Eagle as a Symbol of Kazakh Identity
Updated: Feb 27
Falconry is the traditional activity of keeping and training eagles for hunting among the Kazakhs of Mongolia. Since the Kazakhs migrated to Mongolia, they have continued their traditional practice of hunting with eagles and have passed this knowledge to their descendants as one of their most important traditions. During the shift to a market economy, falconry was also one of their sources of livelihood, as well as a bridge connecting them to other cultures. Falconry is still practiced today. However, this does not mean that every Kazakh person has trained an eagle. Only some of the herders who live in the countryside have taken young female eagles from the mountain, fed and tamed them, and learned the art of hunting with eagles.
The form of falconry among Kazakhs is unique in that they use female golden eagles, hunt on horseback, and primarily hunt foxes. The eagle is called bürkít in the Kazakh language. Mongolian Kazakh falconers, called bürkítshí or (burgedchin-is a Mongolian word), have developed a strong relationship and spiritual bond with their birds, and commitment is required to breed, train, handle, and fly them. Falconry has been transmitted as a cultural tradition by a variety of means, including mentoring, learning within families, and formalized training by an official association. The practice of hunting with eagles on horseback has become an important symbol of the ethnic identity of the Mongolian Kazakhs, to which many traditions and customs are linked.
The symbol of an eagle
The eagle is one of the most widespread bird symbols in the world. During the Roman Empire, it was believed that the god Zeus’ anger turned into an eagle, some said Zeus turned himself into an eagle. According to historical sources, the eagle represents power, glory, and valor, and is a symbol of the mind. Eagles and their representations are widespread throughout the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Eastern Africa, and the king of birds is renowned worldwide for its beauty, power, courage, and wisdom. For more than 2500 years, since the time of Imperial Rome’s eagle standard, Austria, Germany, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Spain, Libya, Mexico, Poland, Syria, and Kazakhstan have chosen this mighty bird for their national flags and official seals.
Falconry in Mongolia
Falconry in Mongolia in the high mountainous region of Mongolia’s Altai range, there are petroglyphs depicting birds of prey capturing booty that date from 3000‒2000 BC. There are many petroglyphs in this region describing various hunting birds and local herders. In fact, they still follow the tradition of teaching hunting practices to eagles. The petroglyphs that were found in the Mongolian Altai Baga Oigor depict the hunting birds in a special way.
Arabs, Turks, and Central Asian nomads enjoyed taming birds of prey and used them for hunting. Ancient Turks hunted with tamed wild birds of prey in the seventh century, which was written on the stone memorial statues of the time. French traveler Guillaume de Rubrouck observed in his travel notes of 1253‒1255 that “Nomads go getting birds of prey such as falcons in their right hand, hiding their eyes with something.” Italian traveler Marco Polo wrote in his Book of the Marvels of the World that the “Great king has many eagles which hunt deer, wolves, fox, and antelopes. They hunt many forms of prey. The largest, most powerful, eagles hunt wolves. No wolf can escape from their hooked snout.” Central Asian nomads hunted birds of prey in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, a fact that is often mentioned in tales and legends. Kazakh Ablai Khan in the eighteenth century had about 500 eagles and 300 hawks. The folk poet Mohamed Khanafiya, as well as the modern poet Abai Kunanbayev, wrote vivid poems describing these famous birds. Many documentary films and works of art on this subject have also been made.
Training and hunting with birds of prey such as hawks, falcons, and eagles are called shuvuulakh in Mongolian and this method expanded greatly during the Mongol Empire, as recorded in historical documents. However, contemporary Mongolians have already stopped taming birds of prey.
Today, Bayan-Ölgii Kazakhs still hunt with eagles. The Kazakhs who settled in Mongolia did not lose their ancestral tradition of training eagles for hunting and continued to use them for subsistence activities. During the communist regime, traditional rituals, celebrations, and ceremonies were forbidden, but training eagles for hunting was not prohibited. Furthermore, this has developed from an ancient tradition and has been transmitted from generation to generation until today. They mainly tamed female golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) and hunted for foxes, wolves, and corsac.
