MEFA aims to safeguard and share the cultural heritage of Arab falconry through the identification, exploration and digitisation of historical Arabic falconry literature.
MEFA assembles digital records of manuscripts housed in libraries across the Middle East, Europe and Asia. MEFA also explores these manuscripts and their historical context, revealing a rich historical and cultural heritage that is of interest to academics, falconers and all falconry and heritage enthusiasts. By assembling digital records of historical manuscripts related to Arab falconry, MEFA seeks to create a vital repository of falconry heritage, contributing to the preservation of these important manuscripts and texts. MEFA also safeguards the intangible traditions, stories and knowledge manuscripts by researching their historical contexts.
What is remarkable about this rich history is the age of Arabic falconry literature and the fact that handwritten copies of these books have survived until the present day. Apart from art historical evidence, these manuscripts are the single-most crucial testimony to the history of falconry in the Middle East. MEFA aims to safeguard this history and explore the deep roots of the heritage of Arab falconry.
The Mohamed Bin Zayed Raptor Conservation Fund is committed to supporting falconry-related projects to ensure that researchers, academics, falconers and future generations learn, understand, embrace and perpetuate falconry practices, such as the Middle East Falconry Archive (MEFA).
A mounted man hunting birds with a falcon, Freer Gallery of Art, © National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution
The MEFA archives reveal the important role of the Middle East in the history of falconry. To date, MEFA has identified more than 60 manuscripts in Arabic alone which contain texts on falconry written between the eighth and sixteenth centuries across the Middle East. Some of these texts were popular and copied as many as 20 times, while others are preserved only in a single copy. The manuscripts are preserved in libraries and archives from across the Middle East, Europe, the US and South Asia, and contain a wealth of information about the tradition of falconry and the many individuals in the Middle East and worldwide with a keen interest in the subject.
The earliest surviving books on the care and training of birds of prey were written in Abbasid Baghdad. Patrons of Arabic science, the Abbasid caliphs supported translations of Greek, Persian, Syriac and even Sanskrit literature. The most influential Arabic book on falconry was written in this milieu, the book of Adham and al-Ghitrif. These texts were copied, reworked and expanded for centuries. In many cases, Middle Eastern rulers with an interest in falconry also supported the production of books on the subject.
The texts in the MEFA archives still speak to modern falconers. They can recognize the challenges of training birds of prey and sometimes use similar techniques. Many medical conditions such as bumblefoot still affect birds of prey even if methods of diagnosis and treatment have changed substantially from the medieval period. In other cases, remedies are strikingly similar. Medieval authors recommended a method for repairing a broken flight feather which is still used – a needle is inserted in the two ends to keep the parts together. This is known as imping.
While most literature in the MEFA archives is technical in nature, Usama ibn Munqidh offered especially entertaining accounts of falconry in Crusader-era Syria with its passionate falconers and famed falcons. More than many other authors, he described the close relationship between humans and birds and the great fascination of falconry which the technical literature mostly takes for granted.
The history of falconry is a subject of great fascination for people across the world. It offers important insights both practical and theoretical into our engagement with the natural world, into culture and science, heritage and history. When and where humans first trained birds of prey in order to hunt with them remains uncertain. The first falconers may have been nomads living around two thousand years ago. Very little of the material culture they produced has survived up to the present day.
Another question, however, can be answered with much greater certainty: When and where did humans first commit their knowledge about birds of prey, their training, their diseases and their care, to writing? It was at the court of the early Abbasids in Baghdad that the earliest preserved books on falconry were put together. They were written in Arabic and presumably composed either by falconers or with their assistance. Some evidence even points to an earlier history of these texts in late Umayyad times, a possibility which would make falconry books one of the earliest genres of Arabic scientific literature. Arab falconers can thus claim a cultural heritage with exceptionally deep roots. Remarkable in this history is not only the age of Arabic falconry literature, but also the fact that hand-written copies of these books have survived up to the present day. Alongside art historical evidence, these manuscripts constitute the most important extant testimony to the history of falconry in the Middle East. MEFA’s objective is to safeguard and share the cultural heritage of Arab falconry through the identification, exploration and digitisation of historical Arabic falconry literature.
In 2016, falconry was inscribed in the UNESCO list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and the government of Abu Dhabi played an important role in this process. By identifying and creating digital records of historical manuscripts related to Arabic falconry, MEFA aims to safeguard and share the stories and knowledge contained in this literature, the historical contexts in which they were produced, as well as shedding light on the texts and manuscripts themselves.
MEFA is a project in which the preservation and documentation of tangible heritage are inextricably linked to the conservation of intangible heritage. By locating and documenting the physical manuscripts, the project connects past records to present practices for the benefit of future generations.
Manuscripts are distinct antiquities. Once destroyed, they are lost forever to humankind. Accidents and mishaps lead to their destruction. And sometimes, libraries are voluntarily destroyed. For instance, in the recent conflicts in the Middle East, numerous manuscripts were eradicated in libraries and private collections. After the Iraq Museum was looted in Baghdad in 2003, the whereabouts of a copy of the book of Adham and al-Ghitrif remains unknown. Manuscripts that preserve the Arabic falconry books have been located in Mosul and Libya. Whether these copies have survived the recent violence is likewise unclear.
The preservation of cultural heritage through digital technologies has become a significant area of focus for the cultural sector worldwide in recent years. Not only does it safeguard vital cultural heritage in digital records for future generations, but it also allows for this information to be shared more widely across the globe. “