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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Dubai’s Falcon museum embodies an age-old relationship

Celebrating it's fifth anniversary this year, the Falcon Museum is an easy place to miss but those who are passionate about the symbol of Emirati and Arabian Gulf heritage can hardly miss a visit.
A stuffed Al Hur falcon at the museum in the Falcon Heritage and Sports Centre, Dubai. Reem Mohammed / The National
A stuffed Al Hur falcon at the museum in the Falcon Heritage and Sports Centre, Dubai. Reem Mohammed / The National

Into its fifth year, the Falcon Museum may not yet have made the list of Dubai’s top must-visit spots. But those who are passionate about the powerful symbol of Emirati and Arabian Gulf heritage can hardly miss a visit.

It’s the go-to place for all things falcon. But in addition to having a veterinary clinic and a souq where you can buy the latest accessories for your feathered companion, the Falcon Heritage and Sports Centre is also home to one of Dubai’s best kept secrets.

Celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, the Falcon Museum is easy to miss, as guide Khaled Al Dhaheri explains. “Most visitors come and follow the falconers, who are often coming in and out of the building carrying their birds to get them checked medically at the vet here, or to buy them new burqas or gear for falconry.”

A bit of persistence takes you to a copy of a poem by the late Sheikh Zayed, the first President of the UAE, describing a hunting trip with a young falcon, and next to it, the entrance to the museum, which is open to the public free of charge. “I see more falcons than people in my daily work,” laughs Mr Al Dharei.

Inside is the story of the falcon, a powerful symbol of Emirati and Gulf heritage that is featured on many of the crests of state and government institutions. Inside the museum, a row of birds greets the visitor. “You can touch,” says Mr Al Dhaheri. There is no danger of a nipped finger, these falcons are stuffed.

“This one, for instance, likes the cold, and is kept in air-conditioned rooms,” says Mr Al Dhaheri, pointing to a white stuffed gyr falcon, whose arctic habitat extends from northern Alaska to Greenland in the Western Hemisphere, and from Scandinavia to Siberia in the Eastern Hemisphere. The gyr is the largest species of falcon in the world and this specimen is one of the biggest on display.

“It actually may die if exposed to hot sunshine,” Mr Al Dhaheri says. Gyr come in several colours that include white, grey and black, while mature birds have striped feathers with yellow around the eyes and beak. Fully grown, they can be up to 53cm long and capable of a top speed of over 200 kilometres an hour when diving. The males weigh up to one kilo, but the female can be up to double that.

The first section of the main exhibition hall lists the main species, from the better known Peregrine, saker, Barbary falcons to the less well known kobaj, qarmousha, and al tabea.

“The falconers tell me that no falcon is the same, each have their own personalities, and often, the falcon picks his caretaker, not the other way around,” says Mr Al Dhaheri. “Not the easiest bird to train and I can spot those with an attitude right away.”

Falcons are not native to the UAE, but the history of Arabs and falconry is thousands of years old and can be traced back to 2000BC and the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh.

According to a display at the museum one of the first famous local figures to use and train falcons was Al Harith bin Mu’awiya bin Thawr Al Kindi, in the 4th century.

In Islamic history, the Prophet’s uncle, Hamzah bin Abdul-Mutaleb, was famous for using falcons when hunting.

“The close relationship of the Arabs to falconry continued throughout history, with falcons prominently depicted in Umayyad and Abbasside period art and culture,” says Mr Al Dhaheri, who refers to The Advantage of Birds, a book written in the 8th century, by Adham bin Mehrez Al Baheli that included falconry.

The second display is devoted to the anatomy of the falcon, from eyes to feathers and the different names for parts of the claw, including Al Senan, the long middle claw that helps the falcon to hold its prey after catching it.

Falcons can also fall sick, with traditional medicine among the cures. In the section of the museum devoted to falcon medicine, the visitor can discover common diseases such as somar or bumblefoot, caused by a bacteria that causes inflammation, redness and swelling to the sole of the foot. Epilepsy, smallpox, sinuses and digestive related illnesses are also common in falcons.

“Traditional medicine is not commonly used now, since there are clinics and hospitals dedicated to falcons,” says Mr Al Dhaheri.

Traditional cures include giving sugary sweets to help reduce constipation in falcons, and ginger, fig, garlic and camomile to improve general health.

In the section devoted to the sport of falconry, some of the equipment used for training and hunting are displayed. Here is Al Telwah, the lure made of a houbara bird’s wing, makhlah, the equipment bag, the dass or falconer’s glove and al wakir, the stand or perch on which the falcon sits.

“The hunting trips are not really about the kill. It is more of a sport, where it inspires patience, self reliance, endurance and team-work between the falcon and the falconer,” says Mr Al Dhaheri. “It is a strong brotherly bond between the falcon and its caretaker.”

Before a wild falcon can be trained, it must be hunted down and caught. One method is called “lurking” where a man lurks and hides in a sand pit covered with palm fronds, whole holding onto a rope tied to a baited trap.

“The hunter would sit for days in this hole, until a falcon passes by and falls for the bait. Often they go off to islands and sit for weeks trying to catch a falcon,” says Mr Al Dhaheri.

“Of course it is easier now as they are bred by special centres, but still, capturing a wild falcon is prized.”

Mr Al Dhaheri admits that he prefers football to falconry, but says there are no signs of the latter losing its allure.

“Our admiration and love for the bird is best captured by how we always make references to its various characteristics in our poetry and proverbs.”

rghazal@thenational.ae

For more information on the Falcon Museum, visit www.dm.gov.ae or call 04-327 2854. Open from Saturday to Thursday, 7am to 6pm. Closed Friday. Tour guide available from 7am to 2pm Sunday to Thursday.

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