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Travellers' Conference at University of Kent

by Gill Suttle 

Kent University’s new Centre for Studies in the Long Eighteenth Century enjoyed a twenty-first century baptism over the 25th - 26th May 2007, when more than sixty people from all walks of life assembled to celebrate their varying interests in the Middle East and Arab Horses.

"British Travellers and Equestrian Enthusiasts in Greater Syria and Arabia" was the title for a Conference sponsored by the Ambassadors of Syria and Saudi Arabia, the racing establishment Juddmonte Farms, and by Kent University itself.

The twenty-five speakers covered an eclectic mix of travel, history, art and even film. While it might not be relevant to give details of each and every presentation in an arena concentrating on equestrian travel, most of us who ride are so familiar with Arabs and Thoroughbreds that it would be inappropriate to omit some thought-provoking ideas on their relationship, as captured by artists over several centuries. Equine Veterinarian Specialist Nick Mills illustrated the evolution of the Thoroughbred, from its early days via Oriental imports to the present-day supreme athlete. Artist Bridget Tempest, known among Turkoman horse enthusiasts for her electrifying portrayals of this breed, took a bold stance in a room full of Arabophiles by asserting the influence of the Turk alongside that of the Arab in the development of the English Thoroughbred.

The name "Blunt" is essential to any discussion involving Arab horses and travel in Syria. Lady Anne and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt journeyed extensively in Greater Syria and present-day Saudi Arabia, as far as the al-Rashid court at Hail, in their constant quest for high-quality Arab horses. Naji Chaoui, Vice-President of the Syrian Arab Horse Association, followed some of their journeys, suggesting in passing that they were moonlighting as British spies looking at the possibilities for a Damascus - Basra railway. Peter Harrigan outlined some details from Victor Winstone's new biography of Lady Anne, while showing photographs of her at home and in the Middle East. While both her costume and her horses were eye-catching, the most extraordinary revelation was that she travelled these many desert miles riding side-saddle.

The first of the Travellers' Tales fell to Gerald "Mac" Maclean, of the University of York. His humorous account "Between a Rock and a Hard Place" began with stories "of camels, mahafees and whingeing Brits". A mahafee, we learned, was a camel-saddle-box for the transportation of foreign tenderfoots, and cause great discomfort to the main subject, Henry Abbott, in 1784. Abbott, though, was generally amiably disposed towards the ardours of travel overland from Aleppo to Basra, greatly preferring this option to the long sea voyage to India round the Cape, and expressing in his account "an ardent desire… to undeceive you in many erroneous conclusions you must necessarily draw from perusal of erroneous narratives…" Mac produced extracts from some of these other erroneous narratives, in which whingeing was high on the agenda.

And so to 21st-century journeys… Huw Owen-Jones, retracing the steps of his ancestor the Rev. Dr. William Wright (1837 - 1899) in a journey from Damascus to Palmyra, told the story of "Riding from Damascus to Palmyra in Ancestral Hoofprints", richly illustrated with evocative slides. I look forward to reading the not-yet-published book. Antony Wynn, author of "Persia in the Great Game: Sir Percy Sykes - Explorer, Consul, Soldier" brought a breath of Central Asia into the air by describing travels in Turkmenistan riding Akhal-Teke horses - the best-known strain of the Turk. His slides caused some intake of breath at the similarity of these horses to the English Thoroughbred, supporting Bridget Tempest's point of the day before.

Jasper Winn, film-maker and “Blarneystone Cowboy”, spoke engagingly on the theme of “Bloodstock Politics and the Cultures of the Desert and the Steppe”. He led us through the many areas of the world, such as the Central Asian steppes and the South American pampas, where the horse is still a pivot of both lifestyle and economy; and reminded us that just as the Conquistadors once terrorised Central America from the saddle, so today the Janjawid of Sudan wreak havoc in Darfur from the backs of their warhorses. Jasper envisaged - not without relish - a time when fossil fuels might once more expand the rôle of the horse; and gave us much amusement in the question time that followed.

Conference organiser Professor Donna Landry and Ottoman historian Dr. Caroline Finkel offered a preview of the “Great Anatolian Ride”, a project to travel on horseback in the paths of two earlier women: Evliya Chelebi, who crossed Anatolia in the seventeenth Century, and Lady Anne Blunt who made an expedition to Turkey in 1873. We hope that the story of this Ride will feature in a future Conference!

Writer and explorer Robin Hanbury Tenison brought proceedings to a close with a witty and lavishly illustrated account of six journeys on horseback, escorting us with breathtaking speed through France, China, New Zealand, Spain (twice) and Britain. Each of these journeys is the subject of a Long Riders’ Guild book.

Long Rider Gill Suttle's passion for Arab horses and a long acquaintance with Syria inspired her to travel on horseback into the backwoods of this fascinating land in 1998.   She is the author of Between the Desert and the Deep Blue Sea, "the finest book ever penned about equestrian travel in Syria."

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