Cairo, Looking Back to the Future
By Monika Savier
Photos by Monika Savier, Erwin Escher
Article courtesy of Tutto Arabi
At first, the World of Arabian Horse Breeding was invited into the green oasis of Cairo: El Zahraa Stud, steeped in tradition. Not just one but two shows engrossed the spectators from all over the world, as there were the National Championships and the International Championships of Egypt.
Next, the breeders from the „Egyptian Horse Breeders Association" cooperative gave a presentation in Giza. Accompanied by live music and culinary highlights, they illustrated the level they have reached with their breeding work.
The week with all that was offered just carried everybody along - anybody who could not manage to come this year had better book his slot for next year now!
Particularly for breeders involved with straight Egyptian Arabians, the impact of the name of "El Zahraa" is sort of magical. Based on this historic location, for more than 80 years the Egyptian government has taken measures to promote and preserve the breeding of Arabian horses in their own country, for the most part on the foundations laid by the famous breeding of Abbas Pasha and Ali Pasha Sherif. El Zahraa has always been more than just a stud - it is acknowledged world-wide as a symbol for authentic Arabian Horse breeding, as a synonym for the dialogue between the people of different continents and cultures with a common passion: maintaining and improving Straight Egyptian Arabians.
In El Zahraa, the most renowned international studs of the world discovered their stock horses. From there, Henry Babson imported the first horses to the US in 1932; from there, the stable masters of Marbach State Stud in Baden-Wurttemberg (Germany) imported the first Nazeer son, Hadban Enzahi, in 1955; and in the same year, Ghazal (Nazeer x Bukra) arrived in Germany. He was followed by the Nazeer son Kaisoon in 1958, who was a noble present of the state, and then there was another Nazeer son, Aswan, who became an improver in the Russian state stud of Tersk. In 1968, Babolna state stud in Hungary imported the stallions Ibn Galal and Faraq. Dr. Nagel purchased his famous stock mare Hanan and four other beauties in El Zahraa in 1968, and Judith Forbis found her stock mare Bint Bukra and other important horses, hugely famous today, just there - in El Zahraa. There were many in the next years to follow along these same lines, founding their studs on the basis of horses from El Zahraa, "the flower" of Cairo.
"Restful tranquillity and creative serenity, contrasting the sprawling, roaring city spreading all around, still lie across this modest Egyptian horse paradise from which Arabian Horse breeding world-wide was able to take so lavishly. Every foreigner is impressed with the now-rare exotic flair enveloping El Zahraa. The timelessness of oriental life as it was seems to be taking breath here, the mares slowly roam their paddocks in small bands day in, day out - all of that fills this place with an infinite silence and calm, making you believe it will be there forever. Whether there are unexpected things lurking behind the silence here after all the political and social changes that took place, whether a last remnant of a form of life closely connected to man - the horse, reminiscent of nomadism - can be faithfully preserved in a form as close to the original as possible, or whether everything here will finally drift away with the pull of the Western way of thinking in terms of performance only - it remains an enigma for the time being. People will write the next lines of history, just as it will be people who will write the history of Arabian horses in Egypt, those Arabians who are renowned as the most typey of all Arabians. El Zahraa became their substitute home for almost a full century, living up to the cultural challenge and task brilliantly and at least as well as any other place trying to rival them." (H.J. Nagel, Bremen 1998).
The sheer number of Egyptian horses exported from El Zahraa resulted, on the one hand, in heavy losses for the breeding strategy of the stud. On the other hand, the enormous popularity of this oasis of horse breeding increased, with the stud achieving unparalleled fame with horse friends all over the world. When, during the 1990ies, private breeders from Egypt and the Middle East re-discovered Arabian horse breeding as a hobby, a long caravan of horses started coming in from Cairo, re-importing the offspring of the famous horses of El Zahraa who had meanwhile thrived on the green pastures of the American and European continents. However, where the breeding concept of the Egyptians for breeding their horses had adhered to the ideals of Abbas Pasha and Prince Mohamed Pasha, dating back to the 19th century and acknowledging first the noble pedigree of a horse, and beauty only in second place, Europeans and Americans just a century later had - with the exception of a few traditionally oriented studs - definitely reversed the order of importance of the main criteria of selection. Their breeding goal was perfect beauty which would help their owners earn glory, recognition, and money on the occasion of shows, and only then did they pay attention to strategic line breeding, with value placed on maintaining the pedigrees and the original traits of this breed of horses and their ancient mare tail lines.
