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On the Foundation Turks

Jeremy James

Much is written concerning the origin of the thoroughbred horse and most of it is conjecture. Rarely does one come across any real scholarly reference to what did or did not distinguish a Turk from an Arab during the sixteen and seventeenth centuries when these horses played such a prominent role in the establishment of the modern racehorse. It is claimed that Turks were Arabs by another name – but is this really the case?

Questions need to be asked to find out why horses were called Turks and what might have distinguished them from Arabs, since many Turks appear in the original data of the General Stud Books.

The first question to ask about these horses is where did they come from?

The answer to this is straightforward: The Ottoman Empire. Next question: where is  source information most likely to be found? Answer. Ottoman records. Next question: are there any Ottoman records? Answer: absolutely, in Istanbul, Turkey. The Ottomans – the Turks – as well as having one of the world’s longest lasting and efficient Empires were also fastidious bureaucrats.

But, before continuing, one has to bear one central fact in mind. It is to do with the Turkish people themselves: it is important to comprehend that they are not Arabs. The Turkish people have little in common with Arabs, apart from a religion, and at one time shared their script - but not their language nor their customs. In fact, the Turk of today has a lot more in common with the Persian than he does with the Arab. And that is because the Turks originate in the east. The language marks the trail: you can hear Turkik spoken from the shores of the Aegean to the foot of the Tien Shan in China. It’s very widespread. They are a very widespread people, descended, broadly speaking, from the horseman archers. In this group are Cumans, Uigars, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Huns, Turkmenians, Petchenegs, Khazars, Khabars, Oghuz – Selçuks – and others besides. And being horsemen archers, they bred horses. They had a lot of horses. A lot of big horses. The Turkish scholar Sumer states that the Turkish clans of Western Siberia, notably the Kipchaks, owned in excess of two million horses. Of the Uigar Turkik clan, there was a contemporary saying that: “the number of horses only God knows.”

Being Steppe people, they enjoyed the three ingredients that favour quality horse breeding: lots of land, lots of grass and lots of water. In other words, riverine plains. The rivers Amu Darya, Syr Darya, The Volga, Ural and Ember, the everlasting, rained-upon Steppe, the Ferghana, the foothills of the Pamir, the Khorosan and the High Mazandaran. They pushed west. They came with Tamerlane and with Ghenghis Kahn – Ghenghis is still a common name in Turkey. They came with the Selçuks and plenty of others besides, not forgetting that the people who sacked Rome, the Huns, were Turks also. Moreover the Arab Abbasid Empire never penetrated Turkey.

The Empire the Turks founded, The Ottoman Empire, was an exceedingly well-organized feudal military meritocracy. Everyone was part of the war machine. Land was granted to those considered worthy enough to hold it on behalf of the Sultan. These were known as timars. A timariot – a landholder – had usufructuary rights over the land and, as part of the deal, had to provide men and horses for the war machine. What is crucial to understand is that horses were not bred for money: they were bred because not only was it a state requirement, but it was also what an honourable man did and rivalry between timars ensured an ever spiralling quality of horseflesh. The timariot system could produce 200,000 mounted men on command riding highly schooled, big, beautifully bred horses without the Sultan putting a hand in his pocket. These horses were of a very particular type. Many mounted Ottoman sipahi (cavalrymen) belonged to a chivalric order known as the Ghazi. These were, in a sense, the samurai of Islam. They still exist. There are Islamic companies based upon this tradition to this hour. Lots. For them everything was and is a point of honour.

For a Ghazi horseman there was only one horse worth riding and that was the big, fast horses of his ancestors:  the horses of the east – the Turks.

And it did not stop there. Huge state studs called hirashi reared quality Turks – and there were a lot of different breeds of Turk, the most widely used being the Karaman, a 16-hand plus horse who would have resembled the Turkoman of today. Aside from state studs there were specialised centres – called yund and tayçi - devoted to the rearing of young stock. All things considered this was an enormous state-of-the-art horse-breeding enterprise. Travellers to the Ottoman Empire during the 17th Century made observations underscoring this: Robert Bargrave, Levant Merchant, wrote that: he had ‘never seen such horses, and that in great number, as all Christendom cannot vie with; many of whose accoutrements alone are worth thousands, and those are common which costs less than hundreds….  The most inferior of them would in England be the greatest gallants.” Bertrandon de la Brocquiére and Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Flemish Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (not the Arab court as many writers have suggested) for the Holy Roman Emperor said exactly the same thing.

So what kinds of horses were these? It is to be remembered that the Ottoman Empire extended from the east through Mesopotamia – basically modern Syria and Iraq - right across Turkey all the way to the modern Austrian border. It also occupied Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary to the Balkans, particularly Serbia and Bosnia, where the breeding of purebred Turks – Karaman, Uzunyayla, Rumeli, Kastamonu  - was raised to its zenith. All of these countries produce high quality grass and hard feed stocks – our own ryegrass is a native of the Balkans – and I can state categorically as an equine nutritionist that higher quality feed stock produces bigger animals than lower quality feedstock. That’s an indisputable fact. And it is most likely that any horse caught as a spoil of war in a western campaign would have been a western-bred Turk – a big horse - because those were the ones that were used: western horses fought in western campaigns and eastern horses in eastern campaigns – it was matter of elementary logistics. And what is pertinent is to note that it was illegal for a foreigner to buy a Turk horse at the time. The only way to get one was to steal one or, to win him as a spoil of war. You could, by the way, buy as many Arabs as you liked.

