History of Falconry in Turkey

Falconry throughout history has left a mark with different cultures through millennia. It is very probable that it originated in Central Asia, the home of the Turkic people and spread west towards Arabia and Europe and east towards China and Japan. Man must have looked up at the sky and wondered at the majesty, ease and skill at which Birds of Prey caught their prey and to harness this skill in providing meat for the table. A trained Hawk or Falcon would have been a very important and treasured possession. Falconry in Turkey is an ancient practice, which has developed into a rich cultural tradition that still exists in some regions of the country today, with many songs, poems and methods of training that has been orally passed down from generation to generation through the centuries.

The Hittites inhabited Anatolia, what is now modern day Turkey where various relief sculptures from the 13th Century BC show what looks like Falconry scenes carved in rock. The remains of a Hittite city at Alacahöyük, which is extremely old, having been inhabited in 4000 BC, were discovered in 1839. Excavations unearthed the Sphinxes Gate which shows two sphinxes with obvious Egyptian influence. This dates from 1600-1200 BC, the period of the Great Hittite Empire, when nearby Hattusha (Boğazkale) was the capital. The city also had another gate, of which only the foundations have been found. Details of the relief's on the inside of the gate show a double headed Eagle, a symbol that is very ancient and also present at the Assyrian colony at Kanesch (Kültepe). The animals in their talons seem very likely to be Hares.

Discoveries at the Karatepe complex date back to the 16th to 14th century BC. Karatepe means ''black hill'' in Turkish and was excavated from 1947 to 1957 by a team led by Helmuth Theodor Bossert, after being discovered in 1946. The excavations revealed the ruins of the walled city of king Azatiwataš. Two city gates that have been excavated have many reliefs covering the lower walls of the gate complex with symbolism of late-Hittite, Aramaic, Assyrian and Phoenician and Egyptian influences shown. An image of a god riding a bull, with what looks like a Bird of Prey in one hand and a Hare in another is present.

Excavations at Gordion, the ancient capital of the Phrygians also show evidence of man's relationship with Birds of Prey. This symbolic and actual relationship with Birds of Prey extended into the Seljuk (circa 1058-1246 AD) period of Turkey and beyond. With the crowning of Tuğrul (which means Falcon) Beg at Mosul in 1058 as "King of the East and the West", the double-headed Eagle became the standard of the Seljuk Turks and was much used afterwards. The Sultans of Rum, Ala ad-Din Kayqubad I (1220–1237 AD) and his son Kaykhusraw II (1237–1246 AD) also used the double headed Eagle in their standards and the symbol was also found on other items such as tissues, mural squares, cut stones and Koran holders.

The Turcomans, who ruled in Anatolia during the 13th century, inherited the symbol from the Seljuk Turks. Following Turkish influence, Islamic coins from the reign of Khalif Nasreddin Mahmoud bin Mohammad depicted a double headed Eagle as early as year 1200 AD. Even today, Turkish police have a double headed Eagle insignia as a secondary charge, in addition to the Atatürk University in Erzurum, Municipality of Diyarbakır in south eastern Turkey and the club badges of Erzurumspor and Konyaspor, two Turkish football clubs.

The Golden Era of Falconry in Turkey was during the Ottoman Empire, when it was practiced by the elite of the ruling class. Falconry had been responsible for ransoms, bribes as well as the death of intended heirs to the throne.

Süleyman Pasha (1316–1357 AD) was the eldest son of the Sultan Orhan I (reigned 1326–1359 AD), the second bey of the Ottoman Empire. Whilst out on his horse practicing Falconry, he accidently fell causing his death. Süleyman was seen as the heir apparent and was buried in Bolayır, in a türbe or tomb built by Orhan Gazi's order. This love for Falcons or Hawks continued with the Ottoman Turks in their conquests. Upon conquering the western part of Georgia in 1578, the Turks demanded a bribe of 12 trained Falcons and 12 trained Sparrow Hawks.

