Dining With Horses
Anne Brown enjoys Hospitality, History and as Syria hosts the WAHO Conference
Political upheaval in the Near East delayed the 2006 WAHO Conference in Damascus to April of 2007 –but delegates rated it well worth the wait. The welcome throughout Syria echoed the Islamic saying:"the Guest is a gift form god."
the British breeders particularly appreciated the chance the follow in the footsteps of Lady Anne and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt who scoured this treasure trove of Arabian blood to secure foundation horse for their stud at Crabbet Park. Then as now, the purity of the Arabian pedigree, "hujjan", is paramount.
The excellent WAHO programme cobined horses with sightseeing and lashings of traditional hospitality from the outset. The six day post-conference tour combined the major historic sites of the Roman oasis city of Palmyra, the Crusader castle of Crac des Chevaliers and the souks and fortress of Aleppo.
WAHO business came to an abrupt halt on the very first morning as delegates rushed to watch a spectacular 400-strong tide of Bedouin horseman in tribal costume pouring down the dual carriageway outside the conference hotel brandishing scimitars and muskets. This historic parade stopped traffic in both directions!
At every venue, hosts pulled out all the stops to greet us. From the private breeders to the hundreds of Bedouin owners who rode long distances to the encampments and verges along our route, many with foals running ay foot, all wanted to share their pride in their beloved horses. Such large crowds converged on the tents of the Tia and Allied tribes that we were ushered through by a thousand helping hands to a chorus of "Merhaba, Welcome to Syria".
Nothing like these huge gatherings had been seen before, nor may ever again, as word spread that visitors from 45 countries had come with one common aim: to see the horses of the Anazeh, the Tai, the Alhisinah and the Shammar. However, our arrival created a massacre among the local sheep population as herds were decimated to provide succulent feasts of fresh-killed mutton and mounds of rice carried in on huge platters.
The years of unstinting enthusiasm and energy of Basil Jadaan, chairman of the Syrian Arabian Horses Association (SAHA),and his large team of hard-working volunteers, sealed the success of both the conference and the tours through this exciting crossroads of the Near East.
Each day's official proceedings were sandwiched between generous hospitality Sheikh Ali Aljasem Mithwid, head of the Al Bashakem tribe, set the standard with an atmospheric recreation of a Bedouin encampment in the sands of the old Damascus fairground. By flickering firelight, riders gave shows of skill and swordsmanship on horse of the most equable temperaments.
A concert and delicious buffet at the Asayel Alsham stud, owned by Mr Mahmuod Al Anzarouti one evening introduced us to the wonders of whirling Dervishes and to beautifully presented horses. The Al khaer and Al jadaan Stables combined forces with Asayel Alsham to exhibit pure Syrian horses. My favourite was Basil Jadaan's impressive black Shweimet Sabbah mare, Al Kahirah. Later, Basil showed me her relatives ay his sister's stud, one of the finest group of mares and foals I saw in Syria.
In The moonlight, the loose mares and foals pranced around the Asayel Alsham arena while we ate and watched the folklore show-a prefect backdrop to an enchanting evening
The theme of dining with horses continued in the delightful water garden setting of the Zaman Alkhair Restaurant the following lunchtime, courtesy of the Seif Alsham Equestrian Club and Alghabra'a Stud. The mares and foals were led calmly through the pathways between the tables and over the little to greet the diners and pose for the cameras. Who could ask for more glorious company in a finer setting!
Equally impressive were the magnificent horse at Syria's National Stud, named in honour of keen horseman, Baesl Al Assad, the late brother of the current president. The stud preserves the country's 12 most important strains on a vast acreage supporting around 150 of the country's finest horses including the two stallions Majd (a bay by Basil) and Ma'roof (a grey by Megrez). Another evening, Mr Nizar Al As'ad of the Alfadi Stud and Mr Naji Chaoui of the Aljameel Stables hosted a banquet and lively Arabian show in Damascus' historic caravanserai of Khan Asa'd Basha. This elegant domed mosque-like building used to shelter the camel trains crossing the region to Baghdad and Persia.
Finally, we were treated to a horse parade, folklore show and a delicious meal at the impressive Basel Al Assad Equestrian and shooting Club, sponsored by SAHA and local Damascus breeders. Then the ethereal small paddock beside our tables, like quiet ghosts moving through the warm Syrian evening.
Before heading east to the desert, we had a rare chance to hear the almost lost language of Aramaic, once spoken by Jesus. The little church outside the Christian settlement of Mallula was hushed as a local lady recited the Lord's Prayer in the language his disciples would have heard it.
A highlight of the desert tour for me involved a free-for-all horse race in clouds if dust between the Sba'a and fedaan clans of the Anazeh, many jockeys riding bareback.
One late-comer joined in half- way through the race-then claimed victory. Before he was lynched, order was restored and the true winner carried in the shoulders of his clansmen to claim his trophy.
The frisson as we were then drawn in to the heart of the encampment, and greeted by dozens of Bedouins in blinding white robes, touched us all. The gold edges on the robes of our hosts, Sheikh Abdullah Abu Saifain, from the fedaan, helped us identify them to say "Shukran" (than you) for their hospitality.
This scene was re-enacted at each Bedouin camp, of the Tai, the Shammar and the Alhisinah, as we learned more about the customs of these remarkable breeders. A stallion owner, for example, takes no fee for a covering. it is his duty-and honour-to allow any mare owner a service. If a breeder sells a pure-bred mare, he often requires one or two fillies from her in return, to preserve the tail female line. Colts are not gelded, as the Koran forbids it, but only the best are used for breeding.
In the past 30 years, many private studs have sprung up with the inevitable development form the smaller wiry desert survivor into a taller sleek show horse or athlete for racing and endurance. We were privileged to see some of the finest.
Al Furat Stables trated us to a parade of their lovely horses on the banks of the Euphrates at sunset with kingfishers diving around us Nidal, an elegant grey 6-year old Saglawia as she trotted between the palms. Boats then took us to the Ganama Stables with fine horses as the backdrop to our sumptuous buffet supper.
one of the youngest and keenest breeders, Omar Anbarji invited us to the gardens of his al Andalus Stud for another enchanting evening of prancing horses and dancing dervishes, The wonderful rich chestnut mare Baghdad (a Hamdanist Al-Ofrid) with long white stockings, seemed the prototype for so many Crabbet horses in Britain today.
We saw that the dominant qualities of the Arabian remain: gentle temperament strong bone below the knee and good limbs. Excellent angle of shoulder and length of neck, high tail carriage and kind eye.
What greater gift could Syrians bequeath the equestrian world!