The Long Riders' Guild

The Polish Quest for Arabian Horses
By Peter Harrigan

A little more than halfway from Kiev to Odessa, the town of Sawrań lies a few kilometres 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 north-eastern 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 Sawrań that one remarkable Polish nobleman, Count Waclaw Rzewuski, returned 180 years ago from his own journey of discovery to the heartland of the Arabian Peninsular.  A year after the count, the treasures he had acquired on his travels arrived at Sawrań – on the hoof – and he spent the next decade living in an obsessive, self-created milieu that combined Ottoman and Bedouin life-styles.  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 travelled from the Ukrainian farmlands and Russian steppes south to the Levant and the Arabian Peninsular 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.

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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.


Left:  The maximum extent of the Polish and Ottoman territories.

Click on picture to enlarge

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 Peninsular, 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.

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. 

By 1700, 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 Heironymous Sanguszko (1743-1812), from a family estate at Slawuta on the Dnieper River, was the first to do so.  Led by his equerry Kajeta Burski, his expeditions 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 be 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 Sawrań, 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 Peninsular.  He was the first Polish nobleman to undertake such an adventure himself, and the first to reach the actual breeders of the famed kuhailans.  After two years that included journeys into Najd and the Hiraz (today’s central and western Saudi Arabia), he returned to Sawrań 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 travelled 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, Austria.  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.

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The count's detailed diagram of the parts of the horse's body records their Arabic names "according to the Bedouins, collected among the tribes of the Najd."
Click on picture to enlarge

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 become 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 Jalab 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 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 long 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 Sawrań 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 Sawrań 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 Sawrań 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 power 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.

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 travellers and traders.

The Long Riders’ Guild would like to thank Peter Harrigan for permission to reproduce this article;  it is an edited version of one which originally appeared in the November/December 2001 issue of “Saudi Aramco World.”

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