Hunters of the sky: Qatar’s falconry tradition

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Ashlee

(Photo credit: iStock by Getty Images)

Words and selected images by Laura Wrede

Falconry is one of the oldest tales of our time. Originally, it was another way to obtain food – just as hunting by traps, spears, or fishing would be. However, hunting with a falcon isn’t just a way of hunting for your food; it’s a relationship with a predator – the fastest one in the world to be precise. The king of the skies so to say. It’s a bond with the wild, and the most intimate way to connect with nature. To train your bird of prey quickly developed into the art of falconry, and spread across the world. Falconry was practiced in groups and passed down from generation to generation. The art of falconry was recently recognized by UNESCO as a living human heritage, and throughout the world it’s celebrated in unique traditions according to each country’s local culture.

The wings of time

Let us look back a few thousand years. History is as old as the written records we’ve obtained, but we’ll never know the untold stories. There are several records allowing us a glimpse into the past, and it’s believed that falconry was born in Arabia, as well as far east Asia roughly at the same time, in the first 1st millennium B.C. According to historian and research Shawn E. Carroll, an Arabic account holds that the first falconer was a king of Persia, who watched a wild falcon take a passing bird. He was captivated by its grace and beauty and ordered his men to capture the raptor. According to tradition, the king kept the bird at his side at all times and learned many good lessons from the animal, perhaps most importantly, changing from a violent king to a wiser, calmer ruler.

It’s exactly this kind of mystical relationship with an untamable predator that has captivated humans over thousands of years. Falcons have more than 60 subspecies and, after crows, they’re considered the most intelligent bird. To tame a wild falcon and hunt together in partnership is something fascinating, and not replicable by other technologies we have today. After all, this wild bird is free to fly anywhere, and yet chooses to stay with the falconer. Though sometimes, it chooses its independent freedom and returns to the wild – which all falconers have experienced at least once. This has various reasons; sometimes simply because it gets lost while chasing prey and cannot find you. So it’s more a fate than a choice. The ‘how or why does it come back?’ question is the first anyone usually asks. That is the essence of the art of falconry. 

(Photo credit: Wikimedia.org)

Tracing the spread of falconry

Arab falconry quickly spread throughout the Islamic World eastwards into the great Islamic Empires of Central Asia, and westwards across North Africa. Falconry related verses are even mentioned in the Holy Quran.

It considers prey that is caught with a falcon halal to eat, and Arab poets have composed countless poems hailing the falcon, and describing the art of Arab falconry. Khalifs, Emirs, Sheikhs, and Bedouins all practiced falconry and passed it on to the next generation of falconers. Falconry is an integral part of the cultural heritage of the Arab region and celebrated as the one of the main symbols of civilization.

Falconry also spread to Europe from the Arab world. The Holy Roman Emperor, King of Sicily and Jerusalem Frederick II of Hohenstaufen discovered falconry in Arabia on his 1228 crusade. The Pope didn’t think he would come back alive from the crusade, but Frederick II proved him wrong and also brought experienced falconers with him. The passion for falconry took over and Frederick lost some military battles, as he preferred to fly his falcons than to continue fighting. From there on he dedicated his life to studying birds of prey and hunting with falcons as much as he could. It took him over thirty years to complete his book, one of the first scientific works on the anatomy of birds, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Falconry), and therefore placed him as one of the founders of ornithology. Frederick II explains the basics of training your falcon, and up to today it’s still considered one of the most important books on falconry.

The popularity of falcons quickly spread throughout Europe. The kings of England, Spain, France, the Russian tsars, and the Holy Roman Emperors all maintained extravagant falconry establishments. Precious falcons were exchanged between the royal courts as special gifts. In England the office of the royal falconer, called Master of the Mews, still exists today. Every year in Spain new ‘Halconeros Reales’, or ‘Falconers of the King’, are welcomed into office through a celebratory ceremony.

