THE crusades are in the news once again, especially in Iran. After President Trump pulled off his recent assassination gambit, the crowds were once again bringing up the unfortunate history of military encounters from many centuries ago. The crusading story is not all negative, though. Depending on who was doing the fighting, there were aspects of etiquette shared by both sides.
The concept of chivalry and generally decent behaviour benefited from East-West encounters although these were only part of the story of the development of chivalry on different sides of the Mediterranean.
A soon-to-open exhibition at the Louvre Abu Dhabi explores the cross currents in “Furusiyya: The Art of Chivalry between East and West”. The recently opened museum is in itself an example of international cooperation. Combining the expertise of the Louvre and the enthusiastic riches of Abu Dhabi has produced a museum that was widely expected to fail. Instead, it has impressed a very large number of visitors.
Perhaps there are not that many other attractions, but it’s more likely that success has come from a combination of superb architecture, wonderful collections and boundless energy. All it needs is a few exhibitions to give it more creative credibility.
The “Furusiyya” show is definitely in that category. It also teaches non-Arabic speakers a new word. There is drama and education for all. From the moment visitors arrive, they are confronted with the factor that kept warriors of Europe and the Islamic world in tune with each other.
It’s all about the horse. Just as the English word “chivalry” comes from the French word for a horse (cheval), the Arabic equivalent works exactly the same way (faras = horse).
MIGHT OF THE HORSE
Horses, not women, are the force behind chivalry although the English term has been adapted to describe a way of behaving towards ladies that is no longer wholly welcome. In reality, chivalry and furusiyya are very much about fighting as well as proper conduct.
From the minute visitors enter the exhibition, they’re confronted by the hugeness of horses and their armour — plus a person perched above. It’s no wonder riot police still favour horses. There is little that can inspire as much awe as one of these bearing down on you.
When decked out in premium steel, the sight must have been hard to absorb for a foot soldier. This exhibition has been able to use examples of fully armed warriors and horses from both the West and the Islamic world.
Horsemen were rarely from the same background as infantry, and their arms and armour substantiate this. The exhibition is filled with the glories of metalworking when applied to weapons of destruction and protective armour. The care that went into the finest swords, helmets and all the other accoutrements is clear to see.
SERVICE, STRENGTH AND COURAGE
On the Muslim side, there’s the additional power of Arabic calligraphy to get the religious message across. Their Christian counterparts were perhaps lower in the decorative hierarchy but their equals on the technology tree.
Those expecting to see the famous curved scimitars, which are associated with Muslim warriors by Hollywood wardrobe outfitters, will be disappointed. This innovation mostly arrived later, courtesy of the Turks and Mongols. For centuries, Muslim warriors preferred the straight blades used by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
Curved swords are well suited to equestrian combat and were later eagerly adopted by European cavalry. Both sides were also keen on manuals. In many ways these are very similar, with simple illustrations and lots of information on proper horsemanship, martial skills and decorum.
There must have been plenty of European knights who couldn't read the books, but they could presumably look at the pictures or get a learned, literate individual to fill them in on the details. The key attributes of the warrior were service, strength and courage.
There’s very little in either the West or the Middle East on how to treat the gentler sex. This came mostly in the form of poetry and wandering troubadours. The essence of books from both sides is on how to fight effectively.
As diversions, there are often chapters on falconry, jousting and chess. Board games may seem irrelevant now, but at the time they were thought to sharpen the mind as well as whiling away boring hours between bouts of real action.
The exhibition bills itself as taking a new look at both sides of the story. There’s much in common between the old Christendom and the Islamic world, as well as much to bind them together.
As one of the curators states, the story is “not only one of confrontations but also of encounters and shared cultures.” A quest for mutual understanding of destructive powers couldn’t come at a better time. The two other exhibitions currently at the Louvre Abu Dhabi are about Charlie Chaplin and the art of luxury.
Furusiyya: The Art of Chivalry between East and West
Where: Louvre Abu Dhabi
When: From Feb 19 to May 30, 2020