So time-proven and modern breeding concepts drifted apart as they applied different criteria - and no matter whether these are just a fad or result in permanent and evolutionary modifications of the Arabian horse as a breed, nowhere are they experienced as distinctly and can be compared as easily as in El Zahraa during the annual national and international show events.
There you see the horses of El Zahraa, the historic gene pool, affectionately preserved and protected from genetic influences out of new and foreign pedigrees, as they playfully canter through their spacious paddocks or just lie in the sun sleeping. And adjacent to them, in the show ring, you see the modern international Arabian horses, some displaying a kind of uniform look, be they imported or lately home-bred in one of the many private studs in Cairo which are based on modern imports from Western countries. Now they contend for their cheering owners, displaying more or less exaggerated stand-ups, floating gaits and raised tails in order to win ribbons, cups, or at least honour for their studs.
I asked the Chairman of the Egyptian Agricultural Organization, Mr. Ahmed Hamza: "What is the motivation of EAO/ El Zahraa when every year, you open your doors for the national and international shows"?
Ahmed Hamza: Our motivation when we open our doors for the national show at El Zahraa is to encourage the Egyptian breeders to compete with each other and demonstrate how much the horses born in Egypt have improved, year after year, and how the breeding programme of each farm and stud is developing. As for the international show, it has a different flair owing to the different horses bred in different parts of the world, and there is also the interesting fact that many of those horses are winners of shows abroad. So you may say that I consider both shows very educational to all breeders including myself, plus the fact that breeders local and foreign meet and exchange ideas, and every time there are new friendships created.
As for the El Zahraa breeding programme, a year ago we have started a new breeding programme which I truly believe will be very successful, and as any new breeding programme it will take several years to develop to fruition. Believe it or not, the El Zahraa horses will always have a very special place with all straight Egyptian Breeders."
The Egyptian National Championships
More than 150 horses started in Cairo for the Egyptian Championships which were restricted to horses born in Egypt. The grandstands were crammed with enthusiastic spectators of any age and social environment. Many of the studs had their own tight-packed group of fans including cheering teenagers and quite a few mothers who would set their babies down for a moment and rattle two-handed when the horses from next door floated by. The joy was immeasurable when the right horse had won, and usually 50 or even 100 people would rush in on the price-giving in order to celebrate their respective heroes.
In the VIP areas, tempers were somewhat more moderated. The catalogue was studied, discussions were held, and judges' decisions were commented, but victory and defeat were taken at a more statesmanlike stride. Many of the visitors here were from abroad.
Owing to the WorldWideWeb/INTERNET, there is a global community of horse enthusiasts organising "supply and demand" via innumerable private websites, facebook, newsletters such as HYPERLINK "http://www.arabianessence.com" www.arabianessence.com, HYPERLINK "http://www.tuttoarabi.com" www.tuttoarabi.com, HYPERLINK "http://www.arabianhorse.com" www.arabianhorse.com - to name only a few - or discussion platforms such as HYPERLINK "http://www.straightegyptians.com" www.straightegyptians.com and others. The international import and export business with horses, trading into every corner of the globe, has left marks in Egypt in particular. Anybody who ever experienced Egyptian hospitality can easily imagine that a lot of international friendships were established when so many horses were imported from Europe. Visiting the great show events in El Zahraa was, therefore, a good opportunity for many visitors from Western countries to visit their Egyptian friends, their former horses, and their grandget.
I asked Dr. Nasr Marei, one of the most renowned breeders ( HYPERLINK "http://www.albadeia.com" www.albadeia.com ) and horse judges in the world - and this year, he had assumed liability for organising and managing the event here - about show procedures, and about how far the almost 400 horses present for the show today are exemplary for the level of breeding in Egypt today?
Nasr Marei: "There is a huge revival as to the interest in horse breeding in Egypt. In the seventies, there were less than ten breeders. Today we have over 350 breeders registered with El Zahraa. The number of Purebreds went up from around 500 to more than 3000. The grand leap forward was executed by private breeders on their own initiative. While the official El Zahraa Stud keeps their numbers to less than 500.
In addition, many private breeders sought to enrich their gene pool by buying or leasing horses from abroad. This was a major step that took quality to a higher level.
