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(THREE REMARKABLE WOMEN - AND THEIR SALUKIS)
(Author - Sir Terence Clark, 1996)
Acknowledgements: The following article has been reproduced from the Crufts 1996 edition of "Saluki", the magazine of the UK Saluki or Gazelle Hound Club. We wish to thank the magazine committee for allowing to use this article. We also with to thank Sir Terence Clark - the author.
The Middle East has long held a fascination for the British. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was mainly intrepid merchant adventurers who travelled to the Ottoman and Persian Empires in pursuit of business. However, the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a wider variety of travellers there, including artists, writers, archaeologists, civil servants and military, many taking the overland route to India. Among such travellers were some exceptional women, such as Lady Hester Stanhope, known as the Queen of Palmyra in Syria, Isabella Bird, travelling from Baghdad to Tehran on horseback and Freya Stark, working and exploring in Arabia, Mesapotamia and Persia, who overcame not only the physical hardships of travelling in remote areas, but also the at times hostile prejudice against foreign Christian women in a Muslim man's world. In addition to their many other qualities, three such women also held a special affection for Salukis: Lady Anne Blunt, Gertrude Bell and Vita Sackville-West and it is interesting to note for comparison their experience with desert-bred hounds.
Details of a mosaic at Bosra Amphitheatre, Syria c AD 2-300.
Huntsman with a pair of Salukis pursuing hares.
Lady Anne Blunt came of a distinguished family - she was the grand-daughter of Lord Byron - and in 1869 married Wilfred Scawen Blunt, a diplomat of an ancient line extending back to the Norman conquest. Together they made several visits to the Middle East to see the tourist spots in Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Turkey and an expedition to the bedouin tribes of the Euphrates, from where they brought back to England Arabian horses to found the Crabbet Stud. But in 1875 they undertook a particularly enterprising tour to Central Arabia, later described in Lady Anne's book "A pilgrimage to Nejd". They travelled "as persons of distinction", paying a social call on their opposite numbers in Nejd - the bedouin, "the gentlemen of the desert". Along the way which led over 2000 miles from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf on horse or camel they acquired 2 or 3 Salukis, which she persisted in calling greyhounds.
Lady Anne's first acquisition was in fact a Syrian hound from the area around Bosra, where Salukis appear in Roman mosaics and where I saw Salukis on a visit there a couple of years ago. She was given by some friendly bedouin related to their guide a "pretty little fawn greyhoundl', which she called "Shiekhah" after a plant of that name. She said it was "very docile and well-behaved. She is a regular desert dog and likes dates better than anything else".
How like my first desert-bred who was always stealing our dates as a puppy and still loves them. As they travelled across Jordan they were joined by an escort who brought his "very handsome greyhound with him, of the long- haired breed, which has a wonderful nose for game. His master declares he sees the birds, for the Arabs do not seem to understand the theory of scent". I believe his master was right: it was more likely that the hound spotted the movements of the game than scented their presence. This is not to say that Salukis do not scent game - my own have often indicated they know of the presence of game by its scent when it is far out of sight - but that their keen eyes are quick to pick-up movements almost imperceptible to us, when they sometimes point with one paw raised like a Pointer. When the escort came to leave them he gave them Sayad (Hunter), his black and tan hound, who, says Lady Anne "whined piteously when his master left. I like the dog for this". She coursed these two hounds after a hare which got up in stony ground "which would have broken every bone of an English greyhound, apparently without hurting themselves". She also coursed them after a jerboa which they found hard to catch. "Its hops were prodigious and from side to side and backwards and forwards, so that the dogs always ran over it, and snatching, always missed it; till at last, as if by accident, it jumped into Sheikhah's mouth. Abdallah and the rest were very anxious to eat it, but it was so mauled as to be beyond cooking'l She underlines that this is the role of her Salukis - to provide them with meat; "We have had no meat now for the last four days till today... we are in clover as the dogs coursed a hare, and we dug her out. The desert hare is a little bigger than a large rabbit, and is literally too much for one, and not enough for two". Later their coursing was helped by "a sort of lurcher who has attached himself to us. The servants call him "Merzug", which may be translated a "windfall" literally a gift from God, an unattractive animal but possessed of a nose". I came across just such an animal called a "Luqi" in Iraq which the locals used for its superior nose for flushing out game. All three hounds were also let loose on a hyena and "bodily attacked it, Sayad especially seizing it at the shoulder, but they were unable to stop it". The hyena was then shot and promptly cooked and eaten! Lady Anne also describes how she worked the hounds A7ith her falcon; "a hare wa.s started and the falcon lown. The Nefud i.s so covered with bushes, that writhout the assistance of the bird the dogs could have stood no chance, for it was only by watching the hawk's flight that they were able to keep on the hares track. It was a pretty sight, the bird doubling as the hare doubled, and the three dogs following with their noses in the air". The hare eventually goes to ground - "Hares in the desert always go to ground... I do not think the hares ever dig holes, but they make use of any they can find when pressed" even, as they found, when the hole is already occupied by a fox. I can confirm from frequent experience in Syria that the hare is adept at going to ground in time of need.
Finally the party arrived at Bushire on the Persian gulf but sadly she does not say what happened afterwards to the hounds. It seems unlikely that they came to England. In several illustrations in the book the hounds appear more like whippets than Salukis and I suspect therefore that the engravings were done by someone who did not see the hounds but drew them on the basis of their description of small greyhounds.
