Illustration from the “Manfred Manuscript” of the De arte venandi cum avibus, Biblioteca Palatina, Vatican Library.
Falconry has deep roots in human history. It predates the practice of writing in many cultures, which makes it difficult to establish where, when and how it originated.
Medieval Arabic sources contain stories about the first individuals who hunted with birds of prey, usually after having observed them in nature. The first falconers are the rulers of the Arabs, Byzantines, Sassanians, Central Asians and Visigoths. The stories combine accounts of origin with a classification of birds of prey. Rulers are presented as the first to hunt with a particular species such as saker falcons, peregrine falcons and hawks. Falconry was perceived as a universal practice of Eurasian leaders.
Embedded in these stories of origins are impressions of the universal attraction of birds of prey and of falconry to humans. One of the anecdotes presents an Arab king who comes across an injured saker falcon and has him nursed back to health. As a result of this recovery, the bird learns how to interact with humans. In another anecdote, when a Turkish king first encounters a hawk, he recognizes royal qualities of him such as justice and courage. The anecdotes with their royal protagonists thus illustrate an important aspect of the history of falconry: in products of human culture such as literature or art, it is among the upper social strata that we can grasp falconry more easily, since it was those with ample economic resources who served as patrons of our sources.
Courtier and Attendants in a Landscape, Turkey, © Museum Associates/LACMA
Arabic falconry literature developed in a dynamic period in the Middle East.
The Abbasid caliphs had a keen interest in the practice and theory of falconry. The popular book of Adham and al-Ghitrif is connected with the rulers al-Mahdi and Harun al-Rashid. Some had their own falconry books dedicated to them. Falconry was only one area in which caliphs displayed their authority as patrons of knowledge. As a vibrant capital, Baghdad attracted talent from afar. The caliphs inherited not only the contemporaneous cultures of the areas under their rule, but also their cultural legacies. The Abbasid translation movement illustrates this well when philosophical and scientific works were translated from Greek, Persian, Sanskrit and Syriac into Arabic.
Arabic falconry books cite foreign authorities such as Byzantines or Sassanians. If such texts were indeed translated, the original versions are not preserved. Abbasid authors may have wanted to present their knowledge as cosmopolitan and prestigious. Unlike in other branches of philosophy and science, Central Asian Turks are presented as experts in falconry. Central Asians enjoyed a reputation in the Middle East for their fighting skills. As a form of hunting, falconry was close to fighting which made the idea of Turks as falconers more plausible. Furthermore, falconry has deep roots in Central Asia, even if Turkish literature on falconry only emerged after its Arabic counterpart.
In the thirteenth century, Arabic falconry literature was in turn translated into Latin and Castilian. The influential Moamin was translated into Latin for Frederick II.
High-ranking individuals in the Middle East have long been represented as falconers. An eighth-century site in Syria contains the earliest preserved image of a falconer in Islamic history, a prince or even a caliph. Such images became very popular in later Middle Eastern art. While regular people in the Middle East may have practiced falconry for a long time, rulers had the ability to support representations of themselves as falconers.
Arabic literature sheds light on the complex symbolism of falconry with stories about royal falconers. They describe a Turkish king who observes a hawk in nature. When another bird hops by the hawk, he kills and eats it. The ruler compares the hawk to a king who defends his territory and does not waste his food. These royal falconers reflect carefully on what they see. Rather than subjugating nature, they make birds their partners and allow them to act according to their nature in collaboration with humans. Falconry manuals remind falconers to treat their birds gently, with friendliness and patience.
In another story, an Arab ruler watches a saker falcon pursuing a bird that has just been caught by a human hunter in a net. The saker is injured and the ruler oversees his recovery. The bird becomes more familiar with humans until he flew from the hand of a person to hunt prey. The anecdote illustrates the ruler’s insight, his empathy and care for the falcon, as well as the patience required until the bird responds to humans.