Anatomy of the Horse in the 15th Century

by Rania Elsayed Published on: 5th June 2009

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The famous image we find in an Arabic manuscript depicting the "al-faras al-mastuh" (a horse lying on its back) is a clear representative of the degree of progress attained in the Islamic tradition of veterinary science in general and in hippiatry, in particular. The following article by Rania Elsayed, a scholar from Cairo, presents a reproduction of this image taken from the original manuscript and the English translation of the portions of the Arabic text, those being like captions presenting the comments of the original author on the different parts of the anatomy of the horse.


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Note of the editor

A first version of this article was published as Rania Elyased: Anatomy of the Horse in the 15th Century on the website of Arabian Essence, a multi-lingual online Arabian horse magazine. We thank Elvis Giughera and Gigi Grasso (owners of for granting us the right to republish the article on The version published hereafter was revised and augmented with a section of references on veterinary medicine and hippiatrics in the medieval Islamic world.

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Try to google “horse anatomy”, and I promise you that this manuscript will appear in the search results. This Egyptian manuscript is an anatomical study of the horse conducted in the 15th century during the reign of the Burji Mamluks (1382-1517 CE). The version uploaded on the internet is originally scanned from the book Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study written by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University. The original version is found in University library in Istanbul, Turkey.

Being outstanding cavaliers and valiant warriors, the Mamluks cherished the Arabian horse and considered it to be precious possession, life savior and companion, and a detrimental element in achieving victory in wars.

History records Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammed Ibn Qalawoon (1290-1342) importing numerous Arabian horses to his Al-Naseri stud which kept a record of the purchases of the Sultan with each horse’s description and abilities.

Figure 1

No wonder that such devotion and love motivated the veterinarian (whose identity is unfortunately unknown) to conduct an anatomical study of the “drinkers of the wind”. Actually the Medieval Islamic veterinary medicine covered many aspects of caring for horses including exercise, physiology as well as deformities, diseases and their treatment, not to mention the prevailing use of horses in different fields of art work including calligraphy, ornaments, pottery and glassware.

And because the world of Arabian horse lovers is linguistically diverse, I took on the task of translating this manuscript into English, and give non-Arabic speakers the chance to travel back in time and relive every moment spent in conducting this anatomical study.

I would like to give Mr. Wael Hanafy, the manuscript examiner and expert in Arabic language, my heart-felt thanks for examining this manuscript and helping me read the Arabic language written six hundred years ago.

While reading the translation of the manuscript, the reader will see that there are some words left untranslated.

Figure 2: Another image of the anatomy of the horse taken from Kitab al-baytara (Book on Veterinary Medicine), copied in Egypt in 1766. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Manuscrits orientaux (Arabe 2817) (Source).

To explain this, here is a brief account of the characteristics of the Arabic language six hundred years ago:

  1. Colloquial Arabic language was used in documentation as well as among the sultans and royal offices. The Mamluks (who were not of Arab origin) diligently encouraged the progress of sciences and arts except the sciences of the Arabic language, which according to some historians declined during the Mamluk and the Ottoman eras. Accordingly, it was very hard for Mr. Hanafy and me to decipher terms or expressions used six hundred years ago.
  2. Turkish and Persian terms were adopted and used.
  3. The use of rhetoric, rhymes and figures of speech was the hallmark of the Arabic language at that time. And this is manifested in drawing a simile between the horse’s speed and “how much it drinks from the wind” or “drinkers of the wind”, this is to mention a single example.
  4. Although not recurrent, the veterinarian described the organs with their colors or texture rather than naming them. This case is obvious in the anatomy of the eye when the veterinarian refers to the sclera as the white organ and the pupil as the pitch-black organ and describing other organs or substances as moist, dry and hard.

Translating this manuscript was the hardest task I have ever taken on. However, it has been a rewarding experience to me on every level. And I admit that it was worth every hour and every sleepless night I spent working on it.

I invite you to embark on a journey to the fifteenth century and explore the body of the horse through the eyes of the Mamluks.

See the image below for the translation of the text.

Figure 3

References and further reading on veterinary medicine and hippiatrics in the medieval Islamic world