During the battle of Nicopolis in Bulgaria (1396 AD), the son of Philip the Bold, Duke of Normandy was captured by the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Beyazit I (reigned 1389–1402 AD). Philip's offer of 200,000 gold ducats for ransom of his son along with a small number of other French nobles was refused, the Sultan instead wanting and given something seen to be even more valuable, 12 white Gyr Falcons. To appreciate the size of the ransom 200,000 gold ducats are equivalent to 22,140 troy ounces, which is 698 kg. Sultan Beyazit's passion for Falconry was witnessed by Philip's son before he was released, which is described in the book 'History of the Ottoman Turks' by Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy. He describes the Sultan's displeasure in front of his captives at Bursa in 1397 where Froissart relates the scene in his writings 'The Sultan had at this time seven thousand falconers, and as many huntsman: you may suppose from this the grandeur of his establishments. One day, in the presence of the Count de Nevers (the Duke of Normandy's captured son), he flew a falcon at some Eagles (?); the flight did not please him; and he was so wroth, that, for this fault he was on the point of beheading two thousand of his falconers, scolding them exceedingly for want of diligence in their care of his Hawks, when the one he was fond of behaved so ill'.

Late in the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent (reigned 1520-1566 AD) the Topkapı Sarayı or Palace in Istanbul had the servants, who comprised of the Inner Service (Enderun) housed in the inner section of the Palace. Under the auspices of the dar üs-saade ağası (ağa of the Abode of Felicity ranked just below the Grand Vizir), the Inner Service was divided into six departments in descending order of rank. The Falconry (Doğancı odası) department was ranked in 5th order. The deaf-mute (dilsiz), who were deliberately made deaf and mute so not to hear or talk ones secrets, was one of the sultan's most trusted servants and were often part of the Falcon handlers.

It is recorded by the eyewitness statements of both John Sanderson (1594) and Thomas Dallam (1599), the passion in which the Ottoman court held Falconers and Falconry. John Sanderson's description of 300 'Falconers, dwarfs and dome men' in the city is supported in the descriptions given by Thomas Dallam, an organ builder sent with a gift to the Sultan, Mehmet III (reigned 1595-1603 AD) of an organ, designed by him and his team upon the order from Queen Elizabeth I. Thomas Dallam's observations go on to describe the scene in the royal court:

'The thirde hundrethe weare Dum men, that could nether heare nore speake, and theye weare likwyse in gouns of riche Clothe of gould and Cordivan buskins; ...Som of them had haukes in theire fistes. The fourthe hundrethe weare all dwarffs, bige-bodied men, but verrie low of stature. Everie Dwarfe did weare a simmeterrie (scimitar) by his side, and they weare also apareled in gowns of Clothe of gould. I did moste of all wonder at those dumb men, for they lett me understande by theire perfitt sins (signs) all thinges that they had sene the presente dow by its motions.'

Dallam noticed that the Sultan's servants regardless of inner or outer service of the royal court, each learnt a craft 'according to his inclination and disposition' as Bon (1608) describes it, 'to make up a Terbent, to shave, to paire nayles, to fold up Apparell handsomely, to keepe Land-spaniels, to keepe Hawkes' and so forth.

Even the first recorded unpowered flight had connections to Falconry and inspiration from Birds of Prey! The first flight in Turkey was made during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Murat IV (reigned 1623-1640 AD) in the year 1630 by the aviator and scientist Hezârfen Ahmet Çelebi. He allegedly flew with homemade wings across the Bosphorus from the top of the Galata Tower and landed in Doğancılar Square (Falconers Square) above Üsküdar, a flight of 3,200 meters. The 17th century writings of Evliyâ Çelebi relate this story of Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi, (circa 1630-1632 AD): "First he practiced by flying over the pulpit of Okmeydanı eight or nine times with eagle wings, using the force of the wind. Then, as Sultan Murad Khan (Murad IV) was watching from the Sinan Pasha mansion at Sarayburnu, he flew from the very top of the Galata Tower and landed in the Doğancılar square in Üsküdar, with the help of the south-west wind. Then Murad Khan granted him a sack of golden coins, and said: 'This is a scary man. He is capable of doing anything he wishes. It is not right to keep such people,' and thus sent him to Algeria on exile. He died there".

With the decline of the Ottoman Empire came the decline of the golden age of Falconry in Turkey, this decline is still continuing. However, it is still practiced in some regions of the country and it is essential that the ancient traditions of using a trained Bird of Prey to hunt are maintained and continued to ensure that future generations are able to keep their cultural heritage.