en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 61, Number 6November/December 2010

In This Issue

Arabians 2011 PDF

Drinkers of the Wind

Written by Peter Harrigan

“Very swift he is, like the toy spinner a boy will whirl, Plying it with his nimble hands by the knotted thread. His flanks are the flanks of a fawn, his legs are like an ostrich’. The springy trot of a wolf he has, the fox’s gallop.”
—Imru’ al-Qays

The Arabian horse has inspired poets, writers and artists for centuries. The Arabic qasida written by the famed Imru’ al-Qays 15 centuries ago still conjures both the iconic form and the distinctive movement of the breed.

“The two great features, possibly, that a novice would notice quickest in the Arabian horse, is the forehead, or jibbeh, which cannot be too prominent, and the other is the tail set high and carried in an arch,” wrote Homer Davenport, one of the earliest importers to America of desert-bred (asil) Arabians. “Nature, when she made the Arabian, made no mistake, and man has not yet been able to spoil him.”

Bedouin lore speaks of how the first “drinkers of the wind” were formed from a handful of south wind, and indeed the precise origins of Arabians are shrouded in both legend and uncertain science. Some equine geneticists argue the breed came out of Central Asia, from where confederations of nomads migrated over the steppes into the Fertile Crescent. Others argue it came from Turkic bloodlines, descended from the Turkmene and Akhal Teke. Others place its origins around the Caspian Sea, and there are other theories too of domestication of proto-Arabian horses in the monsoon-touched southwestern Arabian Peninsula.

Pure-bred desert horses have always been among the most highly prized, and among Arabians, there are five major bloodlines, or strains: Mu’niqi, Saglawi, Obeyah, Hamdani and Kuhaila. All appear above, photographed at the King Abdulaziz Arabian Horse Center (kaahc).
Guy Rhodes / king abdulaziz arabian horse center
Pure-bred desert horses have always been among the most highly prized, and among Arabians, there are five major bloodlines, or strains: Mu’niqi, Saglawi, Obeyah, Hamdani and Kuhaila. All appear above, photographed at the King Abdulaziz Arabian Horse Center (kaahc). Cover, top: Hayfaa Dirab, a Saudi desert-bred Bay Mare, comes face-to-face with Bint Fawazah, a Russian Black Mare. Both were brought to the kaahc as part of its effort to improve the breed worldwide.

There is broad consensus, however, on what built the Arabian’s traits: adaptation over 3000 or more years to extreme conditions and a nomadic Bedouin way of life; a long process of selection, by both nature and humans, based on survival and performance; and an enduring insistence on bloodline purity. The breed’s intelligence, says international Arabian horse judge Peter Upton, “owes much to the long history as close companion of man in war and peace.”

The leading guardians of the Arabians were the tribes of Najd, the central desert ranges of Arabia. There, the horses were carefully bred and kept alongside camels, for in such a climate, the Arabian cannot survive without human care and camels that can provide milk in the absence of water.

The long era of an isolated gene pool, however, drew to a close with the spread of Islam and growth in trade, which also brought the Arabian recognition far beyond its origins and had a lasting influence on other breeds.

After the coming of Islam in the seventh century, the asil horse was held in the highest esteem from Egypt to India and Europe. Everywhere, cavalry required light, swift horses endowed with stamina, nimbleness, an even temperament, longevity and fertility. Because the Arabian developed as a singular breed, it was above all considered an “improver,”able to reliably pass on qualities to successive generations. This lured Europeans beyond the trading centers of the Levant and into Arabia, where Bedouins were understandably reluctant (and at times staunchly unwilling) to part with top horses. But rewards for those travelers who could return with an Arabian stallion or—better yet—a broodmare were great, for such prizes brought with them priceless genetic templates of strategic significance.

Arabian stallion depots, state breeding centers and royal stud farms spread across Europe, where the growing popularity of orientalism added fashion to the breed’s appeal. Leaders of tribes and rulers including ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa‘ud, the Sharif of Makkah and the Al Khalifa of Bahrain all sent gifts of Arabians to monarchs in Europe, and many of the descendants of these horses have been preserved to this day.

World Distribution of Arabian Horses

In England and America, sport, not strategy, drove demand for Arabians. Between 1684 and 1730, three now-famous Arabians landed in England and changed equine history: the Byerley Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian. Bred with native stock, these became the founding fathers of the Thoroughbred. Bulle Rock, a son of the Darley Arabian, arrived in Virginia from Britain in 1730, the first Thoroughbred to land on American soil. The supreme racing steed had been developed.

Today, more than 90 percent of pure-bred Arabians—some 750,000 horses—are raised outside the Middle East. Of those, some 80 percent are in the United States.

With these demographics, the breed that now serves as a powerful cultural symbol of Arabia will continue to give pleasure to all who are fortunate enough to witness its grace, beauty, patience, poise and dance-like movement.

Peter Harrigan

Peter Harrigan ([email protected]) is a visiting researcher at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter University, and an editor of two books on Arabian horses: Out of the Desert (2010) and Royal Heritage (forthcoming).

Tariq Dajani Tariq Dajani (www.tariqdajani.com) is a freelance photographer based in Amman, Jordan. He has exhibited in more than a dozen galleries since 2007. He is also an avid rider.


