THE HORSE IN KHITAN CULTURE: AN ETERNAL BOND
Our exhibition Tombs of the Liao Dynasty: Treasures from the Afterlife explores the vast empire founded in 907 by the Khitan, a semi-nomadic people of Inner Asia. The ancestral homeland of the Khitan was a fertile region of mountains and rolling grasslands which centred upon the Liao River. Herding cattle and horses was the central pillar of their pastoral, nomadic way of life and warfare, hunting and falconry were key facets of Khitan hunter-warrior culture.
Horses were integral to the survival of the Khitan. Surrounded by competing tribal nations, conflict was an ever-present possibility making military skill, accuracy and agility while on horseback a matter of life or death. As well as offering security and defence horses also enabled the tribe to cover great distances, held great economic value and provided crucial assistance in hunting.
This important bond between man and horse did not come to an end when a person died. The Khitan worshipped ancestral spirits and believed that an afterlife upon the sacred Black Mountain followed death. In this transcendental realm the Khitan and their horses would exist side by side, as they had done in life. It was therefore imperative to equip a person for riding, hunting and fighting on horseback in the afterlife when preparing them for burial.
This requirement is clearly indicated by the prominence of equestrian artefacts in Liao tombs. These objects are characterised by sumptuous materials and lavish decoration which is brimming with imagination and ingenuity. Bridles, saddles, stirrups, riding boots, mudguards and harnesses which have been inlaid with jade, plated in gold, laced with silver, lavishly carved or painted with intricate designs are recurrent features of upper class Liao tombs. Looking at these objects you get a clear sense of the many tireless hours which would have been spent searching for and acquiring the correct materials, creating meaningful designs and crafting, cutting, carving, moulding and polishing them to perfection. The deep reverence of the horse is palpable.
Many of the objects presented in our exhibition Tombs of the Liao Dynasty: Treasures from the Afterlife tell the story of this intimate connection which the Khitan shared with their horses. For this blog post we have selected five beautiful equestrian objects from the collection which provide a glimpse into this enduring bond which lay at the heart of nomadic existence, both in life and in death.