Wilfred Scawen Blunt with Sheikah, from "Pilgimage to Nejd", 1881
Gertrude Bell was an eveIl more daunting lady whose epitaph in Englalld (.she wa.s actually buried in Baghdad) describes her as "Schc)lar, historian, archaeologist, explorer, poet, mountaineer, gardener, distinguished servant of the .state". She first visited the Middle East when her uncle wa.s Ambassador in Persia in the 1890's. She made a number of daring exploratory trips into the Hejaz, Syria and Mesapotamia before settling down in Baghdad as the Oriental Counsellor to the British High Commis.sioner~ in which capacity she played a prominent role in er1gir1eering the selection of King Faisal I as monarch of Iraq.
Gertrude Bell's father with Rishan - April 1920. Newscastle University archives
It was while she was in Baghdad that she acquired her Salukis. She had a pair of feathered silver grizzles, which were given her by Fahad Beg ibn Hadhdhal, then shaikh of the Amarat branch of the Anaizah tribe. In a letter home writterl on :30 November 1919, she recorded that "the two most beautiful Arab greyhounds... had walked ten days down the Euphrates with two tribesmen to conduct them, and came in half-starved. They are sitting beside me as I write, after wandering about the room for half an hour whining. They are very gentle and friendly and I hope they will soon get accustomed to living in a garden instead of a tent. They are perfectly lovely and of course of the finest Arab breed. We have named them Rishan and Najmah - the feathered (thats because of his feathered tail) and the star...". Her prolific letters do not reveal if she went coursing with them but she certainly took them out with her when she went riding. Sadly there is no record of what became of these lovely hounds after her untimely death in 1926. Equally sadly when I visited the tribe sixty years later I could not find a single Saluki, although some of the old men recalled their existence in their youth.
Vita Sackville-West follows closely on from Gertrude Bell: indeed without the latter's assistance she would not have acquired her Saluki. Vita Sackville-West made her mark as a poet, novelist, biographer, travel writer, journalist and broadcaster. She was also one of the most influential gardeners of this century, creating with her diplomat husband Harold Nicholson one of England's most famous gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent. In March 1926 she was passing through Baghdad on her way to join her husband who was at the British Legation in Tehran. In the fascinating account of her journey "A Passenger to Tehran", which took her via Egypt and India as well as Iraq and back via Russia, she describes how she was greeted on her arrival at Gertrude Bell's house in Baghdad by a "tall grey saluki" She said that she wanted one like that to take up into Persia. In no time at all Gertrude Bell was on the telephone explaining that a friend of hers had arrived who must have a saluki at once and was leaving for Persia next day. While Gertrude was away at the office salukis began to arrive. "They slouched in, led on strings by Arabs in white woollen robes, sheepishly smiling... I had them all tied up to the posts of the verandah till Gertrude should return, an army of desert dogs, yellow, white, grey, elegant, but black with fleas and lumpy with ticks".
She chose a smooth female which Gertrude said must be called "Zurcha", meaning "yellow one". This is a curious name and Vita must have misunderstood what Gertrude said. Zurcha is not an Arabic word and certainly does not mean yellow but Zurqa means blue, which is the colour the Arabs normally use for describing fawn with a bluish tinge in Salukis. Anyway, Zurcha she became and the next day Vita set off with her in a car of the Trans-Desert Mail for Tehran. "I got into the front seat... with Zurcha, who although as leggy as a colt, folded up into a surprisingly small space and immediately went to sleep. I was glad to see this, as I had not looked forward to restraining a struggling dog over five hundred miles of country, and had not been at all at ease in my mind as to what a saluki straight out of the desert would make of a motor. That yellow nomad, however, accepted whatever life sent her with perfect and even slightly irritating philosophy. Warmth and food she insisted on; shared my luncheon and crawled under my sheepskin, but otherwise gave no trouble. I was relieved, but felt it a little ungrateful of her not to notice that she was being taken into Persia". She need not have had such qualms, as my experience with such desert hounds is that they are not at all nervous or highly-strung and have such an equable temperament that they easily adapt to new situations. When we took our little bitch Najma from the tents of the Al Murra bedouin in the Empty Quarter, we drove with her many hundreds of miles to Muscat and an unfamiliar house and she never showed or gave us the least anxiety
Zurcha's first bath 1926, by permission of Nigel Nicolson
Zurcha was however not a success. Vita's son, Nigel Nicolson, who kindly gave me the above photograph, drew my attention to Victoria Glendinning's biography of his mother in which she says in parenthesis, possibly quoting from Vita's daily letters to her mother, that "She turned out to be irredeernably stupid, and the only really unsatisfactory dog the Nicolsons ever had". Vita herself describes Zurcha in "Faces: Profiles of Dogs" as "without exception the dullest dog I ever owned. Salukis are reputed to be very gentle and faithful: this one... was gentle enough, because she was completely spiritless, and as for fidelity she was faithful only to the best armchair... nothing would induce her to come out for a walk - perhaps because I omitted to provide a gazelle. In the end I followed the historical tradition and gave her to a Persian Prince, who subsequently lost her somewhere in Moscow. I was unlucky, of course, in the only Saluki I ever owned, and these remarks must not be taken as an aspersion upon an incomparably elegant race". She was indeed unlucky as the desert hound is normally full of spirit and needs no inducement to go out for walks.
These brief sketches of one aspect of three remarkable women in the history of the Middle East reveal some of the special qualities to be found in the desert-bred Saluki: speed and agility over even the roughest terrain, courage and determination to attack much larger prey, fidelity to their owner, even temperament and adaptability. Let's pass over Zurcha's wimpishness as atypical!
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