that this effect was greater, the purer the sire's breeding was. The kuhailan is the ultimate in purity, and was thus seen as the improver."

In contrast, European horses were so widely interbred for so long that few Europeans understood just how powerful were the advantages of breeding for purity among Arabian horses. "There were no breeds in Europe—only types," says Upton.

But those advantages were recognized as early as the 16th century at Knyszyna, the royal stud of Polish king Zygmunt II August (1520-1572). According to a 1570 account called "Of Mares and Stallions," written by Adam Micinski, the king's master of horse, this stud bred only horses of pure Arabian blood with a view to producing a fixed type, a technique Micinski declared unique in European horse breeding and one that laid down new directions. Although he does not credit them, the practices were almost certainly learned from the Turks and Arabs.

In 1582, King Stefan Batory sent his equerry Podlodowski to the Levant to acquire horses for Knyszyna—the first such visit under Polish patronage. Little is known of Podlodowski's journey except the end of it: He unwisely paraded his purchases in Istanbul at a time when the Ottoman empire was beginning to increase pressure on the Polish frontier. Whether he was a victim of politics or banditry, Podlodowski was murdered, and his horses stolen.

From 1587 until 1668, Poland was ruled by Swedish kings, and suffered almost uninterrupted civil strife and wars with Russia, Ottoman Turkey and Ukrainian Cossack-Tatar armies. Despite resupplies captured in battle, stocks of cavalry mounts dwindled. During the devastating Swedish invasion of 1655, they were decimated. The Poles turned to trade with Greeks, Armenians, Turks and Levantines to replenish their supplies. The Peace of Karlowitz, signed in 1699, ended centuries of Turco-Polish hostilities, and from that time onward oriental horses reached Poland through peaceful trade. Towns and fairs along the Dniestr River grew into trading centers for expatriate dealers, and some of the dealers developed stud farms of their own.

By then, it was not just for its military qualities that the Arabian horse was in demand. The Ottoman incursions had brought the cultural contact from which Europe's craze for Turkish and Arab styles, which became known as "orientalism," had grown. Throughout Poland and Lithuania, on vast and magnificent estates, it became aristocratic fashion to parade and ride on Arabian horses.

But the horse trade gradually reduced the quality of Polish Arabians. Poles assumed, usually correctly, that horses captured in battle were pure Arabians, for the Poles knew that Turkish and Tatar cavalrymen did not entrust their lives to common horses. Yet because only the nomadic Bedouin tribes—not the townfolk—bred pure-in-the-strain horses, buying Arabians from dealers in Odessa, Paris or Istanbul was risky. Even purchasers buying nearer the source, at markets in Beirut, Damascus or Aleppo, had little assurance of authenticity, despite florid "pedigrees" that often stated nothing more substantial than "this horse has drunk the sweet milk of camels and breathed the pure desert air."

By the beginning of the 19th century, after successive Russian partitions in the east, Polish noblemen and landowners in the Ukraine began to take the matter of cavalry-building into their own hands. They began to dispatch their own horse-buying expeditions. Prince Hieronymous Sanguszko (1743-1812), from a family estate at Slawuta on the Dnieper River, was first to do so. Led by his equerry Kajeta Burski, his expedition returned in 1805 after a journey of two years, having obtained five stallions and one mare. This was a success: A handful of the finest, purest horses were worth more than a large number of those of dubious lineage, and mares were more difficult to obtain than stallions because sellers were more reluctant to part with them. Thus ownership of even one fine Arabian stallion or one perfect brood mare meant ownership of what was, in effect, a priceless biological template.

Prince Hieronymous died in 1812. His son, Eustachy-Erazm (1768-1845), took over the Sanguszko estates. Political turmoil led to his exile, but in 1816 he underwrote an expedition to Aleppo that shored up the beleaguered stud with nine stallions and a mare from supposed Bedouin sources. Prince Eustachy-Erazm was so impressed with his new horses that he penned ecstatic letters to friends. One he addressed to the owner of the estate in nearby Sawran, Count Waclaw Rzewuski. "My dear Count," he wrote, "I tell you the simple truth, that no eye has yet seen in our country such Arabian horses, nor has the ear heard of such as I now possess."