Patterns of Moon, Patterns of Sun

Written by Paul Lunde

It is he who made the sun to be a shining glory, and the moon to be a light (of beauty), and measured out stages for her, that ye might know the number of years and the count (of time).
—The Qur’an, Chapter 10 (“Yunus”) Verse 5

The hijri calendar

In 638 ce, six years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s second caliph ‘Umar recognized the necessity of a calendar to govern the affairs of the Muslims. This was first of all a practical matter. Correspondence with military and civilian officials in the newly conquered lands had to be dated. But Persia used a different calendar from Syria, where the caliphate was based; Egypt used yet another. Each of these calendars had a different starting point, or epoch. The Sasanids, the ruling dynasty of Persia, used June 16, 632 ce, the date of the accession of the last Sasanid monarch, Yazdagird III. Syria, which until the Muslim conquest was part of the Byzantine Empire, used a form of the Roman “Julian” calendar, with an epoch of October 1, 312 BCe. Egypt used the Coptic calendar, with an epoch of August 29, 284 ce. Although all were solar, and hence geared to the seasons and containing 365 days, each also had a different system for periodically adding days to compensate for the fact that the true length of the solar year is not 365 but 365.2422 days.

In pre-Islamic Arabia, various other systems of measuring time had been used. In South Arabia, some calendars apparently were lunar, while others were lunisolar, using months based on the phases of the moon but intercalating days outside the lunar cycle to synchronize the calendar with the seasons. On the eve of Islam, the Himyarites appear to have used a calendar based on the Julian form, but with an epoch of 110 bce. In central Arabia, the course of the year was charted by the position of the stars relative to the horizon at sunset or sunrise, dividing the ecliptic into 28 equal parts corresponding to the location of the moon on each successive night of the month. The names of the months in that calendar have continued in the Islamic calendar to this day and would seem to indicate that, before Islam, some sort of lunisolar calendar was in use, though it is not known to have had an epoch other than memorable local events.

Though they share 12 lunar cycles—months—per solar year, the hijri calendar uses actual moon phases to mark them, whereas the Gregorian calendar adjusts its nearly lunar months to synchronize with the sun.

There were two other reasons ‘Umar rejected existing solar calendars. The Qur’an, in Chapter 10, Verse 5, states that time should be reckoned by the moon. Not only that, calendars used by the Persians, Syrians and Egyptians were identified with other religions and cultures. He therefore decided to create a calendar specifically for the Muslim community. It would be lunar, and it would have 12 months, each with 29 or 30 days.

This gives the lunar year 354 days, 11 days fewer than the solar year. ‘Umar chose as the epoch for the new Muslim calendar the hijrah, the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad and 70 Muslims from Makkah to Madinah, where Muslims first attained religious and political autonomy. The hijrah thus occurred on 1 Muharram 1 according to the Islamic calendar, which was named “hijri” after its epoch. (This date corresponds to July 16, 622 ce on the Gregorian calendar.) Today in the West, it is customary, when writing hijri dates, to use the abbreviation AH, which stands for the Latin anno hegirae, “year of the hijrah.”

Because the Islamic lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar, it is therefore not synchronized to the seasons. Its festivals, which fall on the same days of the same lunar months each year, make the round of the seasons every 33 solar years. This 11-day difference between the lunar and the solar year accounts for the difficulty of converting dates from one system to the other.

The Gregorian calendar

The early calendar of the Roman Empire was lunisolar, containing 355 days divided into 12 months beginning on January 1. To keep it more or less in accord with the actual solar year, a month was added every two years. The system for doing so was complex, and cumulative errors gradually misaligned it with the seasons. By 46 bce, it was some three months out of alignment, and Julius Caesar oversaw its reform. Consulting Greek astronomers in Alexandria, he created a solar calendar in which one day was added to February every fourth year, effectively compensating for the solar year’s length of 365.2422 days. This Julian calendar was used throughout Europe until 1582 ce.

In the Middle Ages, the Christian liturgical calendar was grafted onto the Julian one, and the computation of lunar festivals like Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, exercised some of the best minds in Christen­dom. The use of the epoch 1 ce dates from the sixth century, but did not become common until the 10th. Because the zero had not yet reached the West from Islamic lands, a year was lost between 1 bc and ad 1.

The Julian year was nonetheless 11 minutes and 14 seconds too long. By the early 16th century, due to the accumulated error, the spring equinox was falling on March 11 rather than where it should, on March 21. Copernicus, Christophorus Clavius and the physician Aloysius Lilius provided the calculations, and in 1582 Pope Gregory xiii ordered that Thursday, October 4, 1582 would be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. Most Catholic countries accepted the new “Gregorian” calendar, but it was not adopted in England and the Americas until the 18th century. Its use is now almost universal worldwide. The Gregorian year is nonetheless 25.96 seconds ahead of the solar year, which by the year 4909 will add up to an extra day.

Converting Dates

The following equations convert roughly from Gregorian to hijri and vice versa. However, the results can be slightly misleading: They tell you only the year in which the other calendar’s year begins. For example, 2010 Gregorian includes all but the first 14 days of AH 1431, and it includes the first 25 days of AH 1432.

Gregorian year = [(32 x Hijri year) ÷ 33] + 622
year = [(Gregorian year – 622) x 33] ÷ 32

Alternatively, there are more precise calculators available on the Internet: Try www.rabiah.com/convert/ and www.ori.unizh.ch/hegira.html


Paul Lunde Paul Lunde ([email protected]) is currently a research associate with the Civilizations in Contact Project at Cambridge University.

This article appeared on pages 17-32 of the November/December 2010 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 2010 images.