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Falconry in Turkmen Steppes: Tradition of Thousand Years

Long before the origin of agriculture, cattle breeding and handicraft, the aboriginal lived mainly owing to hunt. As civilization developed hunting's importance decreased, so much so, that by the 20th c. it had almost completely lost its significance as a part of economy. Today hunting is one of the most refined types of leisure activities.

A particular aureole of mystery arose about falconry, which is considered to be the privilege of the elite class. Factually, it's never been a popular pursuit, so it required special training and patience. Falconry, in a sense, is a completion of craft, the highest achievement of man who not only tamed birds of prey, but also made them serve him.

Along the territory of Turkmenistan from the ancient days to the beginning of the 20th c., hunting was a means of survival. One of the most obvious evidences of that might be the fact when the archaeologists discovered findings of clay figurines in the shape of animals in a Neolithic settlement Djeytun (near Ashgabat), which represented the ancient rites and spells before hunting started. Rocky pictures of ancient remotes in the canyons of Big Balkhan (Western Turkmenistan) contain scenes of individual and team hunting, including representations of arms and animals.

It was known that the Turkmen and their ancestors hunted for wild rams, wolves, foxes, bears, leopards, tigers, hares, partridges, pheasants, ducks, wild pigeons and so forth. Turkmen and other popular hunters of exclusive courage (mergens, avchys) were well aware of the animals' behaviors. Quite often they had to join battle with large beasts. In these cases the hunter (avchy) wound clothes or koshma (sort of felt carpet) around his arm and gave it to the beast. Stuck with its claws into hunter's arm, the beast was killed by plunging a hunting-knife into the beast's heart. In reality, sometimes such battles finished in a tragic way for the hunter.

Horse hunting was considerably developed in the epoch of the Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Horse battles allowed the entire tribe or army a stock before war campaigns. It's an interesting fact that it was forbidden to kill animals immoderately. The participants of battles knew the approximate needs of their tribe. They took beforehand a fixed number of bags; and the rest of the beaten animals were set at liberty out of the compact circle. The medieval Turkmen pursued a hunt mainly as a war-educational object. In hunting, the minors were given a chance to show their skill in bow shooting and spear throwing to reveal their personal bravery and valour in single combat with a strong beast. «Oguz-name» tells: Each of his three sons (of Oguz-khan) was courageous, brave and valiant. They excellently coped with any kind of hunt. And seeing them to be good hunters, Oguz beys appointed them emirs of hunt (emir and shikar). Twice a year the Oguz-Turkmen had battle-hunting expeditions of 15 days in duration. That was truly tactical training. Prepared for actions, the whole army concentrated on a large area. All components of real battle were fulfilled. A khan gathered beys from left and right wings and body-guards (oglans), who calculated action plan, appointed a watchman and gave passwords. A mass of beasts was driven together and various blockades were wrought up. During the final phase, the fighters demonstrated wonders of adroitness and braveness. Courageous hunters joined a single battle with a tiger, leopard, wild boar or bear. The fighters were revealed and were personally awarded by the supreme ruler and earned praise from the troops. When some one hit a tiger with an arrow that individual would tie the tiger's tail round his elbow. For hitting a bird directly, that person was given a «sultan» (a kind of headgear). The wild fowl that was caught from hunting was cured and dried. So they prepared them-selves for war action. After training, the army generally increased with young people, who successfully passed the trial mentioned above.

In personal and team hunting, the Turkmens energetically made use of hound dogs. The Turkmen hound (tazy) is now almost a rarity that specialists try to save this breed of animal. From the old days tazys along with shepherd's dogs were used on the territory of Turkmenistan. In the ancient settlement of Guyar-kala (old Merv) and the medieval settlement of Arapkhana (on the Amu-Darya river), archaeologists found remains of various types of hunting-dogs. Hunting birds were also popular with the Oguzes. It's known that on the territory of Old Kiev Russia the tradition of team horse-hunting with hounds and birds multiplied when there appeared some of the Oguz tribes - Kaiy, Bayat, Bechene, Bayandir, and Tuver.

A well-trained bird of prey was highly valued in Asia. Medieval Arabian geographers wrote that it was the trained falcons that had been exported from the territory of Turkmenistan. The Seldjuk sultans (ruler) presented falcons to many European kings as the most precious gift.

Quite often the decisive role in hunting belonged to wild birds. It was not an accident that the Oguz clan totems (on-gons) initiated the birds' names. Rashid-ad-Din (author of the 14th c.) and Abul-Gazikhan (the 17th c.) gave the following names, which were the monikers of Oguz-Turkmen: kite, gyrfalcon, buzzard, mouse-trapper, red hawk, sparrow-hawk, white falcon, molly falcon, and golden eagle.

It's a remarkable fact that the founders of the Oguz-Turkmen Empire used the names of wild birds. As stated by Makhmud Kashgari (the II c.), the name of Tegrud-bey originated from a bird's name of which «would kill a thousand geese and to eat only one». His brother's name Chagri-bey is also connected with a bird's name - «chakri» (falcon). Chakri was a totem of Kynyk-tribe where the Seldjuks originated.

Naturally, the process of taming and training wild birds was a case of great skill. Professional falconers can prepare wild birds for hunting in 15 days. First, they put on a specially designed cap on the bird's head or carefully sewed the bird's eyelids together with horsehair. When a hunting bird patiently starts reacting to the master's voice and touch, and confidently sitting on his arm without making any noise, the falconer cuts the thread off setting bird's eyes free.

The Turkmen falconers used to tame four types of birds of prey: kite, hawk, falcon and golden eagle. Sometimes when the big birds spread their wings, they reached more than one meter and were required wear the caps on their heads constantly, except during hunting. This way it would be impossible for hunting birds to attack babies, poultry and while at the same time protect them from sudden alarm and excitement. With a particular success the Turkmens instructed large falcons. If the rest of the people of Central Asia considered these birds to be very difficult to train, Turkmen falconers without any violence reached high level in training of birds.

In the process of a team hunting, they let falcons attack a bag in turn. With the bird's help, they hunted for fur-bearing animals, wild ducks, pigeons and partridges. As academician A. Djikiev wrote, the falconers of Western Turkmenistan hunted even for djeirans (a type of chamois); flying falcons sat on the animal's head and shut the djeiran's eyes with wings. The animals lost orientation and became falconer's bag. Even now, but rarely, in the mountains and steppes of Turkmenistan some amateur hunters keep hunting with the help of birds of prey.

Traditional hunting, once a very important component of the Turkmen life, is now coming near to the end. The reason for this is not only a loss of some skill in the absence of a successive link between generations of hunters-professionals, but also a disastrous condition of the wild nature. Many types of animals have been the objects of hunters, now entered the Red Book. Taking measures to protect and preserve them, it is worth doing so we are able to recollect falconry not only as a king's pastime of old days. Actually it is a part of the national culture (methods of hunting, technique of training), and is worth the most careful attention of the researchers.

Source: http://tourism-sport.gov.tm