Since Mongolia has transitioned to a market economy, this tradition has become a tourist production that is displayed to the world. Although this tourism display is a new economic form that generates income, the Kazakh tradition of using eagles for making a living has continued.
There is a Mongolian guy named Batbileg who is setting an example by presenting Mongolian cultural heritage to the younger generation training falcon and an eagle. He founded the “Mergen” archery club and is also a board member of the Mongolian Falconry Association. Batbileg is a “Mongol stunt” team substitute actor, horse archer, eagle, and falcon trainer. His hobby became his career in 2006 when he was a student playing in various historical and action movies. Batbileg and his team played in three Hollywood movies such as Chinggis khaan-2006, Marco Polo-2015, and Mulan-2018. Batbileg believes that horse archery will be one of the sports that will make Mongolia's name known to the world. This team is planning to entertain the show at https://www.facebook.com/TereljHills during the busy tourist season of summertime.
Who are the Kazakh people?
The Kazakhs are a minority group in Mongolia and are Muslims. The Kazakhs in Mongolia mainly live in western Mongolia and engage in animal husbandry; the small remainder lives in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
It has been almost 160 years since the Kazakhs resided in Mongolia. In the early nineteenth century, some Kereits came to settle on the northern slope of the Altai chain and moved along the tributary of the Khovd River, in the present territory of Bayan-Ölgii province, western Mongolia. Kereit Kazakhs from the territory of Mongolia are those who have lived firstly in what is now Kazakhstan. Kereit people were one of the five dominant Mongol or Turkic tribal confederations (khanates) in the Altai-Sayan region during the 12th century.
They also migrated to China in the territory of modern Xinjiang. The 1921 Revolution in Mongolia brought in the decision to establish a stable border agreement between China, Mongolia, and Russia. However, the Kazakh nomads continued to move from one territory to another ignoring these boundaries until the creation of an area specially designated for their use in 1940. Kazakhs inhabiting Mongolia have successfully kept their national culture and traditions in their original form.
Among the traditions kept to the present are eagle falconry and its associated practices, their national holiday Nauryz and customs associated with daily life, birth, and death. During the recent development of the country’s market economy, these traditions recovered and gained importance, and other ethnic groups in Mongolia also became curious about these cultural behaviors and practices. Therefore, interest in Kazakh traditions has increased to a significant point.
Importance of an Eagle
The eagle was the meaning of life for Kazakh men and was related to the nomadic Kazakh culture. However, many people who were feeding eagles previously have not fed an eagle for many years. A total of 71.0% of the eagles being fed are between 1 to 4 years old and all of them are released back into the wild at 5 or 6 years old, although they continue to feed some eagles that have the ability to hunt for up to 10 years. They feed female eagles only. Experts agree on releasing an eagle back into nature after feeding it for 4 to 5 years in order to maintain the natural balance. Researchers have said that to ordinary citizens, an eagle means a contribution to their well-being, but to wealthy citizens, it can restore fortune; it also offers people the experience of the miracle of hunting and is a type of both art and sport. Falconry is the people’s preference, but it is important to establish biodiversity conservation, the development of methods and techniques for taming wild animals, and the protection of the environment.
How Eagles are fed and tamed Eagle training and hunting is a man’s occupation. However, when Russian-Israeli photographer Eshyer Svidyenskii traveled in 2014 to the Bayan-Ölgii area for 4 months to investigate falconers (bürkítshí or burgedchin), in particular, young apprentice hunters, he became acquainted with a 13-year-old girl named Aksholpan and learned about it from her. His report was published in National Geographic in April 2014 and created a worldwide sensation. It challenged the traditional understanding that the activity is only for men and provided significant evidence demonstrating that women are also learning these hunting practices. In the case of traditional eagle feeding, Kazakh women love and respect eagles because they hatch and help provide their special food. They prepare the men’s hunting gear and equipment and make their outer garments. Caring for the men’s specialized hunting gear is an activity among women that is regarded as equivalent to feeding eagles. Kazakh men teach their sons how to catch eagles and take proper care of them. This personal involvement helps transmit the practices to the next generation. Eshyer Svidyenskii reported that “when boys reach the age of 13 and have the strength to carry a large adult eagle, they are taught hunting skills. Among the Kazakh people, all traditional hunting skills were taught in the family.” However, an eagle is a very sensitive and alert animal that is used to being fed by its own master’s hand; if fed by a stranger, it may become dangerous and attack. Moreover, from an early age, Kazakhs play a major role in the protection and love of nature as well as in raising animals—this is their inheritance and their legacy to their children, and Kazakh children are raised with a true sense of the relationship between nature and people, which in modern terms represents bringing up eco-friendly minded individuals. When a Kazakh hunter catches an eagle hatchling, his whole family gathers in joy and his wife wears the yellow tail feathers to keep away bad luck. Elderly family members gather around, inspect the eagle, and akhsakhal (the eldest and the wisest man in Kazakh) blesses it so that it will become the “best hunting eagle.”
