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What’s Wrapped Around Abu Dhabi’s Little Finger?

Falconry is not for the faint of heart.  This ancient and noble sport, practiced for more than 4000 years, involves training a lethal bird of prey to hunt its quarry in the air, which it kills using a combination of its sharp talons and fierce beak.  Training a falcon takes time and patience - experts estimate two years is the minimum amount of time it takes for a bird and its master to begin to work together effectively, and, they caution, a falcon is not like a dog or a horse: it will never feel any affection for its master.  Trust, perhaps.  Affection, no. 

Nevertheless, mankind has been fascinated by falconry since earliest recorded history, and remains so to this day.  Originating in Mesopotamia and Mongolia sometime around 3000-2000 BCE, falconry was likely introduced to European civilization by the Huns in 400 CE, as they marauded their way through the continent.  Much of what we know about falconry come from its most ardent medieval enthusiast: Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1194-1250), who penned what is still a definitive - and eminently readable - work on the subject: The Art of Falconry

That Frederick was a member of a minor ruling house should not surprise us: falconry in Europe was the sport of royalty and the aristocracy, requiring, as it did, lots of space, lots of time, and lots of money to enjoy.  Strict rules governed the type of falcon one could own and operate, and depended on rank and birth: the largest and most powerful birds reserved for the ruler himself.  From this custom comes the expression “pecking order,” which is just one of the many phrases we use in everyday speech that are direct references to falconry.  The expression, “wrapped around the little finger” refers to the leather tethers attached to the falcon’s talons called “jesses,” which are kept short when the falcon is younger and gradually loosened and lengthened as the bird goes through its training.  “Hoodwinked” originates from the leather hood the falcons wear before they are dispatched to hunt their prey.  The hood keeps them calm and unaware of any movement around them.  Finally, consider the practice of depriving falcons of food just before a hunt.  This ensures that the birds are motivated for the kill: a falcon that is “fed up” will refuse to hunt without being motivated to do so, and merely sit on the master’s gauntlet looking slightly bored.

Bloodthirsty and cruel it may seem, but enthusiasm for falconry continues to our day.  Declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010, falconry is widely practiced in Scotland, New Zealand, parts of Europe, India, China, Mongolia, and Pakistan.  The real epicenter of falconry, however, is in the Middle East, particularly in the United Arab Emirates, where the custom is intricately linked to both the traditions and lifestyle of the ruling sheikhs as well as the practical concerns of the Bedouin, who keep falcons to hunt for food.  Falconry, in fact, offers a rare opportunity for these two parts of society to mix.  Abu Dhabi boasts the world’s largest falcon hospital and some of its more accomplished falcons and falconers.

Learn more about this, and the many other fascinating traditions of the desert emirate on Alexander + Robert’s new itinerary to The United Arab Emirates, which visits the Falcon Hospital as well as a demonstration of falconry in the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest desert.

Posted: 9/14/2016 3:46:56 PM by Alexander + Roberts