Count Rzewuski needed no such persuading. By the time Sanguszko's letter reached him in January 1818, he was already in Damascus preparing expeditions to the Bedouin grazing lands of the Arabian Peninsula. He was the first Polish nobleman to undertake such an adventure himself, and the first to reach the actual breeders of the famed kubailans. After two years that included journeys into Najd and the Hijaz (today's central and western Saudi Arabia), he returned to Sawran not only with prize horses, but also with a deep understanding of the people of Arabia and of all aspects of horsemanship as they practiced it—as well as a love of the open desert.

His interest was genuine and deeply rooted. Rzewuski had formed a passion for Arabian horses and things oriental in his childhood, when an Arab stablehand working for his father would tell him of the deserts where the horses came from. An uncle, too, who had traveled to Istanbul and North Africa, spoke to the boy of those lands. By the age of 27, the count had completed military service as a captain in the Austrian hussars and, as a veteran of the battle of Aspern against Napoleon, he knew cavalry.

His Austrian links had led him into friendship with the distinguished Austrian diplomat and Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, under whose tutelage the count had immersed himself in Middle Eastern studies in Vienna. Antuna Arida, a Lebanese monk and lecturer at the Oriental Academy in Vienna, had taught him Arabic. He had learned Turkish from a former Ottoman admiral, Ramiz Pasha. During this time he had also financed and edited the first Oriental-studies periodical in Europe, Mines d'Orient, to which he contributed several articles.

The decade of wars following Napoleon's proclamation of empire in 1804 had resulted in huge losses of horses in eastern Europe. During the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and 1815, Count Rzewuski had attended meetings to discuss ways of replenishing studs with Arabian bloodstock. This was a crucial debate, for those were times when diminished stocks of horses meant military weakness, much as inoperable tanks mean weakness for a modern army. Rzewuski had left Vienna with the seeds of the idea of his expedition already sown.

Rzewuski had inherited considerable wealth from his father, and in 1817 he assembled his personal physician, a valet, a court Cossack to serve as his mounted messenger, a veterinary surgeon, stablemen and general hands. His treasurer was charged with caring for the bags of gold. The party set out for Damascus, via Istanbul.

At the time, the tsar of Russia also ruled Poland, which was known in those years as the Congress Kingdom. In Istanbul, Rzewuski met with Russian diplomats who provided a letter of commission from Catherine Pavlona, queen of Würtemberg and sister of Tsar Alexander I, requesting the count to obtain Arabian horses for the royal stables at Weil, near Stuttgart. "In purchasing Arabian horses, which I so much desire," she wrote, "you would do me a great favor. My interest in these horses is especially great. I already have a splendid stud and year by year I seek to improve the strain. Thus it has been my greatest wish to obtain some Nadir Kuhailans. If it were possible for you to procure such, you would bring me great happiness.... I need three stallions and three first-class mares for breeding, but absolutely faultless."

In January 1818, Count Rzewuski took up residence in Damascus, and from there made excursions into the Syrian desert. He also traveled south, around Jabal Druz and along the route from Wadi Sirhan toward al-Jawf, now in Saudi Arabia. After five months, his treasury was exhausted. He returned to Istanbul with more than the queen had ordered: eight outstanding stallions and 12 mares. He replenished his funds with credit from a banker and returned to Damascus the following year. Over the next two years he traveled even more extensively into the heartland of Arabia, including a journey along the pilgrim route toward the holy city of Makkah. His equestrian skill earned him honor among the Bedouin tribes, and he was called Amir Taj al-Fahar 'Abd al-Nishaani ("Wreath of Fame, Servant of the Sign [of God]"; the first phrase translates his Polish name, Waclaw). During those years he acquired 81 stallions and 33 mares of the finest lineage from the deserts of Najd. As his equine acquisitions increased, he had to take on more people to take care of them, and his payroll grew to exceed 100 men.

