Did You Know? Falconry, a Living Heritage and Traditional Sport along the Silk Roads

©Tynystan Temirzhan Uulu / UNESCO Youth Eyes on the Silk Roads

Traditional sports and games have played, and continue to play, a significant role in the cultural identities of various people living along the Silk Roads. The exchanges and encounters that have taken place for thousands of years along these routes provided considerable opportunities not only for the spread of traditional sports and games throughout different regions but also for their gradual evolution and adoption by new peoples. A number of the traditional sports which endure today along the Silk Roads were originally derived from a specific land use, hunting technique, or means of interacting with the natural world unique to the conditions of a given locale. 

An example is falconry, the traditional art and practice of keeping, training, and flying falcons and other birds of prey to hunt wild animals, which has been practiced for over 4000 years. Whilst the exact origins of falconry remain unknown, it is widely believed to have originated in in Central Asia and the Iranian Plateau and spread via cultural and trade links to other diverse regions including East Asia, North Africa, Europe, and later in the 16th century CE to much of the rest of the world.  The earliest solid evidence for falconry, a pottery sherd depicting a bird of prey, comes from Tell Chuera site in modern day Syria, and dates from the third millennium BCE. Whilst the oldest rock art images of falconers are found in the Altai Mountain range which spans parts of Central and East Asia, dating from around 1000 BCE. By the early Middle Ages, falconry had spread considerably and is documented in many parts of the world, including in painted depictions on Chinese tombs from the Tang Period (618 – 907 CE).

The tradition became particularly popular along the Silk Roads amoungst people lving in the steppe regions of Central Asia. Indeed, the falcon was an important symbolic bird in ancient Mongolia. Along the Silk Roads, falconry, and in particular the practice of exchanging hunting birds as gifts was closely associated with diplomacy and cultural interactions between the various societies along these routes. Another of the ways in which the practice spread was via merchants who often carried knowledge of the practice, as well as the hunting birds themselves, back home with them after encountering falconry in parts of Central Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. 

Today falconry remains integrated into communities as part of a social recreational practice and popular means of interacting with nature. Although it was originally predominantly a technique for acquiring food, the practice has evolved over time to become a traditional sport which has acquired many other values and a greater social significance. In particular it has become associated with camaraderie, sharing expressions of freedom, and a connection with nature. Furthermore, along the lengths of the Silk Roads, falconry has inspired a vast swathe of artistic creativity including books, manuscripts, poetry, paintings, and historical buildings. The falcon remains an important cultural symbol in many countries and is often used on postage stamps, coins and on coats of arms.

Whilst there is a huge diversity of distinct local conditions and traditions associated with falconry around the world, for many communities the tradition provides a connection to the past, particularly for communities for whom the practice is a remaining link with their natural environment and traditional culture. For example, whilst Medieval falconers often rode horses, this style of sport is now rare with the exception of contemporary Kazakh and Mongolian falconry. Here falconry is also closely associated with specific regional traditional sports and games, such as the Kyrgyz game Salburun which combines different forms of falconry with archery sometimes carried out on horseback. In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia, the golden eagle is traditionally flown, often from horseback, for hunting larger game such as foxes and wolves. In many regions, the relevant knowledge and skills are transmitted intergenerationally within families or by formal mentoring, apprenticeship, or training. Additionally, field meets, and festivals provide opportunities for communities to share knowledge, raise awareness and promote diversity. 

Originally a method of obtaining food, the practice of falconry has evolved over time, becoming more closely aligned with nature conservation, cultural heritage, and social engagement within and amongst communities along the Silk Roads as well as in numerous other parts of the world. In recognition of this rich heritage, falconry is inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in Germany, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, United Emirates, Spain, France, Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Mongolia, Pakistan, Portugal, Qatar, Syrian Arab Republic, Republic of Korea and Czechia and remains an indelible part of the shared heritage of the Silk Roads today. 

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