The Long Riders' Guild

The Polish Quest for Arabian Horses, page 2
By Peter Harrigan

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 traveled 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 travelers 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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