Horses hold a central place in Azerbaijani culture, serving as both a symbol of social power and providing a vital natural resource for the people of this Caucasian nation. In pre-modern Azerbaijani society owning a well-bred or otherwise desirable horse gave a man particularly important social status. Warriors fought and died with their horses, treating them as fellow soldiers equally deserving of the highest honors in victory or defeat. Evidence suggests that early Azerbaijanis also kept horses for their meat, confirming their fundamental role in all aspects of their society.
The most famous breed of horse found in Azerbaijan is the Karabakh. Native to its namesake region in western Azerbaijan, the Karabakh horse is smaller than most other breeds, but it has a firm body and is remarkably resistant to the often severe Caucasian climate. In addition, it is able to survive on very little food because of its slight stature. While the Karabakh breed was originally famous for its distinctive lemon hued coat, breeders have since developed other color admixtures. Unconfirmed local sources report its existence as far back as one millennium or more.
The history of the Karabakh horse is as deep and varied as that of its homeland and commentators throughout history have noted their special characteristics. Indeed, 8th century Arab invaders found the breed so remarkable that they captured sixty “golden” Karabakh horses and brought them back with them to Abbasid lands as a trophy of sorts. A World War I era Russian military official assigned to the Caucasus region of the Russian Empire noted that “every solider in Karabakh had a [Karabakh] horse” and that they were “very valuable for use in the local climate, as in hot weather they don’t sweat very much in comparison.” By the 19th century, the Karabakh had become a staple of worldwide horse competitions. What was once the prize of Azerbaijan was now the jewel of the world’s eye.
In more recent times, the Karabakh horse has seen triumph and hardship. Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev presented one particularly noble Karabakh named Zaman (Time) as a gift to Queen Elizabeth II during his state visit in 1956, confirming the breeds’ status as an international symbol of Azerbaijan and its people. Despite such renown, war and turmoil have taken their toll on this icon of Azerbaijan: Karabakh horse is currently endangered and threatened with extinction. Regardless, it remains the national symbol of Azerbaijan and a unique reminder of the enduring culture of this Caucasian nation and its Karabakh region.
Post written by Sevda Salayeva