Rzewuski would have stayed in Arabia longer if not for the Aleppo revolution in October 1819. The leader of the anti-Ottoman movement happened to be a friend, and so the count became embroiled, apparently unwittingly. The revolution was quashed, and Rzewuski quickly left for Istanbul, but he found his creditors there were no longer kindly disposed toward him. With no funds coming from his estate, and in spite of the representations of the Russian ambassador, Rzewuski's horses were all confiscated and sent to Paris for sale.

Rzewuski and his retinue marched back to Sawran in despair. Quickly, he sold land and arranged guarantees on his loan and, indeed, it was not long before the horses were returned to him. A year after they had been impounded, they arrived at Sawran to scenes of jubilation. Rzewuski turned out wearing Bedouin robes and mounted on the only Arabian horse that had accompanied him on his return, Muftaszara.

In the decade that followed, Rzewuski rarely left his Sawran estate or the company of his horses. He built stables in the Arab style. He lived and dressed as an Arab, and his staff dressed as Bedouins. When not actually living in his stables, he spent his time in Bedouin tents dotted around his estate. He formed a powerful cavalry unit of local Cossacks and trained them in Arab techniques of horsemanship. This was all much more than fashionable or even eccentric orientalism for Rzewuski; surrounded by his kuhailans and immersed in his records and his memories, his adventures had become part of him.

Polish writer Lucjan Siemienski (1807-1877) gives us a glimpse of the golden-bearded count, who was widely known in his later years as "The Emir":

His return was unmistakable: fantastic Eastern attire, the lifestyle of an Arabian prince, so different from that of a Polish lord, fabulous stallions of great beauty and soft temperament. All combined to attract the attention of the whole province.

He took up residence in his stables—that's where he received visitors and stayed alone, writing stories, poems and diaries of his travels.... Horse skin was his bed, the saddle his pillow and the horse rug his blanket.... He indulged his fantasies in priceless horse tack and [in outfitting] his Cossacks, who were prepared to follow him into fire."

In breeding, Rzewuski followed strict Bedouin principles. His Arabians were all small, light and of great quality, and he rarely sold any. By 1830, he owned 80 purebred Arabian brood mares. It was perhaps the finest stud in all of Europe.

When not with his horses, the count spent time writing. In an elegant script, accompanied by ornate illustrations and intricate lists in Arabic and French of tribal names, horse breeds and their characteristics, he produced an 800-page work, On Oriental Horses and Those Descended From Eastern Breeds. The depth of his sympathies is evident from the opening: "A glance at Arabia is necessary to understand this work. Knowledge of the land and climate provides an essential background to the organization and qualities of the Arabian horse."

But then came the November Uprising against Poland's Russian overlords—the second in a series that, by 1905, culminated in revolution. It spread toward Ukraine. Rzewuski took command of an insurgent cavalry regiment. At the battle of Daszow, on May 14, 1831, his favorite white stallion, Muktar-Tab, returned from the Polish lines bloodstained, without saddle or bridle. The Emir was never seen again. The details of his death remain a mystery.

The Russians put down the uprising, confiscated Rzewuski's estate and dispersed the stud. The horses passed into various hands and, one by one, were lost to history. It was the greatest misfortune in Polish Arabian horse breeding.

Romantic poets assuaged the calamity with legend: The Emir, they said, had survived the battle and, that night, had returned to his estate, silently led his horses out and had fled with them across the steppes, over the Caucasus, and back to their desert pastures. In the years that followed, occasional reports of sightings of the golden-bearded Emir drifted back with travelers and traders.

The history of Polish Arabians did not die either. In 1843, another nobleman, Count Juliusz Dzieduszycki, inspired by the poems and accounts of Rzewuski, assembled another elaborate expedition, packing several thousand gold ducats into his saddlebags.