Desert Heritage: Which obstacles did you overcome to make the show a reality? Any difficulties?
Nasr Marei: Organizing a show is a major undertaking, as everyone knows. In order to have a "successful" show a whole number of details need to be addressed and taken into consideration. There are the technical aspects of any show, such as the implementation of the ECAHO rules and preventing any violations. The choice of judges and DC members has to be done carefully and ensure harmony among the working teams of officials. Another technical matter is to educate the horse owners and exhibitors as to the Rules of Conduct. That can be somewhat tricky since many exhibitors are either not aware of these rules or chose to ignore or bypass them.
On the other hand, the organisational issues also require a lot of work. For example, there is boarding for the participating horses to be organised. In these two shows we had to find housing for 376 horses at El Zahraa, and they have enough to do with providing room for their own 450 head if horses. There was organizing for the show ring, the holding ring and the stands for the visitors that were built from scratch. We needed to take care of the accommodations and post show visits of the guests that were coming from abroad. The list goes on and on.
This year, as the Head of the Organizing Committee I wanted to have the best show that we ever had in Egypt. At the end of the four days of the show, I think that everyone testified that it was. Many problems were met and continuous monitoring of the problems around the clock was done and solved the problems as they came. Dealing with horses and people, you should expect problems, particularly in Egypt when emotions run high.
Desert Heritage: Did the show meet your expectations?
Nasr Marei: As said before, the target was achieved. We have put into reality the best show ever staged in Egypt. We had a record 376 entries in the 2 shows, we had over 40 breeders showing their horses, we had many visitors from Europe, the US, Australia and the Arab countries. We had a record number of visitors that we estimate at over a thousand every day, the quality of the horses was much better than in preceding years. The hotel accommodations and transportation airport-hotel-show ground was first class, the breeders in Egypt have generously sponsored all the classes, and for the first time we had three big names as sponsors, namely, Mercedes-Benz, Marriott Hotels and Resorts, and Lufthansa and SWISS.
Answering your question, yes I am quite satisfied with the outcome.
Desert Heritage: From your point of view, which role should El Zahraa stud play in the future?
Nasr Marei: El Zahraa is in high regard with the Egyptian breeders in Egypt and I am sure with any other Straight Egyptian Breeders in the world, as the source and the mother stud farm. El Zahraa is keen to maintain this status as the "source".
Having said that, we all know and realize that in recent years, the quality of horses that are being bred may not be up to the standards that are expected from such a leading breeding programme. We also know that the quality has become inferior to that of horses bred by many private breeders in Egypt. The EAO and El Zahraa are undergoing changes now under a new leadership and reforms are to be expected. However, it will take some years for significant changes to become apparent.
The major issue is to establish an intelligent breeding programme that sets up a new concept and better management of the gene pool. Once this programme is founded, it will have to be implemented and continued for a few years to assess. Further changes in breeding philosophies can be implemented."
So much about the adventure of managing a show in Egypt. Naturally, it's a great responsibility to present the Egyptian horse stock to the whole world, with Egypt regarded as one of the countries of origin of Arabian Horse breeding, and, as far as breeding the Straight Egyptian lines is concerned, with a tradition and the reputation of Abbas Pasha to defend. For the international show that weekend at El Zahraa state stud, however, Egyptian horses bred all over the world were eligible. Was it possible that the predominance of the Egyptian lines could be starting to topple?
Well, the overall quality of the horses was indeed even better than when I visited here last, two years ago for the National Championships in El Zahraa.
However, it was not only Straight Egyptians who were re-imported to Cairo in recent years, but there were also a few Russian or Polish lines of show quality who made Cairo their home. On the occasion of the National Championships, it was easily apparent that there were exclusively Straight Egyptian horses enrolled. I asked Nicki Knoth, an "interface" between the cultures of breeding, native German and breeder of Arabian horses who has been running Al Sharbatly Stud for many years together with her partner Sultan Sharbatly, about her views on the development of horse breeding in Egypt during recent years.
