Abu Dhabi research tries to find ancient Arabic manuscripts on the art of falconry
For two French researchers, the object of the hunt is the rarest of all written works on falconry, a 13th-century treatise in medieval Arabic that would be the oldest such document in the world.
Patrick Pallait and Catherine Tsagarakis work for the Middle East Falconry Archive, a research project sponsored by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, with aim of creating a digital and physical library of Arabic-script texts on falconry.
So far the two Al Ain-based researchers have identified more than 45 falconry manuscripts, with Mr Pallait travelling the world to search collections from Tashkent to Dublin. "We don't want to keep (it) hiding somewhere," he says. "We want this material to be accessible for the public."
The French conservationist is an avid falconer who went to Saudi Arabia in 1986 for the Houbara captive breeding programme. His hunt for Saudi breeding stock carried him to Baluchistan, Iran and Yemen. He first met Ms Tsagarakis, a French vet who worked at a library, in Taif, Saudi Arabia.
Now they track fragile paper and papyrus documents that have survived wars, censorship, theft, floods and fires, but still remain at risk of destruction and disappearance.
No single library holds a large collection in the Arabic scripts -Arabic, Farsi, Ottoman Turkish and Urdu. References range from pre-Islamic and Islamic texts including poetry, legal, religious and scientific reports and proverbs.
The French researchers focused on the first scientific descriptions of falconry that emerged under the Umayyad Caliphate from 660 to 750AD, and the Abbasid Caliphate from 750 to 1258AD. It was a golden age of science, research and cultural exchange when Greek, Persian, Byzantine and Hindu works were translated into Arabic.
But their dream is to uncover an Arabic version of the 13th-century Moamin, a compilation of two Arabic volumes that spread through Europe via their translations.
"This book of Moamin is something very important for me because we have only a Latin version, and the original in Arabic disappeared," said Mr Pallait. "What I want to do is to convince the people here to find the most complete text of Moamim and put it back in Arabic."
The first treatise of the Moamin was by Ghitrif ibn Qudama Al Ghassani, a master huntsman who served the last two Ummayad monarchs, and Muhammad Al Mahdi, the third Abbasid Caliph.
It was Al Mahdi's father, Caliph Al Mansur, who ordered the building of Baghdad's round city, which became a cultural hub attracting intellectuals and artists from India to Spain. Al Mahdi himself was a patron of Greco-Arabic translations and commissioned Ghitrif to compile a treatise on falconry.
Ghitrif based his text on an even earlier work from AD700, Adham ibn Muhriz Al Bahili's Manafi'a Al Tair wa Ilaqt Da'iha (The Use of Falcons and the Treatment of their Diseases), itself a lost compilation from Arab, Byzantine, Persian, Turkish and Indian sources.
Ghitrif's final composition is referred to as The Work of Adham and Ghitrif. No complete text is known, but there are two shorter versions - one written between 830-833 by Al Hajjaj ibn Haytama and the Iskandar version, named for a fictitious dialogue with Alexander the Great about birds of prey that opens the book.
Ghitrif's text describes hunting birds, their daily care, training, and includes a detailed veterinary section with diseases and treatments described from beak to talon.
Its fame was secured when it arrived at the Sicilian court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, in the early 13th century, probably via the Emperor's connections with Tunisia's Hafsid rulers.
Frederick II was widely considered the greatest falcon enthusiast of all time and credited as the father of ornithology for his seminal work De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds).
He ordered the Syrian philosopher, Theodore of Antioch, and one of his two official translators to make Latin translations of two Arabic falconry texts, The Work of Adham and Ghitrif and the mid-9th century Kitab Al Mutawakkili, originally written in Baghdad for the Abbasid Caliph Al Mutawakkil by Muhammad Ibn Umar Al Bazyar.
This combined treatise circulated around Europe under the name Moamin.
The Arabic originals of the Moamin were lost, but their content preserved through its translations.
Of the 26 known copies of the Moamin, many are incomplete. They usually start with a prologue and are divided into five books. The first is a broad description of birds of prey used for hunting and their care in captivity, books two and three detail the veterinary care and books three and four the care and treatment of hunting dogs. Two detailed copies that Mr Pallait hopes to copy exist in Chantilly, France and Vienna, Austria.
The original Moamin probably disappeared when Vittoria, the emperor's fortress outside the walls of Parma, fell in 1248. "The people of Parma attacked his camp and stole his manuscript," said Mr Pallait. "The manuscript disappeared for a time, maybe forever."
Fortunately, the emperor's son had a copy.
Clues to the fate of the original translation resurface 15 years later, in a letter from the Milanese merchant Guilielmus Bottatius to Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily. Bottatius offers to sell a precious gold and silver decorated codex stolen at Vittoria. He describes it as two beautifully volumes that have an illustrated figure of Frederick II in imperial dress.
This manuscript may well have been a compilation of Moamin and De Arte Venandi.
"Unfortunately we just have this letter," said Mr Pallait. "The King [Charles of Anjou] doesn't respond to this author and the manuscript disappears."
Several manuscripts from two centuries later included excepts of the Moamin, and indicate that other copies were possibly in circulation, said Mr Pallait.
Still, the French researcher believes the Arabic copy couldalso have survived.
"I believe that, yes. It could be somewhere, maybe between Egypt and Sicily. In Tunisia we have two Arabic treatise but not The Moamim. Maybe one day if we are lucky we will find it."
His research is of course much wider than the Moamin. Other key texts include the Bez Nameh, a 17th century Pashtu poetry book on falconry compiled by a Persian king.
Four manuscripts, all located in Paris and easily accessible, have been copied since the project began in 2008. His team have visited 14 of 20 manuscripts in libraries in Paris, Oxford, London and Istanbul. The next manuscripts to be copied include two manuscripts in Tunis, six in Istanbul's Topkapi library and two in Berlin.
Priority will be given to texts that have only one preserved copy. The majority of falconry manuscripts are not complete but fragments can be used to build the whole, like the 2002 French translation of Adham and Ghitrif by the French scholar Francois Vire.
Archivists around the world, from Japan to the Iberian Peninsula, are engaged in falconry documentation projects, often focused on region or language.
The Middle East Falcon Archive will require much time and devotion, said Jevgeni Shergalin, an Estonian archivist for the Falconry Heritage Trust.
"Their work is very important, because traditions of Arab Falconry are very rich and ancient," said Mr Shergalin in an email. "Many manuscripts are kept not only in Arab countries and therefore this project presumes frequent and intensive travel. For example, in Tashkent - the capital of ex-Soviet Central Asia and modern Uzbekistan - there is a big collection of ancient manuscripts in Arabic. The same is true regarding collection of manuscripts in the Oriental Institute in St Petersburg."
The challenges are ever changing. Mr Pallait's visits to Egypt and Iran, where he sees traces of falconry everywhere, have currently stopped. Syria and Yemen are now off-limits.
Despite changing politics, Ghitrif's treatise is a reminder of the continuity of the sport. It remains relevant 1,200 years after its composition, despite modern advances in veterinary care. "You cannot imagine, nothing has been changed," said Mr Pallait.
This applies to science as well as the sport, added Mr Shergalin.
"You can find that many things we rediscovered now they were known to people a millennium ago," he said. "If we spend our money on research maybe it is cheaper and more efficient to go back a little and look at what already was known 1,000 years ago."
Updated: October 27, 2013 04:00 AM