Desert-bred Saluqis

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Saluqis in the Countries of Origin - Syria and Jordan, Palestine and Israel

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A stroke of pure luck!

Syria

I became infatuated with Syria while as a student of Arabic I spent two weeks travelling around the country. The sights, sounds and smells of such vibrant cities as Damascus and Aleppo, the vast desert landscapes, the colourful clothes of the people and their warm hospitality have remained in my memory ever since, renewed by many return visits in the interval.
It was on such a visit in the spring of 1992 that my wife and I found ourselves driving along a country road near Hama looking for a desert castle. Suddenly I spotted in front of us the familiar shape of a Saluqi in the back window of an old estate car. I overtook and signalled the driver to stop. A brief conversation with the driver, a Kurdish Khan from Hama, led to an invitation to go hunting with him, his companions and their five Saluqis in the nearby fields of sprouting wheat. We spent a glorious afternoon with them and even caught a hare. 

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The end of a glorious day

Thus began a relationship that lasted a decade until the Khan died of a heart attack shortly after acquiring a new Saluqi, probably from the emotion, as hunting was his great passion.
The Khan pressed me to go back and spend 'at least a month' hunting with him. So the following year I went for a week which was full of unforgettable moments: rising with the Muezzin's call before dawn, setting off at sunrise with a group of congenial companions and a variety of Saluqis, coursing all morning in the desert between Hama and Aleppo or towards Palmyra, wonderful picnics of Syrian specialities and on our return evenings in the hunters' club recounting the exploits of the day and of past events.

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Picnic al fresco

Over the past 15 years or so I have been going back to Syria almost every year and my friends are always ready to drop everything to take off for a few days' hunting. We also spend time going round the breeders from Hama to Aleppo to see their latest pack of hounds. The packs are never the same. Some succumb to accidents, some fail to make the grade and are passed on to someone else, some are sold to Arab visitors from Arabia for high prices, and some are given as presents to dignitaries. So there is always something new to see, but they are always variations on one of several common strains: the smooth robust hound similar to the hounds of the Arabian Peninsula; a smaller lighter smooth hound often with a more pronounced tuck; a well feathered often stockily built hound; and variations of these with not much feathering.

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Robust smooth hound

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Smaller smooth hound with pronounced tuck

Different strains in one community around Hama

It will be noted that all these hounds have one or both ears cropped. This is a common practice that is followed mainly in the Kurdish areas, not only of Syria but also of Turkey, Iraq and Iran, though some Arabs among these communities also do it. The reasons given are various: for speed, beauty, alertness, prevention of damage in fights or among thorn bushes, and identification in case they are stolen. Often males have both ears cropped and females only one. The extent of the cropping goes from close to the skull to just the tip. It is usually done before the puppies are two weeks old. 

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Well feathered hound

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Lightly feathered hound

All the hounds wear coats in winter, so whether they are smooth or feathered does not make much difference as regards staying warm.

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Puppies with cropped ears

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Hound in a coat at Hama

On my various hunting trips it seemed to me that the smooth hounds, which are in the majority anyway, seemed to cope more effectively with the generally hot, dry conditions. Over the years I saw some exceptional hounds with the Khan and his friends. The first was a black and tan dog called Guru (wolf in Kurdish). The Khan said he was the ideal hunting hound - about 25" square and beautifully balanced. On the other hand he also praised another of his hounds also called Guru who was built like a tank, could run all day and once took three foxes and a couple of hares in a morning. But one of my favourites belonged to another friend known to everyone as Abu al-Ward (Father of the Rose). His smooth grey grizzle called Battah was a joy to watch, a supreme athlete with amazing endurance.

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Guru - the ideal hound

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Guru

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Battah

It will be noticed that many of these hounds have henna on their feet, which is applied as a form of protection against damage but also for beauty. It was Abu al-Ward who showed me how it was done. First he took a green powder made from the dried henna root and mixed it with water into an orange paste, which he then applied to one of the hound's feet. He bound each foot with a cloth and wrapped a sheet of plastic round the lot. This was supposed to stay on for 24 hours.

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Applying the henna

During my visits I also went to other parts of the country where I nearly always found hunters with Saluqis. The Khan in Hama told me that some of his best hounds came from near the border with Turkey and I once travelled around the largely Turkoman villages there with a friend from Aleppo and a Bedouin guide. In almost every village where we stopped Saluqis were brought out for our inspection, not least because my friend wanted to buy some hounds to stock his kennels. We ended up with three in my very small car!

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Bedouin guide and puppies

While in the north I engaged in a novel form of hunting - on motorbikes! From a village outside Aleppo I started out with a group of hunters in a minibus but the driver was concerned about the bumpy road, so we got out and climbed onto the back of motorbikes ridden by the lads who had followed us with the hounds running alongside! It was a hot day and the hares must have been lying up in the shade somewhere because we could not find any.

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Walking up near Aleppo

On the opposite side of Syria towards the border with Iraq is the tribal area of the Tai, famous in Arab tradition for their generosity. The Tai are also renowned breeders of horses and Saluqis. I had an introduction to the Shaikh and went to visit him near Qamishli. He kindly arranged for some hunters to come the next morning with their Saluqis for a morning's coursing. The first to arrive were a couple on a motorbike carrying a Saluqi in a sack with only its head showing! Then some more arrived in a pickup and we set off to a nearby area sown with wheat, where hares had been seen. The hunters and the hounds searched diligently for hours but found nothing, though I kept thinking of times past. Here as these hunters and their hounds walked around one of the many unexcavated archaeological mounds that literally litter this part of ancient Mesopotamia, where we know from the archaeological record that Saluqi-like hounds were being used for hunting in this place at least 5,000 years ago, they were unconsciously continuing a tradition that has existed for millennia. The big difference was that in the past the area teemed with game and today it is scarce. 

