Favourites on Friday - The Horse of the 'Jaziret el Maghreb'

The Barb

It’s not known exactly when the horse arrived in Africa, but cave paintings, about 10,000 years old, found at Tassili n’Ajjer (Plateau of the Chasms) in the Sahara show abundant wildlife, domesticated animals and, significantly, chariots.  The Sahara then was more savannah-like with creatures that no longer exist in the region – buffalo, elephant, rhinos and hippos. 

                      Cave paintings at 'Tassili n'Ajjer'

The horsemen of Numidia, who rode without saddle or bridle, made up the African cavalry, which is thought to have been formed during the reign of the first king of Numidia, King Masinissa (about 240 BC -148 BC).  The cavalry fought the Roman army first before the king switched sides, after which they fought the army of Carthage.  Employing guerrilla tactics, and armed with javelins and daggers, the horsemen would charge in jumbled formation.  They would withdraw and charge countless times until they broke the enemy’s ranks.  The Romans called them ‘barbarus’, or barbarians, which means ‘foreigners’; their horses became known as the Barbs.  Although the predominant colour is grey, they can also be found in brown, bay, chestnut and black.

In the 8th century, the Arab leader, Musa ibn Nasser, sent his fearless warriors of the Zenete tribe, under the command of the Berber Tariq ibn Ziyad, to conquer the Visigothic Kingdom in Hispania (Spain, Portugal, Andorra and part of France).  It was the forerunners of today’s Barbs that carried these warriors to their conquest.  Once established on the Iberian Peninsula, the Barb horse was bred with Spanish stock which led to the development of the Andalusian and the Lusitano.

A little sidenote concerning Tariq ibn Ziyad – leading his army from the north coast of Morocco, he consolidated them at a large hill.  That large hill is now called Gibraltar, which is a Spanish derivation of the Arabic name Jabal Ṭāriq, meaning ‘mountain of Tariq’ and is named after him.  The things you learn …

The Barb’s praiseworthy feats were recognised during the Crimean War.  Crossbred with Syrian and Arabian purebreds, the breed became stronger, with more muscular bodies.  A desert horse like the Arab, the Barb is known for its great hardiness and stamina, built to cover long distances on meagre rations.  Possessing agile movement, it is built for speed and spirit.  Despite its reputation for a fiery temperament, it has an eagerness to learn and displays a gentle nature.  Probably because it’s not as attractive, the Barb isn’t as famous as the Arab, even though it has had as much influence on the racing breeds of the world.  But throughout the Maghreb – throughout what the Arab conquerors had named Jaziret el Maghreb, the ‘island of the setting sun’ – and especially in Morocco, the Barb is highly prized.

Countless years later, the descendants of these fierce horsemen come together each moussem (season), and for every holiday to perform in the ‘fantasia’, a reminder of their ancestors’ fearsome warrior skills.  Despite the many complex and different societies of the region, they all share a common ethnic foundation – the Berbers, who call themselves the Imazighen, or ‘free men’.

The fantasia, that’s something I wouldn’t mind seeing.  The horses, dressed in their fantasia finery, are all so beautiful.  Such a stark contrast to their riders, mainly garbed in white.  

By the time the fantasia begins, more than a hundred cavaliers are gathered in various groups, all waving muskets filled with black powder.  The silence is broken by a command from the leader, and his riders line up, shoulder to shoulder, standing on their wide stirrups, while their horses toss their heads and paw the ground, ready to fly.  Seemingly without warning, they charge, muskets extended, thundering across the plain as if in battle.  With muskets usually held in the right hand, the reins are wrapped around the warriors’ necks to keep control over their horses.  The leader shouts the order, and the men simultaneously shoot skywards.  Immediately they pull on the reins and the gallop suddenly stops, mere yards from the crowd.  Before the dust settles, another fantasia is already about to begin … And on it goes until night falls …

A Berber, a man of the Atlas Mountains, has the soul of a nomad.  For him the horse is a vital companion; it is a living symbol of his life of movement and adventure, of his independence.  The man takes pride in his warrior ancestors, and pays homage to them by performing in the fantasia, not just a demonstration of bravery, but a living memory of his people.

‘Ask the night how many times I tore its veil,

Rode a horse with thinned sides and of stature.

Ask the desert, the hills, the valleys and the plains

The distance I have covered.

I wish only to fight the enemies

And to conquer their courageous cavaliers with mine.’

   ~ Emir Abd El-Kader (headed the resistance against the French conquest of Algeria, mid-1830s)