The Nisean Warhorse in History


II. Urartu (1200-590 B.C.)

The first mention of a people who would become known as the Urartians was in the 13th century B.C. by the Assyrians, who knew them as the Uruatri. Hebrew tradition placed Noah's Ark on one of their mountains-misspelled as Ararat, and the Romans further altered the spelling when they changed the name to Armenia. An on again and off again ally of Assyria, the Urartians were largely forgotten by history until recent archeological finds showed that a once thriving civilization existed from Armenia and down through Iran and Iraq. A mountain people, they built great fortresses overlooking their fertile valleys. Artwork from the region shows that they were a religious people who adorned their possessions with images that often included sacred trees and angel like beings. But a silver rython, dated at 1000 B.C., is of particular interest to the study of the Nisean horse.

Silver rython or drinking cupA king had this silver-drinking vessel made. Because the rython is silver, it is impossible to tell much about the animal except that its head is not the slender Arab head of the Luristan Culture, but a more robust one that was characteristic of the great warhorse. In a short time Armenia would become famous for breeding the legendary horses of ancient Persian. Is it possible that they originated here? The Urartians were not afraid of a fight and refused to yield even when the powerful Assyrian king, Sargon, in 714 B.C. sacked some of their mountain cities. Assyrian art and records show that the Assyrians liked the larger horse that would eventually be called the Nisean.   Is it possible that some of them were captured at this time from the Urartians? In 654 B.C. when Ashurbanipal captured Susa and King Teuman of the Elamites (Kassites?), King Rusa of Urartu sent emissaries to Assyria seeking an alliance. There was urgency in his request; one of the people the Assyrians were warring with, the Medes, were also warring with Urartu. This alliance did not save Urartu. In 590 BC, the Medes destroyed Urartu completely and took over the lands that would now become famous for their fantastic horses.

III. The Medes (900-550 BC)

The Assyrians were the first people to write about the Medes, an Indo-Iranian tribe distantly related to the Scythians. Every spring to begin their war season, the Assyrians either stole or demanded a tribute of horses from the Medes.  The best horses were the Niseans and were the most prized animals in Central Asia. The Assyrians were willing to do anything to keep their supply of animals coming. Sargon held Deioces (Daiaukku), the legendary founder of Medea, captive in Assyria in 715 B.C., a year before his raid on Urartu. Deioces' son, Cyaxares I (Uaksatar) had to pay an equine tribute on his father's behalf, although in 702 B.C., Cyaxares did attack the Assyrian province of Harhar in hopes of weakening Assyria's grip on Medea. But this raid did not accomplish very much. The Assyrians continued receiving their tribute of Median horses, which were replacing the lighter proto-Arab of the Luristans.

One famous wall panel from Assyria records what must be history's first 'canned' hunt. Captured Asiatic lions are shown being released from pens and killed by men on horseback or in chariots. Bas relief scene of a lion hunt. The Assyrians destroyed a lot of animals this way, including the Middle Eastern elephant that once lived in the marshes along the Tigris and Euphrates beside a now extinct regional rhinoceros.  In 681 B.C. Sennacherib and the Assyrian army had to fight the Medes again at Halulina. Leading the Median horsemen was Achaemenes, legendary ancestor of the Persian rulers who would come later. Even so, he was not successful. Horses were an enormous part of Median life. They even played a large part in their religion. Their chief god Ahura Mazda blessed men with good horses and good sons. Their sun god Mithra, similar to the Greek god Helios drove a chariot of four white stallions, and he was referred to as being swift horsed and the lord of broad pastures. White Nisean horses were sacrificed to him at New Years. And like St. George, he was the protector of horsemen and chariot drivers.  
The Median/Persian war god Verethraghna sometimes appeared as a golden-eared white horse, as did Tishtryna-the star Sirius. A bringer of life, Tishtryna often had to battle Apaosha, the black horse of drought. One goddess, Anahita, drove a four-horse chariot of immortal stallions that represented wind, rain, clouds and sleet.

In 675, a Median chieftain named Phraortes (Khshathrita) formed an anti-Assyrian alliance with the Cimmerians. On Assyria's side were one of the many bands of Scythians that roamed through Central Asia and the Urartians, whose land would become famous for their beautiful gaited horses. Although he ruled for fifty-three years, the Assyrians eventually killed Phraortes. The Scythian horsemen drove the Cimmerians out of Central Asia for good. (Here's something to think about: Many historians think the Cimmerians may be related to the Welsh, whose name for themselves is Cymbri. The Cimmerians kept proto Arabs of the Luristan type. Could the Welsh pony be a descendant of those early protoArabs? Just a thought.)Mesopotamian Archer on horseback

Another group of Indo-Iranians, the Persians, made their presence known at this time. Their leader Ariyarammes, son of Tiepes, said that Ahura Mazda gave him Parsa, a land of good horses and good men. But the Medes quickly incorporated the Persians into their realm of influence and made Parsa a vassal state. The Median capital was established at Ecbatana, which stood on the slopes of Mt. Aurvant (12,000'), a part of the Zagros Mt. Range. A beautiful region even today, Nisean horses grazed here in the cool mountain pastures. 

 The Medes never gave up their desire to be rid of the Assyrians, and Phraortes' son, Cyaxares II Verethragna, made his attempt upon coming to power. Dividing his army of spearmen, bowmen, and cavalry, he laid siege to Nineveh. But Assyria's old ally, the Scythians, counter attacked and broke the siege. Cyaxares II had twenty-eight more years of tribute to hand over before trying again.  This time he set about ridding himself of the Scythians first and planned an elaborate banquet that included much wine. Once the Scythian leaders were too drunk to protect themselves, he killed them. Without their leaders, the steppe horsemen were temporarily immobilized. Cyaxares then struck at the heart of the Assyrian Empire. Nineveh fell in 612, and in 610 he defeated Ashur-uballit and took over the entire Mesopotamian region. Not satisfied with this, he turned his wrath on Urartu and destroyed the kingdom utterly in 590. The killing ended on May 28, 585 B.C. A solar eclipse convinced him that the great god Mithra was tired of the bloodshed and to appease the god's anger, white horses were sacrificed.

As noted in a previous paragraph, the capital of the Medes was Ecbatana at 1800 meters on Mt. Elvand's side. Ferghana ValleyNow called Hamadan, it is 400 km southwest of Tehran. Nisean horses were kept in the lush mountain pastures year round, feeding on alfalfa and the rich grasses that grow there. Horses still grow fat in these mountain pastures.

Although the Medes kept great herds of Nisean horses, there were other horses in the region as well. The proto Arab, while increasingly rare because of constant warfare, was still present in certain areas, and the tough ponies of the Scythians had not lost their usefulness. Small horses from India, perhaps distant ancestors of the curious breeds that now inhabit the subcontinent, were known as far away as Greece, but once more things were about to change. 

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