If you go into almost any bookstore in Kazakhstan and ask for a book about falconry, this is the one you’ll be handed, because it’s the only one in print. It’ll cost you about twenty bucks, which is a bargain considering the full-color beauty of the thing – it’s full of gorgeous photos, insightful diagrams, and informative, if not exactly ground-breaking, essays on the tradition.
This treasure, an antique Kyrgyz book from 1959, was lent to me by Bakyt Karnakbaev, a Kazakh falconer. It features several stories about eagle falconry written by the legendary Kyrgyz bard Sayakbai Karalaev.
A collection of stories by a famous Kazakh film actor and writer Satimzhan Sanbaev, The White Camel features a long story, more than seventy pages long, called “Kop-Azhal,” about a bürkitchi named Mankas.
G.P. Dementev, whose Birds of the Soviet Union is available here in English, also wrote one of the earliest and well-known Soviet-era works on falconry. He must have done extensive fieldwork in Central Asia, as the book is full of details on Central Asian tools, terminology, and techniques. A classic and a fine resource.
The work of the Russian ethnographer Georgy Simakov is, quite simply, the most extensive research ever done on Central Asian falconry. It’s absurdly vast. One needs only to look at his bibliographies to understand how meticulous the guy was – he cites dozens of Kazakh and Kyrgyz falconer subjects, archival documents, and books in several languages. He wrote two books, published consecutively in 1998 and 1999, covering the tradition and its mythology in comprehensive detail. The shame is that I’ve never read them. My Russian is good enough to understand their value, but not enough to consistently understand the content itself.
This first book mostly concerns the mythological foundation of the tradition, the sky-worshipping beliefs of pre-Islamic Turkic people and how they might have motivated a falconry cult. It seems like a fascinating history, one that would make today’s falconers seem quite petty in comparison. Central Asian falconry in the modern age can be so tied up in politics and moneygrabbing, it can start to feel so profane. In the past, it might have been something sacred.
While the first of Georgy Simakov’s monumental works on Central Asian falconry dealt with the ancient and the mythological, the second obsesses itself with the practical minutiae of the contemporary tradition. Techniques for capturing birds of prey are covered with particular depth, with plenty of helpful schematic sketches.
The late Kazakh ethnographer Akseleu Seidimbekov devoted 40 pages to falconry in his encyclopedic magnum opus, The World of the Kazakhs. In addition to the general info on hunting and its culture, golden eagles, goshawks, and sakers all get their own entries, with beautiful hand-drawn portraits beside them.
One of the founders of Kazakh children’s literature, Sapargaly Begalin wrote a story called Satzhan, about a young boy who catches a saker falcon. It was first published in 1947 and frequently republished in short story compilations thereafter, including this 1965 book that takes its name from the main story.
A catalog from a 1967 exhibit on falconry at the Moscow University Zoological Museum, this booklet contains a great intro to falconry in the Soviet Union, a decent bibliography, and some photos from the collection.
The story from which this collection of children’s literature gets its name follows a first-person narrator who meets an elderly Kyrgyz falconer named Sydyk-Ata. The author, Emil Joloyev, was a military man by training who passed away last year.
This short book from Soviet Kyrgyzstan seems to be borrow heavily from the works of Gennady Dementev. I’ve only been able to find a digital transcription of the text; it would be nice to find the real deal some day, but one researcher reported that it can’t even be found in the national library.
The Falconry Heritage Trust uploaded this program from a conference in Tbilisi in 1987, featuring all the biggest names in falconry of the Soviet Union. Ralph Pfeffer and Abdollah Turdybaev gave a talk on falconry in Kazakhstan, and Gennady Demenchuk spoke on Kirgizia. There was even a short forum on falconry in the arts, with Vyacheslav Belyalov, who shot the nature film “Golden Eagles” in Kazakhstan, giving a presentation.
This book, written in Alma-Ata by the scientist Ralf Pfeffer, is a mainstay on Russian bibliographies of falconry. Pfeffer worked closely with the Kazakh falconer Abylkhak Turlybaev, and his admiration is clear – he cites Abylkhak throughout the book as a true treasure.
