In 2016, under the supervision of Prof. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, archeologists excavating at the fifth-century CE Huqoq synagogue found a mosaic floor on which there is an image of an Egyptian soldier and his horse floundering in the Red Sea. (photo by James Haberman)
Who doesn’t have some mental picture of the crossing of the Red Sea? Now, you can check how your subjective image matches the “facts on the ground,” as it were. In the summer of 2016, under the supervision of Prof. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, archeologists excavating at the fifth-century CE Huqoq synagogue in Israel’s Lower Galilee found a stunning mosaic floor. Of relevance to the soon-to-be-upon-us Pesach holiday is an image of an Egyptian soldier and his horse floundering in the Red Sea (see Exodus 14:28). The Egyptian has separated from his horse and is about to become a large fish’s dinner.
The horse is not one of the animals that immediately comes to mind when thinking of both ancient and modern Israel. Most people would probably think of camels, donkeys, goats or sheep, rather than horses. Yet, the horse and Israel “go way back.” This history possibly starts at Ubeidiya, a location close to the southern end of the Sea of Galilee. There, Israeli archeologists found a horse bone dating back to the Lower Paleolithic Period. At the Hayonim Cave in Israel’s Galilee region, Israel Antiquities Authority archeologists discovered an image of a horse engraved in limestone, a find that dates back to the Upper Paleolithic Period.
From these and other digs, we can assume Israel’s ancient inhabitants were familiar with the horse. This is confirmed, for example, in the City of David, where archeologists uncovered a horse figurine from the Iron Age II. Indeed, there is concrete evidence that, thousands of years ago, people had already domesticated horses and were using them as a means of transportation. Thus, during the first millennium BCE, the horse was transformed from a yoked animal pulling some kind of wagon or cart to an animal that could be mounted. Archeologists discovered another horse-and-rider pottery set at the Tel Erani excavation in southern Israel, near Kiryat Gat, which dates to the Persian Period. Furthermore, an Achziv (located along Israel’s northern Mediterranean coast) discovery of a clay horse and rider, also dating back to the Iron Age II, indicates that the horse was already being used in battle, as the rider is holding a round shield.
A visual depiction of the Assyrian destruction of the town of Lachish in 701 BCE – the original relief is housed at the British Museum while a copy hangs at the Israel Museum – clearly shows that the conquerors used warhorses. Also at Lachish, archeologists dug up an even older piece crafted from gold. This piece is a plaque from the 13th century BCE, the Late Bronze Age. It depicts a naked goddess, probably Astarte or Anat, standing on a horse.
While on the subject of conquests of ancient Israel and pagan gods, the Hebrews returning from Egypt were instructed not to raise horses nor to return to Egypt to obtain horses (Deuteronomy 17:16). In the later period of the kings, King Josiah took away the horses of the kings of Judah, as “they had given them to the sun.” (II Kings 23:11)
Horses are also mentioned in early administrative documents of ancient Israel. Hence, at Arad in southern Israel, archeologists recovered a list written in ink on pottery. This fourth-century BCE list supposedly details items to be given to a particular person named Qos. The list includes a horse.
Moving to northern Israel, archeologists in the Dan region discovered a unique Aramaic inscription, which was part of a monumental basalt stone slab. (In the ancient world, Aramaic was, for a time, the Near East’s lingua franca of commerce and trade.) The writing, which dates to the ninth-century BCE, commemorates the military victories of Hazael, king of Aram. In the text, the king claims he killed 70 kings who harnessed thousands of chariots and thousands of horsemen (horses).
Probably the earliest literary reference to horses is found in the Book of Genesis (47:17), where it says that, during a famine in Egypt, Pharaoh’s right-hand man, Joseph, gave “bread in exchange for horses.” And, from the report in I Kings 10:26, it seems King Solomon had 400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen. Moreover, there is a legend, possibly originating with the Bedouins, which states that the Queen of Sheba presented King Solomon with a mare named Safanad. All Arabian horses are supposedly descended from this mare. As it happens, Israel’s Arabian Horse Association is today made up of both Jews and Arabs, and the organization’s bilingual website is indicative of the members’ cooperation.
Later rulers of the divided kingdoms of ancient Israel likewise used horses. Thus, at Tel Meggido, the remains of King Ahab’s (869-850 BCE) stables have been discovered. Evidence, however, of ancient stables does not end there. Rock-hewn Crusader stables and water troughs from 1140 CE are still visible at the Tomb of Samuel the Prophet (also called Kever Shmuel ha-Nevi, Nebi Samwil or Mont de Joie). It stands to reason that, instead of returning to their European (or Asian) home countries, the Crusaders and later conquerors of the Holy Land acquired local horses when they needed to resupply their armies.
The horse has continued to importantly figure in Israel’s more modern period. For political and religious reasons, in 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II (the last German emperor and king of Prussia) presented himself in Jerusalem on a white horse. Less than 20 years later, after the Ottomans had been defeated, Britain’s General Edmund Allenby dramatically rode on horseback to Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate (but then purposely entered the Old City on foot).
At the end of October 2017, some 200 visiting members of the Australian Light Horse Association reenacted at Beersheva River Park the charge of the Australian Light Horsemen. In this battle, mounted Allied soldiers helped take Beersheva from the Ottomans. In the 100-year commemoration, original First World War uniforms were worn.
Israel’s horse connection continues to this day. Although it is an expensive pleasure, some Israelis ride for enjoyment. Therapeutic riding schools exist for people with special needs. And Israeli police use horses for crowd control.
How to summarize Israel’s long interest in horses? With this Song of Songs (1:9) quote: “I have compared you, my love, to a company of horses in Pharaoh’s chariots.”
The documentary Lachish the Epic was released earlier this year. It can be found on YouTube.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.