Back to
Spanish History

The True Saga of Nicolás Gliocho’s Last Ride into the Nejed
and His Untimely Death at Diarbekir
 by Andrew Steen (Sept. 25, 1999) ©

This is a synopsis of a book that Andrew Steen is writing about a famous group of Arabian horses obtained and imported to Spain in 1850 on behalf of Queen Isabel II. 

The Backdrop

     The story unfolds in the core of sweeping panoramas and picturesque backdrops that extent across two continents and at innumerable historic localities such as Arbela, Nineveh, and along much of the same route first described by Xenophon (430-355 B.C.) in ‘The Retreat of the 10,000 Greeks.’ It also takes place at opulent locations including the Royal Palaces of Madrid, Aranjuez, Vienna, and Constantinople. The scenery along the route through the Turkish, Mesopotamian, and French countryside could not be more striking or exotic, especially near Baghdad and in the desert, which Layard described as being ‘where desolation meets desolation’. As if these places were not sufficiently scenic, there are a total of six sea voyages across the Mediterranean and two cruises along the shores of the Black Sea, with ports-of-call at Malta, Izmir, Samson, and Marseilles. 

The Saga and its Story Line

   Above all this is an adventure story about an exceptionally intrepid man’s three thousand mile ride on horseback to Baghdad and far beyond.  It is an epic journey deep into the desert’s fearful void, that was made immediately after a deadly epidemic, into one of the most dangerous regions of the world, where only a few years before the Wahibi Wars had been waged and the conquest of Arabia accomplished by an Egyptian army led by Ibrhim Pasha, who had quelled their fanatical Islamic fervor. Nevertheless, accounts of murdered travelers and pillaged caravans on the road to Baghdad were so commonplace that Layard and his contemporaries wrote about such incidents as if they were ‘the order of the day’. 
     Gliocho’s eleven months disappearance in the unexplored Nejed desert makes the exploits of everyone but ‘Indiana Jones’ seem mundane, especially if one remembers that he had ventured “on various occasions” into some of the same uncharted regions at least twenty years before most of the great European explorers arrived. Those included Richard Burton (1855), and William Palgrave (1862), and Gliocho’s journey took place a full forty years before Wilfrid Scawen and Lady Anne Blunt’s (1879) well known adventures into these desolate hinterlands. Yet never has Gliocho received the least credit or public recognition!

Queen Isabel II and her son Alfonso XII

The First Act

     Like many of the world’s great projects, there is no written document that explains exactly how, when, and by whom this importation was initiated. However, for a variety of reasons, it seems plausible that the idea was conceived and took root in a most casual way. 
     Perhaps it was in an informal family conversation that took place at the Royal Palace in Madrid or at the Summer Palace at Aranjuez.  Both ‘Royal Sites’ have long been renowned for their opulence, political intrigue, and romantic escapades. Either would be a fitting stage to match the grandeur and beauty for which the Arabian horse is famous.
Fernando Muñoz
     Among the eminent figures of the Royal Court was Fernando Muñoz, a dashing former palace guard who became Isabel’s step-father in 1833, less than three months after the death of her father, Spain’s last absolute monarch King Fernando VII.
     Following his secret marriage to Maria Cristina, (which despite half-a-dozen children that were born in the interim, was not disclosed or officially acknowledged until 1845) Muñoz was given the title of Duke of Riánsares by young Queen Isabel. 
     Muñoz became one of (financial titan) José Salamanca’s partners and until 1868 when he and Maria Cristina were forced into exile in France, had amassed quite a large fortune on his own by speculating in railroads, mines, and real-estate. 
He was so prominent, in fact, that a reporter for the London Times (none other than Carl Marx) once referred to the Regent-Queen as “Fernando Muñoz’ wife.” At one time they even offered the Crown of Ecuador to him, following its liberation from Spain, when that country was toying with the idea of becoming a monarchy. 

