Ahh, the thrill of watching Peter O’Toole, his robes billowing, galloping across the big screen as T.E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia. His steely eyes survey the dunes before him as he rides a gorgeous Arabian steed that looks as if it could run all day long.
Turns out it could have, as incredible endurance is a hallmark of the exotic-looking breed that became one of three foundation sires of the Thoroughbred breed. They produced such exceptional warhorses when brought to Eastern Europe that 11th-century Ottomans were able to crush the previously unstoppable Mongols. At that time, horses were such a critical military weapon that warriors with the best generally prevailed.
Yet the Arabian horse was so gentle that mares often slept in tents with their Bedouin owners, and mere children cared for the foals.
From May 29 through Oct. 15, the International Museum of the Horse (IMH) at the Kentucky Horse Park offers the opportunity to delve into the history of this equine breed and its intriguing civilization during an international blockbuster exhibition, “A Gift from the Desert: The Art, History and Culture of the Arabian Horse,” the most expansive collection of exotic Arabian equine art and artifacts ever assembled.
The $2.35 million show is the museum’s third blockbuster in the past seven years, following “Imperial China: The Art of the Horse in Chinese History” and “All the Queen’s Horses: The Role of the Horse in British History,” both enormously successful presentations.
“Throughout history, the horse has been the greatest unifying force,” explained Bill Cooke, director of the 60,000-s.f. Smithsonian-affiliate museum. “The horse transcends politics and religion. Probably no other region in the world has had the impact on civilization as the Near East. The Middle East under Islam was the light of the world during the Middle Ages. In addition to numerous non-equine contributions, the area developed riding. It developed the first cavalry. And it developed the Arabian breed. It was the logical place to go for the next exhibit.”
Broad in scope, “Gift from the Desert” covers history from the arrival of the first horses in the Near East to the spread of the Arabian breed throughout the world and the current renaissance of purebred breeding in its ancestral homelands.
“Traditionally, horses were the Bedouins’ most prized possessions,” Cooke said. “With the rise of oil as the region’s economic driver, so the temptation rose to sell purebred Arabians. Centuries-old bloodlines were lost. After decimation of the breed by the Ottomans and by World War I, its population numbered greater in America than in Saudi Arabia. Finally, in the past two decades, that situation has reversed, and the Saudis are again breeding top-end purebred Arab horses.”
Venturing well beyond the animal itself, the 8,500-s.f. exhibit also highlights the rich cultures of the Near East and its contributions to humanity. Some 410 priceless works of art and artifacts will be on display from 26 museums and private collections, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Egyptian Museum of Cairo, National Museum of Warsaw and American Museum of Natural History.
Among many treasures are the Standard of Ur, a circa 2,600 BC mosaic-laden wooden box, and the 3,000-year-old Kikkuli tablet, the world’s earliest known treatise on horse care written by master horse trainer Kikkuli of Mitanni, an ancient kingdom in parts of modern-day Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
In addition, visitors can ogle Lawrence of Arabia’s robes and dagger from his celebrated desert march; Orientalist paintings of Near Eastern life and equestrian culture; and a dazzling display of saddles, tack, armor and arms – many bejeweled – from the Ottoman Empire.
Accompanying the exhibit is a documentary film, “Gift from the Desert,” expected to air on prime time PBS, and the inaugural Mary A. Littauer Symposium on equestrian history.
Come September, the blockbuster shares the equine spotlight with the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, the nation’s largest sporting event this year. Both already have garnered a prestigious tourism award from the American Bus Association (ABA).
“It’s pretty remarkable that two of the ABA’s Top 100 Events in 2010 in the U.S. are taking place on the same grounds,” Cooke said. “Any other year, this exhibit would have been Kentucky’s headline summer event. It has about 20 percent more art and artifacts than our two previous ones, and is an ambitious undertaking. But if it’s anything like the other two, I feel that people are going to be surprised at just how much of an economic impact it’s going to have, not just on Lexington, but on the whole state.”
For further information about the exhibit or the museum, contact IMH at (859) 259-4232 or go to KyHorsePark.com. For group tours, including VIP evening tours with dinner, contact Ali Mihankhah at (859) 259-4225 or [email protected].