Playing with Birds of Prey at Medieval Muslim Courts
The book of Adham and Ghitrif, one of the oldest preserved treatises on falconry in Arabic, begins with a chapter on ‘the first who played with birds of prey’. The anonymous author of Umayyad times offers a compilation of anecdotes about Persian, Byzantine, Arab and Visigothic rulers who discovered independently the practice of hunting with different species of birds of prey. Their interactions with the birds as well as with each other reflect the multiple and interconnected ludic layers of the royal hunt at medieval Muslim courts and the equally complex nature of games in this historical context. While this and other Arabic accounts of royal hunters portray their activity to some extent as unproductive diversion, modern historians recognize a range of social and political functions of such practices.
An especially intriguing dimension of royal falconry is the multi-facetted relationship between human and non-human animals and the distinct role each of these aspects plays in the ludic nature of the hunt. On the part of authors of scientific literature, these aspects involved the analysis of animal behavior as well as accounts of how high-ranking humans observe and understand animal behavior, how human and non-human animals interact during the hunt and how these activities reflect on a royal falconer.
Nowadays, non-human predators are regularly described as ‘playing’ with their prey, or ‘game’, in order to practice their hunting skills. In medieval Arabic literature, too, birds of prey do not always kill other animals for sustenance, but are described as driven by a more complex set of motivations which are parallel to royal attitudes and actions. If trained by humans, birds of prey display their natural behavior in a context arranged by humans. As much as falconers ‘play’ with birds of prey and thus use them as toys or instruments, the animals also serve as effective and indispensable assistants in chasing and killing other animals and a multi-layered partnership of human and predator emerges. Spectators can appreciate both the birds’ behavior and the falconer’s skill to put it on display and, in turn, enter the ludic community.
The social status of the royal or courtly falconer which is metaphorically applied to the bird increases the symbolism of this activity as do interactions between the falconer and other animals. Falconry allowed for conspicuous consumption and aesthetic practice, but also the display of martial skills by proxy and competitions with other high-ranking individuals. The above-mentioned compilation of anecdotes, for example, tells of cruel jokes played on each other by royal hunters. The anecdotes thus reveal that playing with birds of prey and competing as hunters involved a significant intellectual component as well. Royal hunters competed in the quantity and quality of their birds they acquired, but also in patronizing literature on the subject such as scientific treatises or hunting poems, their skills at hunting as well as the ways they mobilized and framed the implications of these practices. The established nature of falconry allowed for further playful displays.