     The Duke’s personal financial empire was derived in part from being the nation’s second largest private breeder of horses. He owned well over 100 broodmares. In 1846, Muñoz decided to purchase three Arabian stallions and a like number of mares directly from the Syrian Desert. Undoubtedly he had been motivated by the sound advice offered by Francisco Laiglesia, a gifted equestrian and author, who had grown up in London and translated several equestrian books written by the Duke of Newcastle. 
     In 1846 Muñoz was the President of the ‘Cria-Caballar del Reino’ (the Horse Breeders Society of the Kingdom); therefore, he deserves the credit for setting the importation’s wheels to spinning.  It is known that just prior to that time, on May 11, 1847, Isabel had asked Daniel Weisweiller to purchase two Thoroughbreds in England. However, she abruptly changed her capricious mind eighteen days later and ordered that ‘three or four Arabians from Alexandria’ be bought instead. In the same May 29 edict, scribbled in her almost unintelligible penmanship, she asked that the horses requisitioned through the Rothschild Bank be canceled.  It is not clear if her instructions arrived in time to invalidate Weisweiller’s order or not.
     In any event, Isabel’s whim to own a few “dapple grey saddle horses of the finest Nejed and Anazeh casts” took on a life of its own. Almost spontaneously, Muñoz’ importation scheme snowballed into a major effort that was closely monitored by the Prime Minister and his staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
     The Rothschild Bank in Paris was authorized to liberate 120,000 francs that were transferred to the account of Antonio de Cordoba, who for nearly twenty years had faithfully served Spain’s interests before the Sublime Porte. 
     He consulted his Consuls in Alexandria, Aleppo, Damascus, and Beirut, and by September 29, 1846, they had each replied recommending the same individual, a man who had “repeatedly journeyed to those regions for the purpose of buying Arabian horses”.  Such was the prestige that Nicolás Gliocho enjoyed throughout the Ottoman Empire at that time
     The career diplomat also arranged for the necessary Firman (or Irade as the edict was also called) from Abdül Mecid I (1823-1861), who had enjoyed his rank as Sultan of the Ottoman Empire since the age of sixteen, having been elevated to his lofty position with the blessing of the European Powers immediately after the Battle of Nizip (June 1839) against Muhammad Ali. 
     In return for Europe’s intervention to resolve Turkey’s troubles with the bloodthirsty Viceroy of Egypt, the young Sovereign granted numerous concessions, especially to England and Austria. He promulgated special laws to protect the rights of all Christians and allowed them to establish and operate missions within the confines of his Empire. 
     Gliocho’s scheduled departure from Constantinople was delayed for several months because of an outbreak of deadly Cholera, an epidemic that had originated in Damascus with a caravan returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca. It had quickly spread across all of the Arabian Peninsula, into Turkey, Persia, and parts of the Caucasia region of Russia, leaving thousands dead in its wake. Among its victims had been the First Secretary of the British Embassy, who died three days after his arrival in the capital by ship. The pestilence was carefully monitored and graphically described in the dispatches sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Gerado de Souza, the Crown’s new envoy to Constantinople who had replaced Antonio de Cordoba.
     Consequently, it was not until November 26, 1847, that Gliocho departed by steamship to the Black Sea port of Samson and from there by Post-horse rode south to Mosul. 
     By coincidence or destiny, he and Layard were both present at the same location, in the same time. From the correspondence it is known that the Greek had dealings with all of the other principle characters of that celebrated discovery: Paul-Emile Botta, C. A. Rassam, Col. Rawlinson and Henry Ross.
     While in that city, Gliocho carried out a special mission without compensation as a personal favor to Antonio de Cordoba.  He journeyed to the nearby ruins of Nineveh and acquired three bas-reliefs, each measuring about 60 centimeters and weighing roughly 60 lbs. The magnificent sculptures are the only Assyrian relics to ever arrive in Spain. Since 1851 they have been housed in the museum at the Royal Academy of History in Madrid. Although they are not as massive as the ‘Winged Lion and Bull’ owned by the British Museum, they are nevertheless exceptionally beautiful, and of incalculable cultural and intrinsic value.

The stone reads: "Palace of Sennacherib/ Great King/ Universal King/ 
King of Asiria (Spanish spelling)/ Powerful Hero / Lord of all Princes".

The words translated by J.F. Riaño.