Nicki: There were quite stringent rules for taking part in the National Championships: with imported horses, their direct descendants were not allowed to take part, only their grandget. This has been changed by now, so we see a lot of horses competing who are from the first generation after being imported. The problem proper is the fact that according to ECAHO rules - which reglement showing in Egypt as well - any Arabian horse who is WAHO-acknowledged is entitled to enrol for an ECAHO show. Now our view was that we are Egypt, we have an authentic breed or line of our own and we don't want to mix them with other lines on the occasion of the Nationals. This show is meant to present the current state of Egyptian breeding. Of course, this was impossible to enforce from a legal standpoint, but we reached a rather unanimous gentlemen's agreement stating that any breeders who are engaged in breeding Arabian from other lines would voluntarily refrain from showing them in the Nationals. As you can see, they kept to that. Anybody who wanted to show horses of a different pedigree entered them for the international show which admits all nations and tail lines, after all.
Desert Heritage: What is your opinion on the developments in horse breeding if we take this show here as our benchmark?
Nicki: There is definite improvement, even if I liked the mares better by far than the stallions. But that's mostly the case, producing a good stallion is not easy.
Desert Heritage: What did you like less?
Nicki: ...that the foals here display a perfect stand-up at six months of age. They are usually weaned too early and immediately enter training. I don't like that at all. At that age, they need to be in a herd together with other foals. You can see baby foals here, without their dams, and they are just absolutely disturbed.
Desert Heritage: You are not the only person with that opinion. There is Dr. Santoro, a children's doctor from Italy acting as a judge here, who remarked yesterday that if he had his say, not a single horse under one year of age would be allowed to compete at a show.
Nicki: I agree, we need new ECAHO rules for protecting foals. Not breeding strategy, but keeping and rearing foals is a weak point here in Egypt.
Desert Heritage: What are the strong points of breeding here in Cairo?
Nicki: As to show business: the horse quality in Cairo has strongly improved in recent years, as new blood lines were imported by purchasing good stallions and mares, and they left their distinct tracks - just look at their offspring in the show ring here. And the show proper has taken a 100 % improvement in organisation. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Nasr Marei and his team, this is today an international event with hardly anything left to be improved. Of course, there were big sponsors with their financial support who played a role in lifting the show level to the international standard we have today.
Desert Heritage: ...yes, the food is exceptionally good in the Marriot tent...
Nicki: Despite everything - and that's characteristic of the El Zahraa show - a show here on the grounds of the state stud will always be somewhat different. The horses on the pastures surrounding us, the enthusiastic spectators, the atmosphere they create - that's something you don't find with any other show in the world.
She might be right. But then, how did that rapid development come about? After all, the Egyptian state stud rather conjures up images of quietude and slow time-bound development than of quick moments and of event management with an international flair.
The 12th International Championships of Egypt
Sporting almost 200 horses, this was another show that was extremely well attended. Spirits in the VIP area and the visitors' stands went sky high when stars such as the Al Lahab daughter Mahala or Imperial Bareez made their appearance in the arena. However, this was not a "Straight Egyptians Only" event here. Al Khaledia Farm had come in from Saudi Arabia with a vast contingent of horses, almost all of them bred for beauty and not according to tail lines, and to the grief of many locals, these were the horses that won most of the Championships. For the Filly Championships, Saudia Arabia collected gold, silver, and bronze. For the Mare Championships, however, the Straight Egyptian Mahala owned by Sheikh BinLaden of Rabab Stud, Cairo, took the laurels in front of Shaikhat Al Khalediah and Imeila. With the Colts, gold as well as silver and bronze were awarded to non-Egyptian Arabians - as is almost the rule by now for European shows. The winner was Ataa Al Khalediah, an Aja Sangali son, in front of MW Siensei, a Gazal Al Shaqab son bred in the US and today owned by El Gabry and Al Baidaa Stud in Egypt.
The Stallion Championships offered quite some suspense. Almost everybody had betted for Imperial Bareez, the stallion who won so many international shows and had last year only narrowly missed the title of World Champion in Paris, contending himself the Reserve World Champion title. He did not actually meet strong competition in his class, but he appeared somewhat tired and lacked motivation. He would neither display his usual charm nor his beautiful gaits, so the judges took his form on this day as their yardstick and preferred Moutaz Al Biwaibiya, another Aja Sangali son from Saudi Arabia and owned by Al Khalediah. For quite some Egyptian breeders, their euphoria after the successes at the national show was now brought back to the ground and to reality. Quite a few studs of the Middle East have already arrived where most of the Egyptian breeders are still going. It's a long way there, however, if they want to stay true to their Straight Egyptian lines and their traditions. They will meet their next great challenge in November this year in El Zahraa, at the latest. We advise you to make a note in your agenda for that!
