Reviving Arab-European ties through falconry

A Sicilian nobleman who inherited his passion for falconry from Frederick II believes Arab-European relations can be improved by following the example of the Holy Roman emperor, who linked diplomacy with falconry, Hareth Al Bustani reports
Prince Alduino di Ventimiglia di Monteforte, a descendant of a Holy Roman Emperor, with his falcon and Saluki dogs at a Falconry Festival and Conference in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National
Prince Alduino di Ventimiglia di Monteforte, a descendant of a Holy Roman Emperor, with his falcon and Saluki dogs at a Falconry Festival and Conference in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National

You would expect to meet falconers at Abu Dhabi’s International Falconry Festival. But perhaps not one like Prince Alduino di Ventimiglia di Monteforte Lascaris, a descendant of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Sicily and author of the first book on falconry.

Despite the suggestion of grand titles and medieval tradition, Mr di Monteforte – his title is technically not recognised by the Italian republic – hopes to promote not just hunting, but also better relations between Arabs and Europeans. He believes the two are inextricably linked.

“Falconry, and horses, are things that you don’t have to explain. If you go to a European and start talking about Arab or Islamic history, they don’t always want to hear all those stories.

“But if you start showing them falcons and horses – this can be understood by a child, by an old man, by a doctor and a simple farmer. Because everyone will look at falcons, and from that you can go back to the culture and explain the meaning behind them, what is the point of view and what is the religious point of view. Everything is connected.”

Although it may seem curious for a Sicilian nobleman to care so deeply about Arab-European relations, Mr di Monteforte’s motives are a sign of his devotion to tradition.

When he hunts with falcons, he does so on horseback and aided by dogs, a method developed by his forefathers. Moreover, the prince’s belief in diplomacy through falconry was pioneered by his ancestor, Frederick II, King of Italy and Sicily and crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the 13th century.

“All of his teachers were Arabs,” says the prince of his ancestor, as he relaxes on a yacht at the Emirates Palace Marina. “His grandfather, Roger, had a very good Arab falconer – who taught Frederick too. These old falconry ways have gone from generation to generation to us.”

Mr di Monteforte says Sicily survived the Muslim conquests of the 9th and 10th century and that no grudge was harboured when the Norman, Roger of Sicily, overthrew the Muslim leadership in 1071 AD. “The best troops of the emperor, the only ones he trusted, were Arabs. He didn’t want Europeans,” he adds.

Frederick is recorded as speaking six languages, including Arabic, and had a great admiration for Arab scholars, falconers and intellectuals.

He was especially inspired by Arab culture as Byzantine and Greek influence declined. For their worldly attitudes, Roger II and Frederick were dubbed “baptised sultans”.

Frederick’s affinity towards Arabs also earned him the Pope’s ire, leading to excommunication during the fifth crusade for a lack of commitment. Mr di Monteforte explains: “He was pushed by the Pope to make a crusade, but he didn’t want to and he tried to take his time. One time he said he was ill and couldn’t go. So, the Pope said ‘OK, if you don’t go, I will excommunicate you’ – then he had to go.”

However, he says, Frederick “didn’t make war, he met the sultan Malik Al Kamil and they went hunting with falcons. They stayed three months in the desert, they played chess and they became very good friends”.

During the sixth crusade, Frederick received another excommunication on top of his previous one. This time because he wanted to reclaim formerly Christian holy lands without the Pope’s blessing. However, he managed to do what the four previous crusades had failed to do, and claimed the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Moreover, he succeeded through diplomacy, “without spending blood”.

“He wrote a letter to the Sultan, and this letter is fantastic because you can see the ways of the time.” The Arab chronicler Al Dhahabi alleges that Frederick’s letter pleaded for the Ayyubid Sultan to see reason, hand over Jerusalem peacefully and let Frederick keep face.

His friendship with Malik Al Kamil led them to sign in the Treaty of Jaffa in 1229, whereupon Frederick received Jersualem, Bethlehem and a corridor to the sea, for over 10 years. He also named himself King of Jerusalem, much to the annoyance of Pope Gregory IX.

It takes a bold man to defy the pope, which Frederick seemingly did frequently enough to be excommunicated four times. In addition, however, he also took on the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Frederick’s book, De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus, or On The Art of Hunting With Birds, is considered the seminal book on falconry – a worldly response to the imperfections present in the earlier Greek works. It explains not just falconry in great detail, but the anatomy of birds.

“The Arabs were at the top of science and culture, because culture comes from where the money is. So, he was asking the best falconers in the world to come – and that’s how he was able to write the best book on falconry in the world, which it still is.

“It has also been translated into Arabic, which is very interesting, because there you will see the meaning of falconry – and made by the emperor, who had an incredible mind.” Asides from being called a baptised sultan, Frederick was also nicknamed “stupor mundi” – the wonder of the world.

Mr Ventimiglia di Monteforte’s style of falconry involves riding on horseback and using dogs. Different dogs are used for different prey – for particularly dangerous prey, he uses fast dogs, which are able to help falcons finish off larger birds, such as cranes – popular prey in the 15th and 16th centuries.

He also uses his very own breed of horse, one that Frederick also hunted with, the Persano.

It was bred to be the ultimate warhorse, and its endurance helped it not only to survive Napolean’s disastrous retreat from Russia in 1812, but also lead the last successful Italian cavalry charge of the Second World War, against the Russians in 1942.

Mr Ventimiglia di Monteforte bought the last remaining horses from the Italian army, and today has about 100.

“If you don’t go hunting on horseback and do those things with dogs, you lose a large part of falconry, because falconry is not just the bird that goes to catch the prey. It’s much more than you can see today.”

Mr de Monteforte – who, as head of the family, is called the Count of Ventimiglia – says: “We are a family that always kept the rule of the imperial rule, which was always with the emperor. Whatever happened, we always had one direction – and that’s why we had this link with the Arab world. We had our word, and we had to carry on with that. If we are friends, we are friends.”

The two kingdoms of Naples and Sicily were merged in 1816, and within 30 years, Mr Ventimiglia di Monteforte’s family was pushed from power, because of their opposition to the House of Bourbon.

“We couldn’t do anything any more and we didn’t want to help somebody who was not only following the way of our family, but the way for good rule of Sicily.” His father did, however, run a petroleum company, working in Iraq, in the 1950s and 1960s.

Moreover, he says, the family remains close to Sicily, holding an annual “fiesta”, where knights are selected from 38 villages to race horses. The grounds are adorned with Mr de Monteforte’s family flags, and he delivers a speech – whereupon everyone swears on the family oath.

He says no culture that has ruled over Sicily has ever won, but has left something behind – for example, certain Arab words, and hospitality.

Looking ahead, he has bold aspirations, and would like to be part of a movement to build centres in Italy and the UAE that communicate both cultures, through falconry and horses.

“This world is much bigger than it seems to be. So we have to research the way to let both sides understand each other. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Arabic – the things which they didn’t teach me when I was young was really a pity. But, the thing is, with falconry, there is no need to speak.

“Everybody can understand what is happening in that moment. The only thing we have to explain now is the meaning of that. And if we can explain the meaning of that, then they can get into the culture, so we explain the culture.”

Published: December 16, 2014 04:00 AM


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