Falconry was usually reserved for the nobility, as maintaining a healthy falcon was a hugely expensive proposition. It required a lot of time to be dedicated to the care of the bird and fresh food to nourish it – whether it hunted or not. Therefore, it was an activity pursued usually by nobles who had the time, money, and personnel to assist with this activity. Some even defined which falcons were reserved for which degree of nobility. For example, the Gyr falcon was determined for the king ,while a merlin was meant for women.

(Photo credit: Laura Wrede)

Yes, a woman!

Hundreds of records in written or illustrated historical documents show women training their falcons and hunting with them, usually on horseback. The oldest record so far of a female falconer dates back to 358 B.C. in Japan, to the daughter of the Emperor. Today falconry is still practiced in Japan, and several women are among the country’s top falconers. In England, some women would take their falcons even to church, so they would accustom them to people.

The falcon is anchored throughout different cultures and belief systems across the world. It’s a mythical figure in Egyptian, Chinese, Germanic, African, and Hindu cultures. They describe the falcon as the bringer of light, or the fighter. Sometimes the transporter of the soul, as the animal is considered to have special powers to go to the other side. Also, various terms originate from falconry; for example, ‘being fed-up’ actually means when a falcon has been fed a full crop and therefore has no hunting attitude. ‘Wrapping someone around your little finger’ likewise comes from falconry, as to be in control when your falcon is firmly tethered to your glove and wrapped around a finger.

A modern evolution

Today, falconry is still practiced throughout the world, but the majority of falconers are in the Middle East. In Arabic falconry, hunting trips are called ‘mgnas’, and are composed of groups of various falconers that would each trap their own bird and train it to hunt with it. A falcon teaches you patience, endurance, self-reliance, and bravery among other things. The art of falconry is not only to teach your falcon, but to learn from her as well. It’s to create a bond between the two that results in a successful hunting partnership, and to study nature in order to understand the natural processes of predator and prey and how any circumstances, like weather or other conditions, affect it.

Traditional Arab falconry was abruptly declining after the discovery of crude oil. The rapid growing wealth made hunting no longer a necessity, or the new jobs that were created didn’t allow the time required for falconry. Only a few families kept practicing this ancient sport, while others were more interested in modern cars and an array of other material things that could be bought at hand thanks to petroleum. Falconry seemed like a waste of time, something that required an awful lot of devotion, while there were plenty of other far easier pursuits requiring less dedication.

However, in modern day Qatar, falconry is probably more popular now than ever before due to several competitions. Al Gannas, the Qatari Falcon Association and member of the International Falcon Association (IAF) was formed to preserve the art of falconry in Qatar and ensure that this cultural heritage is maintained. In order to keep the passion alive, Al Gannas founded a competition in various disciplines that allows falconers to compete with each other. While there were only a few hundred participants in the first few editions of the competition, this year in January at the 8th Qatar International Falcons and Hunting Festival 2017, also known as ‘Marmi’, a total of 1,633 falcons participated. It was a record high.

Falcons compete in various different disciplines, one of which being the pigeon chase, where a young peregrine falcon is released from the falconer’s fist to chase a trained racing pigeon. Contrary to what a lot of people think, most of the times the pigeon actually wins. The main reason for this is that the pigeons are extremely experienced and well trained, and the falcons are still in their first year and learning many flying techniques. Only a few falcons manage to catch up with the pigeon and perform a deadly stoop. Often, not more than 10 out of hundreds of falcons win prize money for their owners and a chance for the final round to win a brand new off-road car.

Spectators are welcome to visit Marmi and watch the falcons compete. It’s a good opportunity for anyone who would like to experience how these raptors perform and, thus, get a better overall understanding. The festival happens every year during the entire month of January, so mark your falcon calendars. While these competitions should preserve the art of falconry, due to the high prize money and the eagerness to compete, it’s actually driven falconry to an artificial high. More falcons are trained for speed, than for what they are born to do: hunt. Also, more falcons are trapped from the wild than they would be in the old times. When I attend Marmi, it’s mainly to watch the pigeon chase, as it’s something natural – both for the pigeon to be chased and for the falcon to chase. The US also has Pigeon Sky Trials and the biggest one in Europe is in Spain.