     To transport the stones, he had bought a Persian stallion of the Kavajan cast, an animal that eventually arrived along with the purebred Arabians at the Royal Farm and became quite a famous sire of coach horses. The intricate details about the acquisition of the bas-reliefs from the Palace of Sennacherib and the knowledge that it was Gliocho who was responsible for obtaining them, resolved a long-standing mystery at that illustrious institution.  That account is just one of many extremely interesting aspects of this saga.
     After buying eight horses, Gliocho left them in Mosul with Rassam, and then vanished into the desert in the company of a Sheik of the Fedhan Shammar tribe and an entourage of Bedouin warriors.
     For the next eleven months not a word was received from him by either his wife or de Souza. Then suddenly, on October 25, 1848, Gliocho wrote from Baghdad, explaining that he had acquired not ten but, a total of twenty-seven Arabians (ten mares and sixteen stallions) of “the purest blood and finest quality.” Adding that he was about to commence his long march towards home.
     Other letters trickled-in over the next several months filled with astonishing accounts of attacks by Arab bandits trying to steal his horses and dramatic meteorological conditions, rivers in flood, and scorching desert heat. They also relate his rapidly deteriorating health, exacerbated by the punishing journey. An extract from Gliocho’s June 25, 1849, letter to his wife written from Mosul states:

“Although for some days I have felt better in these parts, I am not yet recovered; I always have pains in my chest and I tire at the slightest effort. In spite of that I have decided to renew the journey as soon as it is possible to do so. Which I hope will be next week- just as soon as it is possible to cross the new bridge over the Tigris, because if I attempt to transport the horses by boat they might possibly injure themselves. It is as difficult to find grooms as it is to find feed, I have resorted to using country peasants to lead the horses by hand. 
What an ordeal it has been to reach Diarbekir! 
The heat is intolerable; in my room with all of the doors and windows closed the temperature at this moment is 27 degrees Reaumur and its only ten o’clock in the morning. My sores are almost healed. Now, just looking at the scars you can figure how much I have suffered.
If you see Mr. Souza tell him my illness has made it impossible for me to correspond with him, that all of the stallions and mares are well, and that before setting out from here I will write him very extensively.
I was abandoned to myself and if I had not known how to cure my wounds on my own, things would have ended badly. Today I attached leaches, which I hope will put me in condition for the suffering of the journey that I am about to undertake. Upon my arrival at Diarbekir, I shall do the remainder of the trek on horseback.”
     In some respects Gliocho’s determination and love for his wife and young family are perhaps the most moving aspect of the story. Through his letters, and statements made by his wife, one senses that he knew that his desperate mission was doomed from the very beginning, yet in failing health and at the approximate age of 55 he embarked upon his last valiant ride nevertheless. Undoubtedly, he figured that he could make enough from his labors to pay the mortgage on a beer brewery that he operated in Pera, the European section of Constantinople.

