The Armenian Highlands are renowned for horse breeding. Some of the oldest traces of domestication of horses and the development of the chariot have been found there.
Following the Biblical tradition Armenians are considered to be the descended of Torgom (Togarmah), where the Bible refers to the House of Togarmah, a land known for its horses (Ez. 27:14).
Armenian horsemanship was well known in the ancient world and was often mentioned by classical Greek historians like Xenophon, Strabo and Plutarch.
The passion for riding and the care of horses characterize the Thessalians, and are common to Armenians and Medes.
Armenia, is an exceptionally good “horse-pasturing” country; and a certain meadow there is called “Horse-pasturing,” and those who travel from Persis and Babylon to Caspian Gates pass through it; and in the time of the Persians it is said that fifty thousand mares were pastured in it and that these herds belonged to the kings.
Armenian horses were highly esteemed in the antiquity. So much so that Persian royals would collected horses for their armies and the royal guard specifically in Armenia.
The satrap of Armenia used to send to the Persian king twenty thousand foals every year at the time of the Mithracina. Artavasdes (king of the Armenians), at the time when he invaded Media with Antony, showed him, apart from the rest of the cavalry, six thousand horses drawn up in battle array covered with complete armour.
Equally revered was the Armenian cavalry of the ancient times called “Ayrudzi”, Armenian for “man and horse”.
There is Phauene, a province of Armenia, Comisene, and Orchistene, which furnishes large bodies of cavalry.
The ancient Greek historian Xenophon (431– 354 B.C.) during his travels through Armenia recorded how Armenians considered horses sacred and sacrificed old horses to the Sun god.
As soon as Cheirisophus and Xenophon had exchanged warm greetings, they together asked the village chief, through their Persian-speaking interpreter, what this land was. He replied that it was Armenia.
Xenophon took the village chief back for the time to his own household, and gave him a horse that he had got when it was rather old, to fatten up and sacrifice, for he understood that it was sacred to the Sun-god. He did this out of fear that the horse might die, for it had been injured by the journey; and he took for himself one of the colts [Note] and gave his captains also a colt apiece.
Xenophon, Anabasis 4. 5. 35
The horses of this region were smaller than the Persian horses, but very much more spirited. It was here also that the village chief instructed them about wrapping small bags round the feet of their horses and beasts of burden when they were going through the snow; for without these bags the animals would sink in up to their bellies.
Xenophon, Anabasis 4. 5. 36
The ancient Romans admired and respected the bravery and the warrior spirit of the Armenian cavalry, the core of Tigran’s army. The Roman historian Sallustius Crispus wrote that the Armenian (Ayrudzi) cavalry was:
“remarkable by the beauty of their horses and armor”.
Sallust. Hist. IV. ir. 65
Horses in Armenia were always considered the most important part and pride of the warrior.
The Roman historian Appian recalls the most victorious battle of Mithredates over Rome as follows:
Mithridates manufactured arms in every town. The soldiers he recruited were almost wholly Armenians. From these he selected the bravest to the number of about 70.000 foot and half that number of horse.
Appian, The Mithridatic Wars 13.87
A French historian of the 20th century once made a fitting remark in his book La frontière de l’Euphrate de Pompée à la Conquète arabe.
What they say about Armenia bewilders us. How could this mountain people develop such a cavalry that was able to measure itself against the horsemen of the Medes? One thing which is certain is the fact that Armenia was a source of excellent well bred horses. The people in this country had discovered that horses were not just an economic asset, but could also be used for military purposes.
V. Chapot, La frontière de l’Euphrate de Pompée à la Conquète arabe, Paris, 1907, p. 17
By now it should be clear that Armenia had an extremely richt tradition of horse breeding and horsemanship.
It is equally known that the Armenian Highland is considered to be the cradle of livestock domestication. The oldest center of stock farming can be traced to the Armenian plateau. In a paper: “Domestication and early agriculture in the Mediterranean Basin: Origins, diffusion, and impact” Dr. Melinda A. Zeder (2008) argues that the early spread of agriculture known as the Neolithic revolution spread from the Armenian plateau through a mix of colonization and cultural diffusion, into Europe and elsewhere.
It is therefore not unlikely that it was exactly in Armenia where the first horses were domesticated by humans. Beverley Davis in his paper Timeline of the Development of the Horse (2007) describes the domestication of the horse in Armenia as follows:
Petroglyphs found in Armenia (one of the possible sites for the Indo-European homeland) show the oldest pictures of men driving chariots, wagons, and plows, with horses doing the pulling.
Primitive wagons dating from this time have been found in excellent condition in Armenia. These are the oldest known wagons in the world.
Tiglath Pilser I becomes the first great king of the Assyrian Empire. The need for horses drives him into the lands of the Indo-Iranian horse peoples and Armenia.
Marc Antony takes a 10,000-horse cavalry, most of the animals coming from Spain, to Syria in his war against Parthia. He loses the war and ravages Armenia, returning to Egypt with Armenia’s king and the first large number of Nisean horses in the Roman Empire. Augustus Caesar ends up with them after defeating Antony.
Armenia, the breeding ground for the Nisean horse, is annexed by Rome.
The Huns raid Armenia, looking for horses and riches.
Recent archaeological discoveries made in Armenia push these dates even further back. Unique discoveries revealed countless domesticated horse bones as a result of excavations at Shengavit and the village of Nor Naver, Armenia (4000-3000 B.C.) Regarding these discoveries, the director of the Scientific and Research Institute of Historical and Cultural Heritage Hakob Simonyan said:
“… the amount of revealed horse bones at the territory has exceeded all expectations of the researchers.”
German paleozoologist Dr. Hans Peter Wertman equally stated that he has not observed such a quantity of horses in the entire Ancient East.
Armenian archaeologists discovered an ancient burial site containing a large amount of sacrificed animal remains, among them war horses. The head of the Cultural Inheritance Research Center of Armenia Hakob Simonyan explained that the horse bones found at “Nerkin Naver” are the oldest yet uncovered belong to a domesticated horse used for military purposes.
Evidence is found, that Armenians is among first nations engaged in horse breeding and particularly thanks to ancient Armenians several breeds of horses were created
Hakob Simonyan said.
These finds provide clear evidence that Armenians were among the earliest nations engaged in horse breeding for military purposes. Archaeologists have managed to excavate seven tombs with bones and depictions of horses, proving their intensive cultivation.
This find dates back to the 26-25th centuries BC, and it’s the oldest burial place of a horse discovered to this day. It has an all-important significance not only for Armenia, but for the whole Western Asia as well.
It’s noteworthy to mention that the worlds oldest horse manual dates back to 1345 B.C., written bij an expert horse master from the early Armenian kingdom of Mitanni.
During the middle ages Armenians continued this tradition of horse mastery and produced brilliant scientific writings, of which only a handful survived to this day. The oldest known manual about Armenian horse medicine consists of 184 handwritten pages. It was written in the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia between 1295 and 1298.
The first chapter explains the creation of the horse. The following chapters describe the good and bad characteristics of horses, breeding, the different races known at that time, breaking in and riding, horse care and defects. And the last chapters deal with different types of pain as well as illnesses, symptoms and treatments.
In 2005 this work was translated into German. The compendium is Armenia’s oldest preserved veterinary medical work and offers an overall view of expert knowledge about horses during the late 13th century in the Near East.
I’ll end this post with a few selection of beautiful pictures of horses in Armenia.