Twenty-three-year-old Semser Bahitnur comes from a nomadic Kazakh family of well-known eagle-hunting men. Her 80-year-old grandfather Ajken Tabysbek and father Shokhan have won many national tournaments over the decades. Photographs and medals adorn the inside walls of their cabin, and their names have captured the attention of international photographers and paying tourists who come to Altai to get a glimpse of Mongolia’s eagle-hunting culture.
In 2013, Kazakh women in Mongolia captured global attention when a young eagle huntress, Aisholpan Nurgaiv, became the subject of a viral photograph taken by Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky. He returned to the country in 2014 with British director Otto Bell, who made a documentary about the teenager.
The storyline focused on her being an outlier in Kazakh culture in what Bell described as an “isolated” community with “a certain kind of ignorance about what woman can do”. These remarks were made during a press interview on CBS’s Mountain Morning Show in January 2016, where he also said she was the “first woman to eagle hunt in the 2,000-year-old male-dominated history”.
But Kazakhs and historians say this is not true.
Altai is where Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia and China meet. In Kazakstan, 67-year-old Bagdat Muktepkekyzy is a former eagle huntress and retired journalist. Committed to keeping the tradition of eagle hunting alive, in 1998, she established the first eagle training school in Kazakhstan, Zhalayr Shora School of Eagles, and off the back of its success started the Kyran (Golden Eagle) Federation Public Fund in 2005 – an organisation that teaches falconry skills and organises national and international falconry competitions. She also successfully lobbied the government in Kazakhstan to include the art form as a national sport, writing the regulations needed.
“Eagle hunting always included women,” says Adrienne Mayor, a historian at Stanford University, who details the practice and its history in her 2016 research paper, The Eagle Huntress – Ancient Traditions and New Generations. “Archaeology also suggests that eagle huntresses were more common in ancient times.”
“The oldest known artefact showing this kind of hunting is a golden ring made about 2,500 years ago. The scene on the ring shows a woman on a running horse. She’s spearing a deer. Her eagle is hovering above the deer and her hound is grabbing its leg,” she tells Al Jazeera.
If eagle hunting is alive in Mongolia, it is to preserve the art form, according to Dinara Assanova, the founder of Women of Kazakhstan History, a non-governmental organisation and virtual online museum focused on great women from Central Asia.
“Today no one hunts, it is a hobby. Festivals keep the art alive. Young people sometimes do it for fun. But they give up quickly.” said veteran huntress Bagdat.
(source: al jazeera)