Maksim Zverev was the most famous naturalist of Soviet Kazakhstan, and he was renowned throughout the USSR for his children’s stories. His story “Azamat’s Eagle” tells the tale of a falconer’s young son who’s caught and trained his own eagle. The elder’s of the collective farm come to Azamat asking for help. A wolf has been terrorizing their flock – can he help?
Another children’s book by Maksim Zverev, this one has a little vignette that describes how a Kazakh falconer uses a net to capture an eagle.
This text is in Kyrgyz, which I can’t read with any competence, but it’s title page description tells us that it is a collection of stories for young people about falconry.
The ethnographer Amantur Akmataliev wrote this short book on Kyrgyz falconry, with fantastic sketches of birds and hunters provided Jusup Mataev. The book focuses mostly on describing different hunting birds, with two short portraits of the bürkütchüs Eraalyn Toigonbai Uulu and Shamil Maichyn tacked on the end.
Written by the famous ethnographer Amantur Akmataliev, this is the most comprehensive work on Kyrgyz falconry in existence. The table of contents page gives the book a Russian title, “Traditions of Hunters”, but as far as I know, the book was never translated into Russian, which makes it mostly inaccessible to me.
It’s no surprise that Manas, the Kyrgyz oral epic hundreds of thousands of lines long, would deserve an encyclopedia just as heroic. Falconry plays a prominent part in this national tale, and thus the encyclopedia has several entries devoted to mythological eagles and saker falcons.
I have a couple of these stories by the Kyrgyz Manaschi and eagle hunter Sayakbai Karalaev in his Russian-translated collection, The Golden Bell, but I think there are a couple stories that exist only in this Kyrgyz version. No scan for this book, just a couple photos of the front pages and table of contents.
I only have a few snippets of this book, unglamorously published by the late Kyrgyz falconer Sagymbai Zarnaiev. The section on veterinary medicine (including a diagram on feather fixing, or imping) looks particularly valuable.
A Kyrgyz falconer published this book about birds of prey and his experience training them. I was able to take just a few pictures of it at the National Library.
Scans of this book were found online, but the source remains a mystery. More of a photo album, the captions are variably in Arabic-script Kazakh (used in Xinjiang), Chinese, or English and Cyrillic-Kazakh. The materials contain little new information, but are noteworthy mostly because of the dearth of materials available on Kazakhs in China.
This article from Kazakhstan’s Astana Magazine features interviews with two bürkitchis, Küntughan Toktybaev and Alip Törebekov.
A dissertation in Kazakh on traditional falconry. No authorship given, but a work with the same title has been attributed to Maral Kenzhebaeva.
Birds of Prey is the most significant Soviet-era publication on Central Asian falconry, a frequent citation of Simakov and the modern-day writers that followed him. Its 176 pages, chock-full of falconry lore and traditional knowledge, were written by Zhagda Babalykov and Abdolla Turdybaev, two Kazakhs who immigrated to Soviet Kazakhstan from Xinjiang. Babalykov was a politician and ethnographer; Turdybaev a falconer. Turdybaev’s son Abylkhak, contributed to this book and is now a legend in his own right.
This specialized dictionary is a gem, containing hundreds of words related to hunting and falconry. Entries range from tomaghalau (to put a leather hood on a bird) to sayatshyl (an obsession with falconry).
This is the only full-length work I’ve come across that was written by a Kazakh from Mongolia, and I’d be curious as to whether the material is any different. The book consists of small entries for various terms and themes, and serves as a good companion to Kuraluly’s hunting dictionary.
Öserbai Kadirkulov is the late falconry mentor of my friend Bakyt Karnakbaev, and these are his memoirs. He was also an akyn, or improvisational poet, and the book mostly collects his artistic works. Featured are several photos of Kadirkulov with his birds and friends, hunting happily.
This Soviet-era book of Kazakh word problems features a tale of a falconer who goes to market – the student must determine how much it would cost to buy a variety of hunting birds. Word problems can be hard enough – try them in Kazakh! Maybe I’m just a sucker for books of Soviet vintage, but the two-tone drawings of Izat Kenzhalin included in the book are a trip.