The Second Act

     The second act of the story takes a strange and unexpected tragic turn.  Much of this part of the saga is related by a Spanish monk, who having been expelled from Spain because of Mendizábal’s 1837 expropriation of most of the Capachino Order’s property, happened to be in the right place at the right time. After ten years at a monastery in Ustaritz, France, Padres Angel and Miguel de Pamplona obtained permission and embarked upon an incredible and somewhat terrifying journey of their own.
     Their first destination was the Vatican, which journey was partly made in the first steam-powered train that either of the priests had ever seen. The description of its velocity and the vertigo that it provoked are just the appetizer for a delicious recapitulation of their journey, including an anecdote about their accidental voyage on a ship bound for Malta. Much to their surprise Pope Pius IX jumped on board at the last minute in Naples, his Holiness having fled the French troops that invaded Rome only the day before, during the short-lived 1849 proclamation of the Roman Republic.
     From that island they sailed to Beirut and boarded a small Arab Doha, which after four terrifying days at sea deposited them on the beach of the Syrian port of Iskanderun. Then on donkeys over the Tarus Mountains, on the same road that Alexander the Great had once pursued Darius before the battle of Issus, they rode on to Aleppo.
     After a few weeks’ stay in that interesting city they embarked on their unescorted trek toward Urfa, thence all the way across the untamed territories of Southern Turkey, until arriving in semi-civilized Diarbekir, Kurdistan, four months later. During the time that Gliocho was in the Nejed and Baghdad, the two Capachinos re-established the only Spanish mission and hospital within a radius of several hundred miles. 
     Their story is highly interesting in itself. Despite its pious overtones, the account of their adventure is at times unintentionally quite humorous. It is told in their own words from detailed letters that they sent back to their fellow monks. (These documents are now kept in the Vatican Archives.) Indeed in some religious circles they were quite famous holy men. Three different books were written describing their twenty year experiences and good deeds living amidst the Kurds. Unfortunately, none contain any mention of the vital role they played in the importation of Arabian horses. 
     After the tremendous ordeal of leading the horses out of the desert, Gliocho, along with his trusted and loyal side-kick named Gorge Frifili and twenty Arab and Persian grooms, arrived at their Mission’s door. This was just a matter of days before Gliocho suddenly died. 
     With great difficulty (using letters delivered by Post horses that crossed the mountains about every three weeks) Padre Angel de Pamplona sent many pages of detailed reports to Gerardo de Souza in Constantinople. His letters are amongst the most interesting of the entire sequence. The events surrounding the death of Gliocho and the precarious state of the Commission and the horses are related with such passion and eloquence by the Capuchino friar that they are next to impossible to translate into another language. His descriptions of Frifili’s dedication to his former employer and his expert care of the horses make Gorge perhaps the most sympathetic character of the entire story. 
     In contrast to the Plenipotenciario and the Priest, who as Spaniards looking out for the interests of their Queen and aware of her generosity covertly conspire to stack the deck in her favor, Padre Pamplona was induced to take charge of all of the documents that Gliocho had accumulated in his journey, some of which were sent up the chimney in smoke. 
     At this stage of the story commences the most elaborate, costly, and complicated rescue mission imaginable.  The manner in which mountains were moved to save the horses seems almost inconceivable. In a cabinet meeting the Prime Minister even contemplated sending the Spanish Navy to fetch them. However, that proved to be unnecessary.
     From Madrid four men including a famous veterinarian, Martin Grande, were immediately dispatched to collect the horses. Within five days they had reached Barcelona and shortly thereafter arrived to Marseilles. It is at this stage that the Rothschild Bank and its affiliates enter the picture in earnest. Tapia Calderon y Co. and Roux de Fraissenet were ordered to make 40,000 francs available to the hastily recruited new Commission. On the first Pacquet-Vapor the Queen’s most trusted equestrian and Eugenio Vautró, a high ranking officer of the Palace Intendencia, set sail (also via Malta and other ports of call) for Constantinople.
    In the meantime Gerardo de Souza acting on his own volition commissioned a Polish horseman residing in Constantinople named Pablo Szymanski to travel to Diarbekir. His orders were to take charge of the horses, and drive them to the capitol as soon as the winter snows blocking the high mountain passes of Kurdistan could be traversed. The first stage of his journey is very similar to that of both Layard and Gliocho, across the Black Sea to the port of Samson, then overland on horseback until arriving at the principle city of Kurdistan. 
     At this point the plot thickens. Szymanski turned out to be the wrong man for the job, and a dishonest individual, at least in the zealous eyes of the new Commission. Because his contract called for payment for each day that the task entailed, he was in no great rush to escort the horses over the mountains and Anatolia plateau at lightning speed. Quite naturally he chose the longest route and took his own sweet time. Moreover, instead of paying the bills incurred during the months that the horses had stayed in Diarbekir, Szymanski used the Queen’s funds to speculate for his personal gain. He bought thirty-one additional non-Arab horses in central Turkey, which he planed to sell at a handsome profit. 
     For several weeks there was no trace of the horses, which prompted an anxious search across the Turkish countryside for the lost herd that by then numbered over eighty equines. All were eventually found outside of Ankara, where Szymanski was deprived of not only his salary and bonus, but also the animals he had hoped to sell. Shortly thereafter they were auctioned off at Santiri for 25,800 piastra, thus enriching the Queen’s coffers by several thousand francs. 
     Now under Vautró and Martin Grande’s command, the ownership of the Arabians became a bone of contention and Sofia Gliocho was obliged to prove that thirteen of their number had been bought with her husband’s personal funds, borrowed in Odessa before his departure. Therefore, she stubbornly maintained that they were not the property of the Queen. 
     To resolve the complicated issue a committee of the Constantinople Stock Exchange meditated the conflicting issues and ruled in Sofie’s favor. Under the most flimsy legal pretexts, de Souza, Vautró and Grande had asserted that Gliocho’s untimely death had cost Her Majesty a great quantity of money and caused her much inconvenience. Accordingly they alleged that his widow and seven children (six of whom were minors), were not entitled to any compensation. 
     That’s where the lawyers, Count Branicki, and Emperor Franz-Joseph, come into the picture, as do a cast of colorful secondary characters and common crooks. Truly, Charles Dickens would be hard pressed to invent a more picturesque bunch of men and women or a more melodramatic plot.
The agents of the Queen, looking out for their own interests, did their patriotic duty and arranged to ship all forty stallions and mares away, instead of the twenty-seven that Gliocho had bought with the Queen’s money.  They abandoned the Greek’s widowed wife and orphaned progeny to fend for themselves, then ordered that the horses be placed (in two groups of eight and two groups of fourteen) on the open decks of four Pacquet-Vapors which sailed at regular intervals every ten days from Constantinople to France. 
     During the voyage one of the mares died and Gorge Frifile was robbed of three thousand francs belonging to the Queen, and then falsely accused of the crime. Upon arrival to Marseilles each ship was subjected to a five-day quarantine, due to yet another outbreak of Cholera at Malta.

