What does an Arabian stallion have to do with Communists, capitalism, and an Egyptian public works project?
Aswan. The man in the white hat appears to be Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Photo from Judith Forbis' The Classic Arabian Horse, c. 1963.
In 1954, Egypt’s President Nasser was pushing for the development of a new dam on the Nile River that would control flooding and droughts, thereby improving the lives of millions of Egyptians. The Old Aswan Dam, finished in 1902, was built and raised twice by the British in an effort to control flooding of the Nile, but it became apparent that raising it a third time still would not be adequate.
The United States and Great Britain wanted to help finance the building of a new dam in exchange for Egypt’s help with the current Arab-Israeli conflicts. Nasser was a pragmatist interested in working with both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in funding the dam, but this didn’t sit well with the two nations already embroiled in the Cold War. The U.S. offered Egypt money for the dam project, but later rescinded it after Egypt grew their business ties to the U.S.S.R. and China. The U.S. Secretary of State didn’t believe the Soviets would follow through with enough money to fund the dam, but they did — to the tune of more than $1 billion in 1958.
A view of the Aswan High Dam, completed in 1970. Photo by Hajor
That same year, the Egyptian Agricultural Organization (EAO) gave the Arabian stallion Nil, named after the River Nile, to the Soviet Union to thank them for their generosity in funding the dam. Nil sired 16 foals at Tersk Stud in the U.S.S.R. before his untimely death in 1960.
In 1963 the EAO gave another stallion, the five-year-old Raafat, to the U.S.S.R. He was quickly renamed “Aswan” in honor of the Aswan High Dam project. A son of Nazeer, Aswan was one of many who might have been lost in the crowd in Egypt had he not been given to the Soviets. He had his conformation flaws — a short, thick throatlatch and neck, a low back, a wasp waist, and back legs that were too straight (also called post-legged) that forced his hindquarters higher than the rest of him.
Author and Arabian horse historian Gladys Brown Edward's analysis of Aswan's conformation in the August 1981 issue of Arabian Horse Times
For many horsemen this combination of faults is a giant red flag, but Aswan was a political gift and the Soviets wanted to see what he would sire when bred to mares of a very different type. The mare band at Tersk State Stud in Stavropol, Russia, was based mainly on Polish, French, and Crabbet lines and they had good basic structure, but many were considered plain. With his beautiful dark eyes, dry facial features, dished head, large nostrils, tail carriage, fine bone, height, and charisma, Aswan had characteristics the Soviets desired.
But Tersk didn’t breed hothouse flowers — all two-year-olds were sent to the racetrack and tested for at least one season. Those that didn’t remain sound or had poor race records were sold at three years of age. The successful horses either continued racing another season or were brought back to Tersk to be used in the breeding program. This meant that Aswan needed to sire pretty but athletic horses or he would be cut from stud duties.
Aswan needed to sire pretty but athletic horses or he would be cut from stud duties.
To the Russians’ delight, Aswan’s foals inherited his pretty head and proud bearing, and many were successful racehorses. One Aswan son, *Marsianin, was exported to the U.S. and named 1981 U.S. National Champion Stallion. Another son, Patron, sired 1982 U.S. National Champion Stallion *Padron, who founded his own legacy of halter horses in America. Perhaps the most successful Arabian racehorse in Europe, Drug, is out of an Aswan daughter. Palas, by Aswan and out of a daughter of Nil, the original gift horse from Egypt, was exported to Poland and appears prominently in Polish pedigrees today.
Some of Tersk’s best results came from crossing Aswan on daughters of the Polish-bred Arax and his son Nabeg, and from breeding Nabeg to Aswan daughters. Many of the resulting horses retained the good structure of Arax and Nabeg while adding beauty, Arabian type, and Aswan’s famous charisma.
Nil, the first gift from Egypt to the U.S.S.R. and grandsire of Palas
Not everyone was a fan of Aswan’s though. In the 1980s and later, some breeders in search of Russian- and Polish-bred Arabians intentionally avoided Aswan in pedigrees because he was not of the original type bred by the state studs. And as with all sires, sometimes Aswan passed his flaws to his offspring, which many breeders were rightfully critical of.
In a capitalist twist, Aswan made the Communists a lot of money, especially in the early to mid-1980s. In 1985, the year after Aswan died, the Tersk auction brought $1.68 million, with many of the lots descended from Aswan. It wasn’t unusual for the annual auction to come close to $1 million or more during those years. Sales were brisk outside of the auctions as well — a stallion by Nabeg and out of an Aswan daughter, *Pesniar, sold for $1 million in 1981 and was exported to the United States.
Aswan sired 299 foals and his descendants live on six of the seven continents. He is listed in several sport horse stud books, including Trakehner, German Warmblood, Oldenburg, and Shagya Arabian. Surprisingly though, his blood can’t be found in his birthplace of Egypt. Breeders in Egypt are generally against importing Arabians from other countries, and the few imported horses have only straight Egyptian breeding. Regardless, Aswan’s influence continues to be far-reaching — which is remarkable for a stallion who might have faded into the background if President Nasser hadn’t played off the rivalries between the East and West.
*Pesniar, the million dollar stallion and Aswan grandson before he left the U.S.S.R.
As for the namesake dam, construction was completed in 1970 and the reservoir reached full capacity six years later. The Aswan High Dam is a controversial subject because of its environmental, social, and economic impacts on the region. The creation of the reservoir, Lake Nasser, required the relocation of several historical sites and around 100,000 Nubian residents, the Mediterranean fishing industry has been affected negatively, and fertilizer use has increased to counter the loss of soil nutrients. On the plus side, nearly every Egyptian citizen has access to electricity from the dam’s hydroelectric plant.
It seems fitting that both Aswans, horse and dam, continue to be hotly debated and widely influential.
Kristin is a digital marketing professional, artist, and voiceover talent in Sacramento, California, with a life-long passion for horses. In her spare time she's active with her daughter and son. See Kristin's exclusive art at art.ilovehorses.net.