This book was loaned to the Central Asian Falconry Project from the library of Abylkhak Turlybaev, and it is the only known text on Central Asian falconry that has been published in China, where Kazakhs use an adapted Persian-Arabic script. I started to learn the alphabet just for the sake of slogging through this book, but as you could expect, it’s been slow going. The book was too large to upload, by the way, so I had to lower the quality; if you’d like to work on a translation, I can send you the full file.
Sabit Muqanov, one of Kazakhstan’s most honored writers of the mid-20th century, published this fictional story as part of his autobiographical trilogy “The School of Life.”
This extensive text from the children’s author Begalin shows the dedication he had to his craft. It seems to consist of several interviews with master falconers, named Zhabyn and Almen, providing an overview of Kazakh falconry practices.
This here is not so much of a book as an extended interview, the journalist Begmanov quizzing the elder Zhagda Babalykov, author of the classic text Qyrandar, about his knowledge of traditional Kazakh culture. Select passages are scattered about where the two discuss falconry, hunting dogs, and fox fur hats.
Unlike other travelers who published their notes on Central Asia, the Hungarian ethnographer György Almásy left scientifically precise documentation of the falconry practices he encountered, and his work has been cited as a valuable source by Russian-language researchers. Unfortunately, it thus far remains only in Hungarian, a language isolate that I certainly have no understanding of. Any Hungarians interested in a translation project?
The Austrian falconer Josef Hiebeler is a world authority on hunting with eagles, and he studied with bürkitshis in Central Asia. His book has pieces here and there on the techniques of his Kazakh friends, but mostly serves to show what a world away European eagle falconry is, with its captive breeding and advanced veterinary medicine.
Svetlana Jacquesson’s PhD thesis in Ethnology at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations is remarkable, with an impressive bibliography and field interviews with 28 falconers in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. It focuses mostly on the naming, mythology, and taxonomy of birds of prey, which is one of the most fascinating angles of research in our mini-field.
The French photographer Gilles Santantonio worked for several months with the Kazakh falconer Abylkhak Turlybaev to produce this gorgeous photo book, full of stunning, if not romanticized, shots of man and bird.
A companion book to Santantonio’s Chasseurs du Ciel, but for children, Ulan follows the young falconer Ulan Turlybaev, the late son of Abylkhak-Ata. Regardless of whether you understand French (I don’t), the photos are superb and the storytelling is endearing.
In addition to her PhD dissertation, Svetlana Jacquesson also wrote this article on the Kyrgyz poet Moldo Kylych. Kylych, she claims, is remarkable for his deep knowledge of birds of prey and his frequent treatment of them in his works. Jacquesson provides a first-ever translation of his work into a Western language, and provides a useful table with the names of birds that are used in the text (Kylych used fifty different ethnonyms).
It is unanimously agreed upon that the king of Soviet ornithology was a man named Georgy Petrovich Dementyev, and we are lucky that this illustrious bird lover took a particular interest in raptors, and especially raptors of Central Asia (he wrote an entire book on “Birds of Turkmenistan”). His book Birds of the Soviet Union is especially useful for its discussion of local raptor naming conventions and etymologies.
After serving 10 years in the gulag during Stalin’s repressions, Ilyas Yesenberlin went on to become one of the most well-known Kazakh writers of his time. His trilogy, “The Nomads” was one of the first works of literature to address medieval Kazakh history and has been instrumental in the modern nation-building effort, so much so that President Nazarbaev himself wrote the forward for this first-ever English translation. Falconry is mentioned on pages 11-13, where sultans, beks, and emirs gather for a great hunt, led by Zhanybek Khan and his bird Sombolak, who was “glorified in the songs of his songsters.”
This photo book, published in Kazakhstan as part of a series of short works on Kazakh culture, features some great pictures and well-edited English. A short six-page introduction is provided to familiarize the reader with the basics of the tradition, and then 58 full-color photos tell the rest of the story.
Kazakh falconers are mentioned several times, however briefly, in this coffee-table book about the glorious future of independent Kazakhstan. The book is unique in claiming that eagle hunters are known for their perfect posture, which must be a prerequisite, after all, for hauling 15 pound birds around on your forearm.