  • [Anonymous author] Kitab ma‘rifat al-furusiyah (Book of the Knowledge of Horsemanship): The National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland, USA, MS A 90, item 3. An Arabic fragment (1 leaf, fol. 17a) consists of a table of contents (fihrist) only for a treatise titled Kitab ma‘rifat al-furusiyah. According to this table of contents, the treatise would have consisted of 75 sections. The treatise itself is not included in this volume, and the author of the treatise is not given. No other copies have been identified.
  • [Anonymous author], Aqrabadhin al-khayl (Formulary for the Horse): anonymous treatise on compound remedies and therapies for horses begins with a confused preface. In it, it is stated that the treatise was written originally in Armenian and was carried off to Egypt in 1266 by the Egyptian ruler al-Malik al-Zahir Rukn al-Din Baybars (ruled 1260-1277). It was then translated from Armenian into Arabic. Following the preface there is a detailed table of contents outlining 182 chapters (babs) in the treatise. The treatise is preserved in a number of copies: London, British Library, OIOC, MS Or. 3133; Gotha MS 2087; Sbath MS 1201 (present location unknown); The National Library of Medicine, MS A 4, 40 leaves (fols. 1b-40b). See on this manuscript Paul Sbath, ‘Manuscrit arabe sur la pharmacopée hippiatrique’, Bulletin de l’Institut d’Egypte, vol. 14 (1931-2), pp. 79-81 and plates i-iii.
  • Abu Bakr ibn Badr, Le Nâçerî. La perfection des deux arts ou traité complet d’hippologie et d’hippiatrie arabes. Traduit de l’arabe d’Abou Bekr ibn Bedr par M. Perron. Paris, Bouchard-Huzard, 3 vol., 1852, 1859 et 1860. New French translation: Abû Bakr ibn Badr, Le Nâçerî. Hippologie et médecine du cheval en terre d’Islam au XIVe siècle. Le traité des deux arts en médecine vétérinaire. Traduit de l’arabe par Mohammed Mehdi Hakimi, sous la direction de Christophe Degueurce et avec la participation de François Vallat et Annie Vernay-Nouri. Paris, Errance, 2006, 223 pp.
  • Al-Damiri, Kitab hayat al-hayawan (The Life of Animals) by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Damiri (d. 1405/808). Al-Damiri completed his enormously popular encyclopedia of animal lore in 1372/773 in Cairo, where he spent most of his life. The treatise was arranged alphabetically by the name of the animal, with 1069 entries in total (though some animals are discussed several times under different names). The National Library of Medicine in Bethesda (Maryland) has a very important copy of this popular compendium: MS A 19, 234 leaves (fols. 1b-234a), for the copy was transcribed before the author’s death in 1405. The colophon of the copy states that the writing of the text was finished in the month of Rajab 773 [= January 1372] and that this copy was finished in the month of Sha’ban 805 [= February-March 1403]. A partial (and rather inadequate) English translation was published as Ad-Damiri’s Hayat al-hayawan: A Zoological Lexicon, translated by A.S.G. Jayakar, 2 vols. (London and Bombay, 1906-8). A recent Arabic edition has been published: al-Damiri, Hayat al-hayawan al-kubrá, ed. Ahmad Hasan Basaj (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah, 1994); the NLM copy was not used in this edition.
  • Alkhateeb-Shehada, Housni, “Donkeys and Mules in Arabic Veterinary Sources from the Mamlu Period (7th-10th/13th-16th Century)”, Al-Masaq, vol. 20, Issue 2, September 2008 , pp. 207-214.
  • Al-Sâhib Tâj al-Dîn (d. 1307): Kitâb al-Baytara / Book on Veterinary Medicine. Facsimile edition (Series C – 5,1-2). 2 vols. Edited by F. Sezgin. Frankfurt, 1984, 380 + 336 pp.
  • Delprato, P.; Barbieri, L. [Treatise on the veterinary art attributed to ‘Ippocras’, translated from Arabic into latin by master Moses of Palermo vulgarized in the 13th century]. Trattati di mascalcia attribuiti ad Ippocrate, tradotti dall’arabo in latino da maestro Moisè da Palermo, volgarizzati nel sec. XIII, (…), corredati di due posteriori compilazioni in latino e in toscano, e di note filologiche (…). Bologna: Romagnoli, 1865, 300 p.
  • Eisenstein, Herbert, “Las obras árabes de medicina veterinaria: tratados médicos o literature edificante?”, in Actas XVI Congreso UEAI, ed. by Concepción Vázquez de Benito and Migue Ángel Manzano Rodríguez (Salamanca: Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacion, 1995).
  • Grube, Ernst J., “The Hippiatrica Arabica Illustrata: three 13th-century manuscripts and related material”, in A Survey of Persian Art, ed. by A.U. Pope and P. Ackermann [Proceedings, the IVth International Congress of Iranian Art and Arhaeology, Part A, Vol. XIV] (Oxford: University Press, 1967), pp. 3188-55 and Plates 1523-5.
  • Heide, Martin, Das Buch der Hippiatrie – Kitab al-Baytara: Von Muhammad ibn Ya’qub ibn ahi Hizam al-Huttali (Gebundene Ausgabe) [Edition of the Arabic text, German translation and commentaries) Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 2009, 780 pp.
  • Hoyland, Robert, “Theomnestus of Magnesia, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, and the Beginnings of Islamic Veterinary Science,” in From Jahiliyya to Islam : Eighth International Conference, July 2-7, 2000 / The Institute for advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, 2000, pp. 1-19].
  • Ibn al-Ahnaf, Ahmed ibn al-Husayn, Kitab al-Baytara (‘Book of Veterinary Science’) (Baghdad, 1210 CE). Illustrated manuscript. Istanbul, Topkapi Palace Museum, MS Ahmed III 2115.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Islamic Science:An Illustrated Study, (Photographs by Roland Michaud). World of Islam Festival Publishing Westerham, England: World of Islam Festival, 1976.
  • Rex Smith, G., Medieval Muslim Horsemanship: A Fourteenth-Century Arabic Cavalry Manual (London: The British Library, 1979).
  • [Savage-Smith, Emilie], A Note on Veterinary Medicine: in catalogue of the Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland.
  • Tabaa, D., The History of Veterinary Medicine in the Late Islamic Period: on the website of the Mediterranean Zoonoses Control Programme of the World Health Organization (retrieved 30 May 2009).
  • Weidenhöfer, Veronika, Heide, Martin, Peters, Joris, “Zur Frage der Kontinuität des hippiatrischen Erbes der Antike : Die Behandlung von Erkrankungen des Bewegungsapparates im Kitab al-furusiya wa-l-baytara von Muhammad ihn Ya’qub ihn abi Hizäm al-Huttuli”, Sudhoffs Archiv (Steiner, Stuttgart) 2005, vol. 89, no1, pp. 58-95.

* Graduate of the Faculty of Al-Alsun 2001, Ain Shams University. Freelance translator: Equine Translation & Photography, Cairo, Egypt; website

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