Count Dzieduszycki's father had been one of the few to obtain Arabian horses from both Rzewuski and the Sanguszkos. The younger count had also made a lucky purchase of a splendid Arabian stallion named Baghdad, which further inspired his passion and moved him to follow in the footsteps of his father, eventually becoming a renowned breeder. As Baghdad grew older, the count searched for a replacement of equal quality, but none was to be found in the region. So he unrolled the maps of the Middle East and marked places where Arabian horses could likely be acquired. He sailed from Italy to Alexandria, and from there headed to Cairo and eastward toward the Levant, bearing letters introducing him as a nobleman from the same nation as the famous Rzewuski.

Like his predecessors, Dzieduszycki sought horses of the ultimate quality and purity for breeding. Although the records he kept of his travels are lost, it is known that he returned to his stud at Jarczowce after an absence of two years, bringing seven stallions and, most importantly, three mares: Gazella, Mlecha and Sahara.

These three, wrote Erika Schiele, were "the most valuable female Arabians ever to set hoof on Polish soil." By the time of his death in 1885, there was not an Arabian stud in Poland without a horse from Jarczowce. A few of the descendants of Dzieduszycki's horses narrowly survived the two World Wars, and today there are 79 purebred broodmares from the dam lines of this troika in Polish Arabian breeding. They are the descendants of one of only three Polish Arabian dam lines to have survived to the present day. It is a wonderful irony: Despite the failure of his estate's bloodlines, the memory of Rzewuski endures; Dzieduszycki is all but forgotten, though the bloodlines he brought back became the foundation for today's Polish Arabian race.

Outside the Arab countries themselves, says Peter Upton, "the Poles are among the most important centers left today for ensuring the continuity of the Arabian horse and its integrity in the future."

This spring, Izabella Pawelec-Zawadzka and a contingent of members of the Polish Arabian Horse Society will go in search of Polish Arabian memories. After crossing the Ukrainian border and reaching the Dniestr River, they will look first for the Jarczowce stud, which—like Sawran and many others—has vanished from the map. "Perhaps some of the studs are now schools or hospitals," speculates Izabella. "We will be looking for ruins and for old people who might have stories from the past. We will be happy with even small discoveries."

From there they will continue east to Sawran. From the windows, crossing the steppe, it will be impossible not to imagine the golden-bearded Count Rzewuski astride one of his prized Najdi kuhailans. It will be a time, Izabella says, to reflect on "how so much surrounding those proud horses of Arabia has fallen into the shadows of Europe's history."

Peter Harrigan ([email protected]) works with Saudi Arabian Airlines in Jiddah, and he is also a contributing editor and columnist for Diwaniya, the weekly cultural supplement of the Saudi Gazette.

The Count’s Account

Count Rzewuski's manuscript, Sur les Chevaux Orientaux, et provenants des Races Orientales (On Oriental Horses and Those Descended From Eastern Breeds) has its own story. After the count's death, his nephew gave it to Tadeusz Rutkowski, of a Braclaw noble family. From him it passed in 1881 to one of his friends; historians considered it lost. It reappeared in the residence of a descendant of the count named Adam Rzewuski. While escaping Ukraine during the Russian civil war of 1918-1921, Adam Rzewuski took the manuscript with him to Warsaw. In 1928 he sold it to the newly established Biblioteka Narodowa (National Library), where it lies today, bound in three leather volumes. No other fragment of Count Rzewuski's legacy is known to exist.

While a romantic at heart and rather obsessive, Rzewuski was also a serious scholar. Thus Sur les Chevaux Orientaux contains highly detailed descriptions of the best Arabian horses, their sizes, pedigree data, markings and colorings. It describes sightings of the best examples of a breed. The count also describes methods of taming and working with Arabians, as well as breeding them. And his interest extended also to the Arabs themselves, whom he admired. His book details tribal groupings, and he lists names and terms in neat Arabic. His transliterations are carefully devised.

The manuscript can be viewed, by appointment, in the Special Collections of the National Library in Warsaw.

This article appeared on pages 6-15 of the November/December 2001 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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