I haven’t yet gotten my hands on this book, but by all accounts it’s a stunner. Photographer David Tipper travelled all around the world documenting the relationship between man and bird, and a section on falconry apparently includes some info on Kazakhs in Bayan-Ölgii (the fine photo below, for example, is featured in the book). In a blog post, Tipper writes of his visit to the Eagle Hunter Festival, where he even met a hunter who claimed to hunt eagle owls with his bürkit – wow! The Bayan-Ölgii Experience, as I know from experience, is so visually unforgettable that it has made both the cover and the title page of the book.
The most famous Kazakh novel of all time is a fictionalized biography of Abay Kunanbaev, the king of 19th century Kazakh poetry, written by Mukhtar Auezov, the king of 20th century Kazakh prose. “Abay Zholy”, as it’s called, or “The Way of Abay”, is often described as an encyclopedia of Kazakh culture, and so it’s only fitting that falconry occupies two prominent passages. The master poet Abay was also a master hunter, and the story tells of hunts with his nephew Shakke, written in vivid ethnographic detail – read and learn how to serve sugared duck brains to a falcon. The English translation by L. Navrozov, titled “Abai: A Novel,” is worth devouring in its entirety. Sugar is optional.
National Geographic doesn’t disappoint with this collection of gorgeous photography from Bayan Olgii, Mongolia. Millard contextualizes the Mongolian setting nicely with a lucid history of Kazakhs in Bayan-Olgii, and Edwards, who received an NG Photography Development Grant to do the project, provides some unforgettable imagery – for many people, this National Geographic piece was their first glimpse of the world of Central Asian falconry. On Edwards’ website, he shares some photos that weren’t featured in the magazine.
The Japanese ethnographer Takuya Soma is the first and only English-language academic, it seems, to ever publish on Central Asian falconry. After living in Sagsai, Mongolia for five months in 2011, Soma went on to publish a series of insightful articles in the following years. This first article, published in Volume 7 of the International Journal of Intangible Heritage, is attractively designed and well-organized. One wonders, however, about the premise of “Altai-Kazakh” as a research subject – might this draw confusion with the Altai people of Russia, and ignore the existence of falconry amongst other Kazakh tribes next door in Kazakhstan?
Soma’s paper for the International Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences Research is his finest, full of fascinating details gleaned from his ethnographic fieldwork. The hard facts are especially insightful, like the count of falconry families in Sagsai or the table of age-terminology for golden eagles. Some of the Kazakh is oddly rendered (“chakle” for what should be “shaqyru”, for example), but considering that the research seems to have been carried out without any knowledge of the local language, one marvels at the level of detail that Soma has ultimately been able to provide.
This paper, presented at the Asian Conference on Asian Studies in 2013, courageously tries to trace the relationship between East and Central Asian falconry. Central Asians boast of their falconry pedigree with pride, but could it be possible that Chinese elite were hunting with birds before Central Asian tribes? The archaeological record of East Asian falconry is certainly richer, but so it goes with a settled culture, and Soma is smart enough not to make too bold a claim.
Falco, the newsletter of the Middle East Falcon Research Group, published this article by Takuya Soma in their Spring 2013 issue. It’s short but has some fine details on hunters’ fox fur clothing and the effects of falconry festivals in Bayan-Ölgii, Mongolia.
This chapter in Gary Seaman’s Ecology and Empire: Nomads in the Cultural Evolution of the Old World is the only English-language work of Georgy Simakov, the prolific ethnographer of Central Asian falconry. Sadly, it’s only five pages long, and thus nowhere near as in depth as his other work, but it is still full of fascinating details of Kyrgyz falconry and mythology.
This coffee-table book was published in conjunction with a campaign to gain UNESCO recognition for falconry as Intangible Cultural Heritage (they ultimately succeeded, in a dozen countries). My friend Abylkhak Turlybaev, the Kazakh eagle falconer, is featured on the front cover, and some other Kazakhs can be found inside.
The British eagle falconer Martin Hollinshead has written one of the few treatises in the West to focus entirely on hunting with golden eagles. Mentions of Central Asian falconers come mostly in the history section, which quotes a hodgepodge of travel literature.