The White Review

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Forgotten Sea: The Falconers of the Eastern Pontos

I.
As I stood on the flanks of the Kaçkar Mountains where they slope into the Black Sea near the town of Arhavi, the placid horizon of water struck me with a sense of fear. It was the same feeling many people get when swimming in the open ocean: you imagine the emptiness stretching for hundreds of metres beneath your kicking legs and experience a kind of vertigo; the blackness below assumes a hostile presence, and you wonder what it might conceal, and shudder at the loneliness of sinking into it.

I was visiting the northeast corner of Turkey – a region once known as the Pontos – in pursuit of sparrowhawks. I had heard about a local falconry tradition that seemed so unusual as to be scarcely credible. As I became more interested in the region, however, and the falconers and their dying pastime, I became ever more fascinated by the Black Sea itself. If the Mediterranean has been a canvas for human history, a teeming petri dish in which Western culture evolved, the Black Sea has had a more diffident relationship with the people surrounding it. Apart from in the north, the flat curves of its coast are largely bereft of the islands, peninsulas, and natural harbours that have folded the Mediterranean so snugly into the societies that fringe it. Before they strung their colonies along its southern shores 2,500 years ago, the Greeks called it Axeinos – the Inhospitable Sea.

 

Perhaps I felt this fear because of what I had read about the flood. During the last ice age, when global sea levels were more than 100 metres lower than they are today, the Black Sea was a freshwater lake disconnected from the Mediterranean. As the ice melted and the sea level rose, it remained as much as 90 metres lower than the neighbouring sea, which was separated from it by the sill of land on which Istanbul now lies. In 1997, American scientists Walter Pittman and William Ryan published a theory claiming that the waters of the Mediterranean spilled over this sill 7,500 years ago in a cataclysmic flood. A surge of water 400 times greater than the Niagara Falls plunged through the channel now known as the Bosphorus with a roar that would have shaken the ground like an earthquake. In roughly two years, 60,000 square miles of land were flooded as the level of the Black Sea equalised with that of the Mediterranean. In the north, the deluge created the Sea of Azov and the Crimean Peninsula. Pittman and Ryan provocatively claimed that the calamity was of such a scale as to impress itself on human mythology ever since, as the Flood. Not everyone accepts their theory, and some scientists argue that the rebalancing of the two seas was more gradual, and the original difference in levels smaller than they have suggested, although corroborating evidence has been found recently in the form of underwater canyons at the Bosphorus mouth that show signs of catastrophic erosion consistent with that caused by a giant cataract.

 

It was not only this ancient rumour of disaster that impressed me that late summer day: I was also thinking about the anoxic zone. Beneath the Black Sea’s surface lies the world’s largest basin of dead water. From a depth of around 150 metres to the bottom, some 2 kilometres below, the sea is without oxygen, and thus without life. Most bodies of water, from ponds to oceans, undergo a natural process known as turnover, whereby deep water depleted of oxygen by organic processes rises to be replaced by water from closer to the surface. Due to the unusual hydrological system in the Black Sea created by its disproportionately large fresh watershed, and constricted access to the neighbouring Mediterranean, this process has not occurred there for thousands of years. In its depths, bacteria have stripped the oxygen from organic sulphates to form hydrogen sulphide, which is dissolved in the water and turns it acidic. During the First World War the British tested the noxious, combustible gas as a weapon.

 

Scientists and archaeologists who have ventured into the anoxic zone describe a void, in which even the seabed seems to lack substance and solidity. It is coated in a black, fluffy sludge: the sapropels, an untouched feast of organic matter that accumulates in these conditions. ‘It’s a very quiet world that we don’t see any place else,’ says William Ryan. ‘There is nothing crawling on it, nothing burrowing in it, no fish diving for food.’ Submarines that venture down there return to the surface gleaming, purged of rust. The acidic water eats metal, but organic remains decay at a rate slower than they would in oxic conditions. The only things on which the eye may gain purchase are the dead fish or debris that fall onto the seabed and lie there, abstracted in the blackness.