(Laura Wrede at the 2015 Al Galayel Competition, on an Arabian horse with a Saker falcon named 'Ahmash'. Photo credit: Isabel Ruiz Caro)

A connection to Qatar’s roots

There’s only one competition I prefer over the Pigeon Sky Trials and this is Al Galayel. Founded in 2012 and based on HH Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s dream to preserve the true falconry heritage of his country, Al Galayel is a true hunting competition and, till today, the only one of its kind. There are no speed sensors, no fancy cars, no mobile phones, or other gadgets. Al Galayel takes you back to the routes and essence of Arab falconry.

In order to participate you first have to create a hunting party, as in traditional ‘mgnas’, of minimum six people. Only wild, trapped falcons of native species, such as the Saker or the Peregrine falcon are allowed to enter the competition. No captive-bred or artificial hybrid breeds. You can ride a camel or a horse, but you cannot ride your Land Cruiser. Saluki dogs are allowed to hunt gazelles. Al Galayel consists of a 900 km2 reserve area, where the hunting groups move in and set up their tents by themselves, as well as the shelter for all their animals. They will stay three nights and have four hunting days. The best group will qualify for the final. They are not measured by how fast the falcon flies, how well the hunter rides a horse, or their method. They will merely be measured by the pieces of prey hunted, and the fair conduct within their team and towards the other competitors.

As the first foreigner and first woman to hunt in the Al Galayel reserve with an international team, I tell you it takes a lot of components to succeed. First of all, you’re not by yourself – you’re a group, and as such need to be coordinated and all tasks distributed accordingly. You need to use all your resources and absolutely all your senses. You need to have some ability to ride a horse or a camel, this is extremely important as you depend on it. If you can’t control your camel, it will do what it likes and take you were it pleases, instead of where you need to go. 

All animals in the team – the falcons, the horses, the camels, and the salukis need to tolerate each other. If they haven’t been trained together, chances are that they’ll spook. This is dangerous as you can fall from your horse or lose your falcon. You need to read tracks, but also know how to interpret them in order to follow your prey. Falcon eyes are almost required to spot the well-camouflaged prey in the desert, but surely it takes a trained eye. The camouflage is part of the survival of the animals. Once you successfully spot prey, the whole team needs to function as one, and when the pursuit begins, the group also needs to stay together

Al Galayel has not only taught me and my team valuable lessons, but it has shown many Qataris a return to their roots. Things they thought they knew by natural instinct, they had to admit that they forgot and had to relearn them. The first years of Al Galayel was witness to many disasters of dogs that ran away, hunters falling spectacularly from camels and horses, and falcons that would be spooked probably by the large, unknown camel and fly away.

Funnily enough, a lot of the teams also had difficulties setting up their tent. After years and years of being used to having kind helpers that fulfill these everyday tasks for you, being left on your own is a struggle all over again. Over the years, the teams realized there’s no winning at Al Galayel without practice and have since become more professional and, to a large extent, well-coordinated. To me, this is a pleasure to watch, as these are the true roots of Arab falconry – a sustainable way of hunting. Speaking about watching, due to the nature reserve and the prohibition of cars in that area, it can only be watched via TV. Here’s a short clip below to get a feeling for it. 

While basic falconry techniques have remained in all parts of the world, to train a bird of prey, several modern approaches were developed using the latest behavioral training methods, as well as technological devices such as drones and GPS tracker to successfully monitor the training advances of the bird. The essence of fostering a relationship between a human and a wild bird will still remain the same, for hopefully many more thousand years.

Tell us your thoughts on the tradition of falconry in Qatar in the comments below and don’t forget to check out the first Katara International Falcons and Hunting Exhibition running from September 20-24, 2017. Also, be sure to like and share this article!