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Going to the hunt near Qamishli

The encouraging thing about the situation of the Saluqi in Syria today is that the need to  preserve it as part of  the country's natural heritage has been recognised and measures are being undertaken to this end. In 2005 I was invited by the Syrian Arab Horse Association to judge the first ever Saluqi show within the context of the annual horse show. It was thought this would provide an incentive for breeders to come together, to discuss matters of common interest for preserving the Saluqi and to show the range of hounds in the country.

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Syrian Arab Horse Assoctiation Show, Damascus 2005

The Saluqis and their handlers had never been in a show ring before and it took a while to bring some sort of order to the proceedings but in the end they put on a great show and everyone was satisfied. The event was well publicised through the media and this will have increased public awareness of their national treasure. The planned follow-up of establishing a registry within the framework of the Syrian Arab Horse Association has been more difficult to achieve because of the lack of trained personnel, but at least a start has been made.

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The Best in Show

In November 2009 I returned to Syria and spent some time with the hunters and breeders there. It was good to see that despite the increased purchases of the local Saluqis by visitors from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States there were plenty of top quality hunting hounds about. I spent a great day in the desert with a group of hunters and seven Saluqis which ran incredibly well over stony terrain that would break the feet of lesser dogs. Some of my pictures are at www.flickr.com/photos/dbsaluqis

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In the Syrian Desert

Jordan

The ban on hunting in Jordan has had a deleterious effect on the Saluqi population and it has declined sharply from when I lived there for two years about 50 years ago. The only breeders that I could find on a couple of recent visits there were in the Wadi Rum, where the hounds have a certain attraction for tourists as part of the Bedouin way of life.
On my first visit I had an introduction to Difallah, a Bedouin who has developed a guiding business for tourists. He took me to see an old hunter, whose bitch was fostering some puppies, as the dam did not have enough milk for them all. The foster mother seems to have produced milk under the stimulation of the puppies. The sire was a tall smooth black and tan but some of the puppies showed signs of feathering.
 

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La'aban in the Wadi Rum
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Fazza fostering puppies

When I returned four years later with a film crew to shoot 'The hunting hounds of Arabia' for National Geographic, Difallah took us into the Wadi Rum to stay in his tent. We were surrounded by camels, sheep, goats and his Saluqis. One of them was the black and tan dog La'aban from before and he had sired a litter with a smooth red bitch, whose puppy called Warda became the star. She was about 3-4 months old and an absolute delight.

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Warda at the Bedouin encampment
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Bedouin boy with Warda

One day we were joined by some Bedouin who brought along Warda's dam and her two siblings. They wanted to show us how they hunted before the ban. They did not walk up in line but searched around for hare tracks and then followed them. They had brought with them a tame desert hare which they released for the puppies to chase. The hare took it all in good part as it was completely used to being handled and chased by the puppies. It was all good fun but I wondered for how much longer these traditions would survive.

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Camel train with Saluqis, Wadi Rum
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Warda, her dam and siblings 'hunting'

Palestine and Israel

When I lived in Jordan for two years it was in the days when travel to the West Bank and Jerusalem was unrestricted, but at that time I was not involved with the Bedouin there and did not see their Saluqis. However British officials and military serving in Palestine until the end of the Mandate and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 have often described their hunting exploits in the area with locally acquired Saluqis. More recently efforts have been made by some dedicated enthusiasts in Israel to preserve the Saluqis that still remain with the Bedouin but it is clearly an uphill task in the face of a hunting ban and other restrictions on the former nomadic way of life.
I have never been to Israel and the nearest I came to seeing a strain of Saluqi to be found there was in Jordan. During our filming in the Wadi Rum, one of the hounds was said to have come originally from Sinai. She was of the Peninsular strain and in her youth had been a great hunter.

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Bedouin with the puppy Warda and Hazza from Sinai

Other articles:

1. On the trail of Sarona Kelb - The Saluki, Winter/Spring 1993
2. Syrian adventure with Salukis - Saluki International, Vol. 3, Issue 5, Autumn/Winter 1994; also in Hounds, Vol.10, Nos 7&8 of September & October 1994 
3. More adventures in Syria with Salukis - Saluki International,Vol.3, Issue7, Autumn/Winter 1995
4. Return to Syria - SPDBS Newsletter, Vol.8, No. 2, 1998
5. On the trail of Lady Jane Digby - The Saluki, Crufts Edition, 2002
6. Between the desert and the sown - Sighthound Review, July/August 2002; also in The Classic Saluki Annual, 2003; in German Zwischen Wueste und Ackerland in Der Windhundfreund, Nr 256, June/July 2003; and in Saluki International, Vol.13, Issue 25, Autumn/Winter, 2004-5
7. Of Salukis, Arabians and Falcons - a Syrian Diary - Saluki International, Vol.13, Issue 26, Spring/Summer 2005
8. Syria's first Saluki show - The Saluki, Crufts Edition, 2006

Film:

1. Syria - a jewel in the Saluki crown, 2005