On some day in Jumāda II 848 of the Islamic calendar, September or October 1444 of the Common Era, Aḥmad ibn al-Ḥājj Ḥasan, who described himself as ‘the copyist’, finished his work on a manuscript of 220 pages. Written in clear and large script, the manuscript offers an especially attractive copy of the most popular medieval Arabic book on falconry.
By the time Aḥmad copied this book, it was already about seven centuries old. The original title of the manual is not known to us. Aḥmad called it The Book of Birds of Prey and the Sciences of Falconry (Arabic: Kitāb al-jawāriḥ wa-ʿulūm al-bazdara). He attributed the work to an otherwise unknown philosopher by the name of Abū Bakr ibn Yūsuf ibn Abī Bakr ibn Ḥasan ibn Muḥammad al-Qāsimī al-Qurashī al-ʿAlawī al-Ashʿarī, but this is likely not the person who actually composed the book. While we do not know who put this text together, two other men are more commonly associated with it. As the preface of one of the two versions in which this book is preserved tells us, a man by the name of al-Ḥajjāj found a copy of this book in the library of the caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd who ruled the Abbasid empire from 786 to 809. Al-Ḥajjāj took the book to al-Ghiṭrīf ibn Qudāma al-Ghassānī who had served the last Umayyad caliphs as keeper of their hunting animals and continued to serve the new Abbasid rulers. Al-Ghiṭrīf, we read, explained to al-Ḥajjāj that a certain Adham ibn Muḥriz al-Bāhilī had compiled the book for Hārūn, collecting the knowledge of Persians, Turks, Byzantines and Arabs. The precise circumstances of the history of this book remain uncertain, as does the question of its actual sources. No Persian, Greek or Turkish texts have come to light which are older than these early examples of Arabic falconry literature. These references may have been included to convey the book a greater sense of authority and to reflect an understanding of falconry as a tradition of many cultures.
The original version of this book in the Abbasid library in Baghdad is no longer preserved, despite its popularity in subsequent centuries. Like other medieval Arabic books on falconry, this one may have contained a section on hunting dogs who often accompanied trained birds of prey. The book of Adham and al-Ghiṭrīf has survived in two different versions, each in about a dozen manuscripts. While the so-called al-Ḥajjāj version begins with the above-mentioned account of the book’s history, the present manuscript contains a copy of the other version, known as Iskandar version. This one begins with an exchange between Alexander the Great – in Arabic Iskandar – and scholars at his court. The ruler wishes to know how the constitution of birds of prey compares to that of humans. In response, the learned men offer a rare glimpse into the medical theory which informed the medieval understanding of the diseases of birds of prey and their treatment. The exchange between Alexander and his sages on the subject of veterinary science is fictitious. For all that we know, falconry was not practiced in the Hellenistic world and in medieval literature, Middle Eastern as much as European, Alexander was often adduced as a ruler with a great thirst for knowledge. Remarkably, however, both prefaces situate falconry in a courtly milieu.
The following 115 chapters offer the reader everything one needs to know about keeping a trained bird of prey. The authors begin with a historical introduction about the first who hunted with birds of prey, survey different kinds of birds, typically dividing them into peregrine falcons, hawks, saker falcons and eagles, discuss challenges when training birds and then focus in the bulk of the book on medical issues. Chapters contain descriptions of symptoms, diagnosis and treatments, sometimes more than one. Some of these practices, such as imping, are still used.
Why Aḥmad the scribe copied this text about seven centuries after it was compiled is not clear. We do not know who might have commissioned this copy. But we do know that Aḥmad was not an exception. Several other manuscripts of this book were produced at around the same time. The manuscript contains another clue too regarding its potential readers. On the first two pages, we can find a Turkish translation between the lines of Arabic text, a style known as interlinear translation. The translator, perhaps identical with Aḥmad the scribe, proceeded word by word and not every word is translated. The interlinear translation may have served as an assistance for readers with limited knowledge of Arabic. They may also have been part of an effort to translate the entire text into Turkish. There are other examples where Arabic books on falconry were translated into Turkish. The translation points to the fact that falconry was practiced by diverse communities and that the practical knowledge required for it was appreciated across cultures, languages and religions. (In the thirteenth century Arabic books on falconry had been translated into Latin and Castilian, a medieval form of Spanish.) The readership in this case were probably the military and political elites who ruled Egypt at the time Aḥmad copied this manuscript. Known as the Mamluks, these former mercenaries controlled Egypt and parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and of the Arabian Peninsula from the mid-thirteenth to the early sixteenth century. The Mamluks were skilled fighters, but also known for their equestrian games, known in Arabic as furūsiyya. The tradition was closely associated with falconry.
From first chapter about the first who hunted with birds of prey
Adham ibn Muḥriz, one of the experts in falcons, said: The first Arab who trained sakers to hunt with humans was al-Ḥārith ibn Muʿāwiya ibn Thawr, who was the ancestor of the Kinda tribe. One day, he came across a hunter who had just set up his net to catch little birds. A saker came swooping down from the sky to target the little birds in the net. He began to devour the little bird and became entangled in the net himself. When al-Ḥārith saw this, he took the saker and brought him home where he put him up. For several days, he watched him and was friendly to the saker so that the bird became used to him. Then, if he was given food, he ate it and when he saw a dove, he jumped on it and attacked it. Then, he taught him to jump on his hand when he called him with food and he trained it until it responded from afar and returned to him.
From chapter 27 about the colors and different kinds of saker falcons
The two of them said: As far as the reddish saker falcon is concerned, they live in soft and wide plains. They have the same habitats as peregrine falcons. As far as the grey saker falcons are concerned, their habitats are the mountains and islands. If they are very much as we described them and they have a white area on their tails, they have a commendable nature.