            The Turk horse was called a Turk because that’s exactly what he was. In “The Illustrated book of the Horse”, Wilshire Book Company 1875, S. Sidney states that “every Oriental horse – Turk, Barb or Egyptian bred – is called an Arab in this country.” In his preface to his book, Newmarket and Arabia, even Roger Upton asserts that, “it would be wrong to encourage the belief that that Turks and Barbs were either Arabians or even altogether of unmixed Arab blood and I think it more than doubtful whether all those horses [employed in the formation of the English Stud, from the time of King James I to the end of the last century (1899)], styled Arabs really were so.’

            We know that John Wootton painted the Byerley Turk, there are at least three paintings that I know of. It seems extremely unlikely that he ever painted him from life. Wootton was two years old when the great Byerley Turk plunged his big, black Ottoman hooves into British dirt. And he was long dead by the time Wootton was out of his teens. A close look at the only believed contemporary painting of the Turk and Wootton’s classic painting of the Turk as a black horse reveals, more or less, a copy. The attitude of the groom is the same, the hands are the same, the horse stands in the same posture. Anyway, this is not a horse to which I would safely like to ascribe a breed, Turk Arab or otherwise. The only horses that I have seen that Wootton painted that do bear resemblance to a type are styled Three Arabian Horses to be found in Wimpole House. Without any doubt, these are fit and running Turks.

            To mistake the identity of the breed of a horse at a time when the known geography of the world was a fog is wholly understandable. There are still people who do not know where Arabia is and still people who think the Turkish people are Arabs. And it is muddling especially when one steps outside the arena and looks at the Marmeluke Caliphate in Egypt and all the little Egyptian Arab horses (whose chanfrons, by the way can be found in the Stibberts Museum in Florence and are tiny). And it becomes even more confusing when you discover that the Mamluks were also Turks - descended from the Kipchaks - and not Arabs at all. 

Other revealing facts come to light.

Montecuccoli, military advisor to Leopold 1, Holy Roman Emperor advised him not to meet the Turks on horses under 16hh, since that was the size of the horses on which the Turks were mounted when they marched on Vienna in 1683.

            The Askeri Musee, the Military Museum in Istanbul keeps a large stock of 16th and early 17th Century chanfrons. Chanfrons are gold face-plates, the Turks being described by Rycaut (17th Century British Ambassador to the Ottoman Court) as ‘marching as if to a wedding’, when they set out for war. Most of the chanfrons I measured were 60 cm or more and one or two over 70. That’s two foot to two foot three in proper English. If you go and measure an Arab horse’s head you’ll find these things would swamp them. They’ll even swamp a few of the finer thoroughbreds. But they fit the old fashioned thoroughbreds and the Turkomen horses of today. Having done this, I then went to the Topkapi Palace and measured the armour the men wore and made a further startling discovery. They were far bigger than their western counterparts. I have always been astonished by how small some of the clothes and armour were of our forebears and was equally surprised by the size of the armour of the Turks. They were big men.

            There is definitely more work to be done on the subject, more records to be unearthed and the great beauty of the Ottomans was that they were such fastidious bureaucrats. The reason that their records have remained largely unexamined is to do with partisanship: anti-Turkik sentiment. Lord Byron loathed the Turks as did his grand-daughter, Lady Anne Blunt. The early 20th century was no better and bred anti-Turkik feeling that led to a rejection of anything Turkish, even to the point of ignoring or deliberately overlooking their archives. Turkey was rejected by the west in the late 19th Century, regarded as ‘the sick man of Europe’. It was a pariah, and nobody combs through the records of pariahs. So it was with something of a shock when the west was to discover on the cliff tops of Gallipoli they had made a fatal mistake: the Turk was not a sick man at all. He was a valiant and determined soldier: he had tradition, convention, competence and discipline on his side, all learned from a long, long history of one the most successful Empires on the planet.

Nevertheless, the First World War wiped out the last remaining quality stocks of Turk horses. Their day was over. Then came devastating change. Sweeping away the past, Kemal Ataturk, first modern President of Turkey dragged his country into the 20th Century. Out went the old ways and in came the new. Gone was the Sultan and anything to do with him, which meant all the old hiraşi, the yund, the tayçi and the timars. Ottoman script (Arabic characters, Turkish language) was outlawed and Latin script became the formal written language of the new Turkey. Overnight 99% of the population were rendered illiterate. Can you imagine what that did to a society?

So complete was this transition that you can barely meet anyone today in Turkey who retains any knowledge of any interest in the history of his country let alone any understanding of the breeding of the finest horses the world has ever known. You have to trawl through the old books and old records for these – something, it would appear, the west has never really done.

