The eagle huntress Aisholpan and the history of Mongolian falconry

The eagle huntress Aisholpan and the history of Mongolian falconry

Eagle hunting is a traditional form of falconry, widespread throughout the Eurasian steppe among nomadic peoples. It represents the most dramatic and primary relations between man and beast, which is kept well through generation to generation in the remote mountains of western Mongolia.

International audience interested in falconry among Kazakhs in Mongolian Bayan Ulgii aimag (province) has increased tremendously as a result of the post consisting images of a 13-year-old eagle huntress Aisholpan Nurgail taken by a travel documentary photographer Asher Svidensky in 2014.

Less than two years after that, the documentary film The Eagle Huntress was released for international audience, inspired specifically by photographs of Asher Svidensky. It turned out that an experienced filmmaker Otto Bell in British documentary stumbled upon Aisholpan’s images immediately after they were posted on the Internet. This is how Otto Bell once recalled his decision to make a film about the teenage huntress during an interview with a journalist of The National Geographic:

“…I happened to see Asher Svidensky’s photos of Aisholpan when they hit the Internet back in April 2014. I remember becoming struck by my first sight of this young girl perched on a mountain casting an enormous eagle into the air. Her face, the landscape, the magnificent bird. It was like a painting. I contacted Asher through Facebook and started a conversation about his photos which has already gained real momentum online. It was a kind of proof: If we could add sounds and motions, we would surely form a great documentary in our hands. So he and I jumped on a plane and set out to find Aisholpan and her family…”

Eagle huntress

The film was released worldwide by Sony Pictures Classics, and narrated by Star Wars star Daisy Ridley, premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 24, 2016 until November of the same year,.

Aisholpan’s attempt to compete as a first female eagle hunter in the annual Golden Eagle Festival in Ulgii, Mongolia was elaborated in the film The Eagle Huntress, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It was also nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary and won nine prizes at several International Film Festivals. Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, Chief Film Critique at The New York Times, called the film “a bliss out” and “a movie that expands your sense of possibility”, respectively.

That’s how a modest teenage girl from Mongolian rural province became a real movie star.

A main plot of the film follows Aisholpan learns how to train golden eagles with her father’s help, and then trains her eaglet on her own. Although she faces some disbelief and opposition because of traditional nature of the sport dominated by male, she becomes the first female competed in the annual Golden Eagle Festival. She ends up winning the competition, and her eaglet breaks a speed record in one of the events. After the competition, she made the final step to become an eagle hunter by traveling to the mountains with her father in the winter to hunt foxes, to show her endurance during harsh snow and extreme cold. After some initial misses, her eaglet hunted its prey successfully and she returned home…

Golden eagle festival
Photo by Batzaya

Generally speaking, only around 300 eagle hunters are present worldwide and most of them are concentrated in Aisholpan’s corner of the Altai Mountains. Therefore, it is not surprising that the annual Golden Eagle Festival has been held in a few kilometers from Ulgii town, since 1999.

The festival takes place in every October and recognized as a cultural and adventurous attraction for local and foreign travelers and photographers. It is a platform for local Kazakh people to show their eagle hunting culture and unique traditions. It starts with the opening parade with well-dressed hunters and follows with authentic competitions of training and hunting with golden eagles. Specially trained eagles catch small stuffed animals such as foxes and hares.

By the way, Aisholpan is not the first, and hope not the last huntress in the history of falconry.

The National Geographic magazine published in the November 1932, was included the photography of the then-known Princess Nirgidma of the Torghut Mongols, who was educated both in Paris and Beijing. The princess stood next to her hooded hunting eagle at Urumchi In the photo taken by Maynard Owen Williams (he became the first foreign correspondent of The National Geographic in 1919).

Princess Nirgidma of the Torghut Mongols with her hooded hunting eagle at Urumqi.
Princess Nirgidma of the Torghut Mongols with her hooded hunting eagle at Urumqi. 1932. Photo by Maynard Owen Williams/The National Geographic.

Although there is no concrete evidence. researchers speculate that falconry should be dated back as far as 4000 – 6000 BC in Mongolia; But scientists also argue that wide steppes and vast sand deserts are the most suitable environment to develop the art of bird hunting.

The ancestors of the Mongols have had traditions to worship, feed, and train to hunt splendid and powerful birds as an essential part of their lifestyle. So that there must be a substantial probability to conclude that it was originated in Central Asia. Moreover, they worshiped the eternal blue sky and their totem was the fearless swift falcon.

Depiction of Khitans hunting with eagles by Hugui (胡瓌, 9th/10th century)

There are almost no references about falconry in either Roman or ancient Greek sources, despite of developing trade ties with the East, Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the Middle East, Persia and India.

Only after the collapse of the Roman Empire resulted by the conquest of the Huns in the 5th century led the emergence of kingdoms in its place, and the laws were included certain punishments on the theft of hunting birds. On the coat arms of Attila, the legendary leader of the Huns, a gyrfalcon with preys in both paws was depicted. Therefore, it can be concluded that Huns, the ancestors of the Mongols, had brought falconry to Europe.

On the coat of arms of Attila, the legendary leader of the Huns
On the coat of arms of Attila, the legendary leader of the Huns,
a gyrfalcon with prey in both paws was depicted.

After the great migration of the Huns to the West, the remnants of Para-Mongolic nomads of Khitans had dominated a vast area of Central Asia, Siberia and Northern China. There is an evidence in a Chinese painting from the times of Song Dynasty, which depicted the Khitans falconry, showing that Khitans also used birds for hunting.

William of Rubruck, who was the envoy of King Louis IX of France in the 13th century visited Kharkhorum (Karakorum) the capital of the Mongol Empire and accepted by Munkh (Mongke) Khan, wrote in his travel book: “… They have many hawks and peregrine falcons, which they all carry on their right hand…”

Another famous medieval traveler, Marco Polo, who visited the Mongol Empire during the reign of Genghis Khan’s grandson Khubilai, described the large-scale falconry as follows: “…Takes with him full 10,000 falconers and some 500 gerfalcons, besides peregrines, saker falcons, and other hawks in great numbers, and goshawks able to fly at the water-fowl…”

Apparently, the heyday of falconry worldwide has occurred during the Mongol Empire.

After the collapse of the Mongol empire and the loss of independence, all types of large-scale hunting, including falconry, were banned. Mongols continue hunting with birds only in remote and inaccessible areas, so that the traditions of falconry completely extinguished.

The Kazakhs who fled to western Mongolia at the beginning of the 20th century, due to hunger and persecution in the USSR and China, were able to maintain traditions of the eagle hunting to this day. By the way, the Kazakh ethnos was formed relatively recently, in the 15th century as a result of the mixing of some Turkic and Mongol tribes.

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