The Horses at Liberty Show of the
Egyptian Arabian Horse Breeders Association
The next day, the caravan of visitors and horse fans moved from Heliopolis in the North of Cairo to the Southwest, in the direction of the pyramids, to Giza. Their destination was the vast riding premises of Rabab Stud owned by Sheikh Khaled Bin Laden ( HYPERLINK "http://www.rababstud.com" www.rababstud.com . The members of the Egyptian Arabian Horse Breeders Association, a cooperation of breeders from the greater Cairo area, had invited for a presentation of their horses. Twenty-one studs had used the occasion for an at liberty-presentation in front of an international audience in the outdoor arena of Rabab Stud on Saqqara Road. The well-kept premises with their flowering Bougainville's, exotic cacti, bushes, and flowers are hidden in a palm grove. They were an ideal setting for presenting 200 horses fittingly framed by Egyptian live music and a delicious buffet that was free for everybody.
I asked Sheikh Khaled Bin Laden for his motives for organising this Liberty Show.
Khaled Bin Laden: „I am delighted to have all these international visitors and horse fans here, all of them come to take a look at the level of our breeding and to experience horses who have not yet made a show appearance. Here in Giza today, they are in for a few surprises. We have a lot of beautiful horses here in Cairo; two shows are not enough to display them all."
Desert Heritage: "The premises here are gorgeous. Is there something else you plan to do here?"
Khaled Bin Laden: „Today, we just feast together, without winners or losers. Our future plans, however, are to organise a show here."
It is probably rooted in the human genetic code, this passionate striving for competition - however, had we asked the horses, they would certainly prefer the Liberty Show on Saqqara Road to any other kind of show. The relaxed atmosphere among horses and handlers was easily apparent. There was not only the fact that with neither winners nor losers, everybody was in for a laugh - there were other positive aspects. For example, there was hardly a horse in sight who had suffered the extreme beauty treatment of the face, which has become increasingly common in the show ring. There were almost no clipped ears or clipped whiskers, while on the occasion of the two El Zahraa shows; almost 20 horses had been disqualified by courageous Disciplinary Committee for breach of clipping rules. There were no exaggerated stand-ups, instead, groups were shown: horse families, or stallions and mares at liberty, floating by the totally engrossed spectators along Rabab Stud's vast outdoor arena with fantastic gaits.
So, this stud presentation of Cairo breeders was a complete success and well in line with the tradition of public and private in-stud presentations, common standard in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates, and intended to present the mainstays of any stud - the active broodmares with their offspring as well as the stallions - to a bigger audience, even if the horses are not presently in "show condition".
I met with Mr. Ahmed Hamza again, the Chairman of the State Stud of EAO / El Zahraa, who was a most interested spectator at the Liberty Show.
Desert Heritage: „Mr. Hamza, how do you like this kind of presentation?"
Ahmed Hamza: „I am impressed and delighted, I watch here with my eyes and with my heart. And what I see is very beautiful horses in a hospitable atmosphere."
Desert Heritage: "What will El Zahraa have to offer to Cairo breeders in the future, apart from the classic gene pool represented by their noble horse stock?"
Ahmed Hamza: „Right now, we are working at improving two aspects: firstly, we are going to use "external" stallions for the breeders who want to have their mares covered on our premises. That's new and is closely linked to the new veterinary hospital in El Zahraa offering many kinds of modern reproductive technology. Which leads, secondly, to an increase in our engagement for professional qualification and advanced training of our breeders, meaning we will, on the El Zahraa premises, offer seminars, workshops and information events on different interesting and important issues. There is even a cooperation with the veterinary hospital and the Institute of Agriculture of the University of Perugia in Italy. The first bilateral agreements and meetings have already been made and held."
Desert Heritage: „Now that's exciting, we are going to keep track of that. Profiting from these international activities of El Zahraa promises to be useful as well for breeders in Italy."
The day waned, it was already dark when we departed and fought our way past the pyramids, across the Nile river, along the opera, through the everyday traffic jam on the highway and finally to a small restaurant in the Zamalek quarter of Cairo, the trendy district of the city. It is an exciting city of unbelievable variety and diversity, this Cairo - and that is true for the horses as well as for the people there.