Most thoroughbreds racing today are descended in tail-male line from the Darley Arabian – who was also, by the way, an Ottoman horse. But, in terms of genetic inheritance from all quarters of the pedigree, easily the most important ancestor of the Thoroughbred in the Byerley Turks’ great-great grandson in male line, Herod, who accounts for 16% of the genes of the modern Thoroughbred, outranking the Godolphin Barb at around 15% and far ahead of the Darley’s 11% or so – all this from multiple studies by geneticists of the comparison of the breed. Herod of course, also had crosses of Darcy’s Yellow Turk (3), Darcy’s White Turk (2), the Brownlow Turk, Selaby Turk and the Helmsley Turk. And what is vital to remember here is what type of horse this was. He was not 15 hh light-boned, witherless type. This horse was heavy in build, confirmed not only by Ottoman historical archives but also by English Military Records. When the Byerley Turk was brought to England he was seconded into the Queen Dowager’s Cuirassiers, a crack mounted regiment which only admitted horses that were ‘bay and of superior weight and power’. This unit was to be renamed the 6th Dragoon Guards, and dragoons are heavy mounted infantry. The horse would have stood over sixteen hands, had a long back, plenty of bone and been deep through the rib. He’d have been long necked, had big ears, big eyes, a commanding presence and a lot of ego. This was the quality which the Turks sought above all. This description does not accord at all with an Arab, which is light boned, light framed, short eared and – as Arabists will have it – spoon faced. Even put to what mixed quality of taproot mare would have been around at the time an Arab would never have produced a horse of 16 hands or more. That blood, that size, the shape, that speed came from the Turk and it is to be remembered with some sobriety that this stallion spent two years in Ireland from 1689 to 1691. And what realms of improbability are there to imagine that a young stallion of this kind of potency hacked from one of the country to other as a celibate for two long years? We need to take another long look at the Irish descended bloodlines and consider precisely what they are, and what, precisely, are their real historical roots, based upon factual evidence and not upon enthusiasm for a breed in the absence of dispassionate research.

Selected Bibliography

Bargrave, R. The Travel Diary of Robert Bargrave Levant Merchant 1647-1656. London: The Hakluyt Society, (Series III, no. 3) 1999.

Başbuğ H. Aşiretlerimizde At Kültürü, Türk Dünyasi Araştirmalari Vakfi, Istanbul, 1986.

Batu S, Turk Atlari ve At Yetişirme Bilgisi, Zootekni Enstitüsi Doçenti, Ankara, 1938.

Baykal B, S Peçevi Ibrahim Efendi, Kültür ve Turizm Bakanliği Y. II, 74 Ankara, 1982.

Bökönyi, S. Mecklenburg Collection Part 1: Data on Iron Age Horses of Central Europe and Eastern Europe. Peabody Museum. 1968

Brocquiére, Bertrandon de la (2000), Bertrandon de la Brocquiére in Denizaşiri Seyahati, çev. Ilhan Arda, sunuş: Semavi Eyice, ed, Ch.Schefer, Istanbul: Eren Y,pp 303-310).

Busbecq, (1939) Türkiye Mektuplari, çev. Hüseyin Cahit Yalçin, Istanbul: Remezi K. pp265-266.

Macaulay, T.B. (1864) History of England, from the Accession of James II, Longman Green. London.

Miles. W.J. (1861) Modern Practical Farriery. Mackenzie, London.

Peçevi Ibrahim Efendi, Peçevi Tarihi, haz. Bekir Sitki Bayka:: Kültür ve Turizm Bakanliği Y. II, 74. 1982. Ankara.

Richards. J. A Journal of the Siege and Taking of Buda by the Imperial Army, under the conduct of the Duke of Lorrain and his Electoral Highness the Duke of Bavaria, M. Gilliflower & J. Partridge: [London,] 1687. 4o.

Rycaut, P: The History of the State of the Ottoman Empire, containing maxims of the Turkish Polity…. And Their Military Discipline. London, printed for T.N for John Starkey at the Mire within the Temple-Bar, 1682. York Minster Library.

Sidney, S: The Illustrated book of the Horse, Wilshire Book Company 1875.

The Siege of Buda: an interesting tale from the German, etc. PEST.pp. 110. Longman: London, 1855. 8o. Bodleian

Stoye J: Marsigli’s Europe, 1680-1730, The Life and Times of Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli, Soldier Virtuoso. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Sumer F, Türkler’de Aţcilik ve Binicilik, Türk Dünyasi Araştimalari. Istanbul. 1893.

Upton, R: Newmarket and Arabia, An Examination of the Descent of Racers and Coursers. Garnet Publishing, 2001.

Upton, R: Travels in the Arabian Desert,  C.K.Paul & Co., London, 1881.

Vitt.O. The horses of the Kurgans of Pazyryk. Soveitska Archeologica. Vol 16. See also Iz istorii russkogo konnozovdstva: etc, Moskva: Gos. Izd-vo sel’khoz.lit-ry, 1952.)

Jeremy James is the author of The Byerley Turk, published by Merlin Unwin Books, and Saddletramp and Vagabond, published by The Long Riders' Guild Press.

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