History in the fast lane

Galloping History: An International Symposium

By Caroline Finkel | May 6, 2014

This year's spring symposium organised by the graduate students of the department of history of Bilkent University in Ankara went by the intriguing name of Galloping History. Its purpose was to address a glaring lacuna in Turkish letters, namely the almost complete absence of scholarly research on the beast that until recently was an ubiquitous and essential feature of everyday life in the Ottoman empire and the Turkish Republic. Whether in farming, war-making, processing, trading, racing – horses were once at the heart of it. Today, barring a few areas where they remain useful or where traditional sports survive, they are rather rarely seen in the countryside. Horse ownership has for the most part become the province of an elite, and the extent to which horses were an integral part of life has largely been forgotten.

However, equine history is a thriving scholarly field, and the Bilkent symposium was an exuberant corrective to Turkish amnesia. A welcoming speech by the historian and former Topkapı Palace director, İlber Ortaylı, was followed by the opening of an exhibition of old photographs, horse-related books and pamphlets, and participants then had the chance to commune with three horses brought onto campus specially for the occasion. Some of those presenting their research at the conference were themselves riders, while others had little hands-on experience.

Having admitted how little we know of Ottoman horses, even those belonging to sultans, pashas, and other prominent figures, we listened to papers from Turkish scholars on the procurement of horses for the palace; palace horse furniture; horse-breeding; horses in the 1768-74 Ottoman–Russian war; and horses sent to the 1893 World Fair in Chicago. We also heard about an early-17th-century Ottoman manuscript containing 164 horse portraits, and Armenian manuscripts on equine medicine produced in eastern Anatolia.

Horses were once deeply embedded within human history and, when transplanted from one culture to another, performed a role as agents of change. In the case of England, this is well illustrated in the writing of Donna Landry, horse historian and speaker at Bilkent, whose recent book, Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture, shows that it took just one generation of crossbreeding with local horses to produce the thoroughbred. This innovation in turn revolutionised England’s racing and equestrian traditions, along with its literature and art, and thereby profoundly influenced the existing social order.

The themes taken up in the symposium were accordingly wide-ranging: horses as indicators of their owner’s status and class; the horse as a metaphor in human emotion; the symbolism of horse colour; horse eugenics; Carolingian horse travel; horses taken to the Americas by the Spanish; Western wonder at horses from the Ottoman East; horses in Native American culture; the taboo against eating horsemeat in the USA in the 19th and early 20th centuries; the some 75,000 horses sent from Idaho to the British army fighting the Boer War; a pre-WW1 Russian cavalry journal; and women jockeys in Morocco today.

The activities concluded with a round table which included Kudret Emiroğlu, one of the co-authors of Yoldaşımız At, or Our Comrade, the Horse, the storehouse of equine knowledge has thus far been the bible of Ottoman and Republican equine history. With the Galloping History symposium a first step has been taken towards more systematic investigation of materials relating to horses in the historical record. Such a promising beginning must surely lead to the development of what deserves to become a crowded area of research.


Caroline Finkel is the author of Osman's Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire 1600–1923 and co-author with Kate Clow and Donna Landry of The Evliya Çelebi Way: Turkey's First Long-Distance Walking and Riding Route.

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