Francisco de Asis, husband of Queen Isabel II

     On September 9, 1850, with all of the horses on European soil, they began their march across the lovely southern French countryside. Almost every step of the remainder of their journey is beautifully documented, including detailed descriptions about the sickness of two of the horses, which were subsequently left behind. One caught-up at Naborron, having traveled on a train from Méze; the other was collected at Bayonne by one of Isabel’s most detrimental and notorious lovers, the Marquis de Bedmar.
     By way of Narbonne, Toulouse, Pau, and Bayonne, the horses and their escorts made their way through more inclement weather all the way across France to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the Spanish frontier at Irun. Traversing the hills and rich green valleys of the Basque country they were led through the streets of Victoria and past the gothic cathedral of Burgos, then over the Jarama Mountains. Finally, on November 21, 1850, the cavalcade proudly marched through the neo-classical streets of Madrid and into the Royal Caballerizas. Although the local press ignored the horses, the city’s newspapers commented upon the variegated clothing worn by the thirty Arab, Persian, Turkish, Greek, Italian, French, and Spanish grooms, some of whom had come all the way from Baghdad.

The Third Act

     The third and final act of the story demonstrates that Sofie Gliocho was of the same mettle as her late husband. Judging from her letters and supplications, she was a highly cultured woman, perhaps a member of the Austrian aristocratic. Whatever her background, few would dispute her determination to make Europe’s most disreputable, pitiful, simple-minded, and manipulated Queen keep her promise and pay for her husband’s horses. 
     She traveled to Madrid, where with considerable difficulty she stayed for five months until she had managed to redeem Gliocho’s name. On March 8, 1851, she was paid the fantastic sum of 150,000 pesetas, a sizable amount of money by any standard for those times. Her goal had been accomplished thanks in large part to the direct intervention of Franz-Joseph, who less than three years before had been crowned Emperor of Austria.
     Martin Grande was given the Cross of Carlos III and the other members of the Commission, including Gorge Frifili, were similarly decorated and recompensed with double their annual salary as a bonus from the Queen.
     One might conclude that ‘all’s well that ends well’; however, subsequent events were not quite as blissful as they might have been. The story ends by depicting the fateful downfall that transpired afterwards, when in 1867, because of her inaptitude for governing the nation, and the interminable scandals provoked by her lascivious conduct, Isabel II was expelled from Spain by a popular uprising known as the September Revolution.
     Perhaps a sadder tragedy was how all of the horses were sold off at auction for a fraction of their value and how their tremendous genetic potential was allowed to be completely wasted. 
     Although one black stallion had been given to Narváez and a few were bought by the Domecq family of Jerez, none produced any purebred descendants that established lasting bloodlines. Undoubtedly some ended up pulling carts or cabs through the city streets. When all was said and done, their acquisition and all of the “superhuman sacrifice endured by Gliocho” had been made for nothing. 
     The only tangible traces that remain are two magnificent paintings, both by the French artist Charles Porion. The first is a huge mural about forty feet wide at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Madrid depicting no less than 30 of Isabel’s favorite Generals dressed in gala uniforms and mounted on their noble-looking steeds.

     The second smaller painting owned by the Prado but on permanent display in the Museo Romántico is without a doubt the finest likeness ever done of the Queen. It portrays Isabel II, her husband Francisco de Asis, and the eight most important Spanish Generals of that era, (Castaños, Echagüe, Espartero, O’Donnell, Narváez, etc.) each mounted on one of the magnificent Arabian horses that had cost Gliocho his life. 

Copyright © 2004 by the Spanish Arabian Horse Society. 
All rights reserved.  No part of this article may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission of the author. 

Back to
Spanish History
Website by Carousel WebDesign