There are many observances related to eagles among the Mongolian Kazakh, who cherish eagles. They do not eat eagles, but they do keep eagle wings, talons, tail feathers, and syrinxes for the purposes of folk medicine. Kazakhs may show an eagle to someone who is frightened and put it on that person’s head.
The Eagle Festival
The development of the Mongolian Kazakh Eagle Festival in 1950, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the founding of Bayan-Ölgii Province, a demonstration of an eagle catching a fox was held in the center of Ulaanbaatar City. In addition, a meeting of bürkítshí was organized by an initiative of the executive administrative bodies of Bayan-Ölgii Province. These were the very first public events. Nowadays, the eagle is the carrier of the traditional culture. On the other hand, the eagle is also a part of a new economic trend. The Eagle Festival is a very interesting and unique product that attracts foreign tourists, thus providing a good opportunity for the development of regional tourism. Since 2000, the administrative bodies of Bayan-Ölgii Province have given the order to organize the annual Eagle Festival during the first week of October. This decision has caught the attention of both domestic and foreign tourists. During the ceremony, local residents and bürkítshí give a public demonstration in the center of Ölgii soum in BayanÖlgii Province. Afterward, bürkítshí astonish onlookers with the abilities of their regal birds.
At present, it has more than 400 members. Since 2007, right before Nauryz-which happens in March, the traditional New Year’s celebration, Kazakhs have held eagle ceremonies not only in Bayan-Ölgii but also in other cities, especially near Ulaanbaatar. In 2007, 15 bürkítshí came from Bayan-Ölgii to Terelj Gorkhi to demonstrate methods to locals as well as foreign tourists; in 2008, the number of bürkítshí participating increased to 20. The exhibition resulted from the initiative of Ambassador K. Saran, a former member of parliament. The event publicized the Altai bürkítshí, as well as making Kazakh heritage available to the members of this minority who live in cities far from their homeland. Since 2011, Chinggis Town Tourist Company has been a supporter of this festival. In 2014, more than 500 people attended the event, including foreign ambassadors to Mongolia, representatives of international companies, foreign tourists, Ulaanbaatar citizens, and Kazakhs. Many organizations have worked together to organize the celebration, including the Department of Culture and Tourism, the Council of Bayan-Ölgii Province, the Tourist Association of Mongolia, the Association of Bürkítshí, and the Wild Animal Protection Centre of Mongolia. The purpose of the event is to transmit, spread, and publicize the methods that have been inherited by the Kazakh people, to develop it as a new attraction in regional tourism, and to enhance the responsibility of all participants to nurture and protect nature. Since then it has been organized except in 2020 during the pandemic.
Accessibility of meeting in person with locals and customs you should know
A good horse, a hunting eagle, and a beautiful dombra are the three inherited treasures in Kazakh people’s lives. We have friends who are specialized in training eagles for hunting and they are also well-known in the community. Nurgiaev who is known as the father of Aisholpan is a citizen of Sagsai and Altantsugts province and has fed and trained eagles for all their lives. These families know how to host guests. When you visit Shaimurat Bakhitbek ’s home he loves to play dombra for the guests and it is a heartwarming aspect of their hosting. Muslims don’t eat pork. People who violate this rule are considered to commit sin. Kazakh women don’t marry Mongolian men differently in religion. However, they can marry a man of a different religion only if he agrees to take Muslim. There is no rule prohibiting Kazakh women to marry Mongolian men.
source: Study of Mongolian Symbolism