 

As I read about these things, and about the processes of cultural and environmental destruction that overwhelmed the Pontos in the past century, the Black Sea seemed to be a kind of guilty conscience, a repository for all that has been thrown away. In April 1982, the military junta that ruled Turkey issued a directive ordering that state documents older than twenty years be destroyed or recycled as part of a ‘housecleaning’ operation to free up new storage space. In the city of Trabzon this was taken to include the Ottoman provincial archive, much of which was duly dumped in the sea: tonnes of documents stretching back 500 years to Mehmet the Conqueror’s seizure of the city from the Comnenes. The incident is cited by historian Taner Akçam in his book examining the deportation and annihilation of most of Anatolia’s Armenians between 1915 and 1919, and is among many examples illustrating the Turkish state’s pathological indifference to its own past. ‘This pattern of wholesale disregard for its own posterity is characteristic of an authoritarian institutional culture that tends to evaluate history and historical documents as potential “threats” that may, in some cases, need to be destroyed,’ wrote Akçam. ‘Finding no inherent value in preserving its own past, Turkish officialdom prefers to get rid of it.’

 

The dumping of the archives echoes a more brutal event that occurred in the same place seven decades earlier. When Trabzon’s Armenian population was deported and massacred, 3,000 orphans remaining in the city were killed in a variety of ways, but mostly through mass drowning operations in the Black Sea. Among the eyewitness testimonies concerning these events given by Turkish officials and foreign diplomats, Oscar Heiser, the American consul to the city, reported that boats ‘were loaded with people at different times [with the result that] a number of bodies of women and children have lately been thrown up by the sea upon the sandy beach below the walls of the Italian monastery here in Trabzon and were buried by Greek women in the sand where they were found’.

 

 

II.
Each autumn as the cold spreads across Russia and Eastern Europe it sets in train a vast migration of birds of prey. Passing through the Caucasus and entering Anatolia, eagles, kites, harriers, buzzards and hawks gather in the thousands where they travel through narrow bottlenecks formed by the passes of the Kaçkar Mountains.

A few months before I witnessed this spectacle myself, I had met a Turkish conservationist who described a tradition connected with it. As the migration reaches its peak in September, the men of the region send their children to hunt for an insect, a large burrowing cricket. This is placed alive inside a trap where it acts as bait for a bird, the red-backed shrike. Once the shrike is caught it is tethered to a long pole, which, after two or three days, it becomes accustomed to using as a perch. Equipped with these aerial rods, the men take to the mountains to fish the skies for sparrowhawks. Attracted by the fluttering of the shrike, the hawks plunge into nets. From that moment, the men keep the birds with them almost constantly, and within only a few hours a hawk has forgotten its wildness to the point that it is content to eat from a man’s fist. Within as little as a week, it may trust its new keeper so completely that it will fall asleep on his hand. When the birds are thoroughly tame, usually within ten days, they are taken out to the cornfields to hunt quail, which pass through the region on a parallel migration. The hawk is held in the palm of the hand and cast like a winged javelin at its quarry. If properly trained, the bird will remain with its kill until its captor comes to retrieve it. After about a month and a half of hunting in this way, when the quail season ends, the hawks are released back into the wild to complete their migration, bound for North Africa or the Mediterranean.

 

The Turkish for Accipiter nisus, the Eurasian Sparrowhawk, is atmaca (‘atmaja’), which takes as its root the Turkish word atmak, to throw, in reference to the action used to cast the bird at its prey. The tradition itself is called atmacacılık (‘atmajajerluk’), and the man who does it (for they are all men) is called an atmacacı.

 

As throughout Europe and the Middle East, falconry was a prominent part of the culture of the Ottoman Empire. At one point the Sultan kept a team of 3,000 falconers, who were exempt from taxation. Street names here and there in Istanbul retain references to this past. Doğancılar Parkı, Falconers’ Park in Istanbul’s Üsküdar district, was where the royal falconers were quartered. Turkish surnames abound with variations on Doğan (falcon) and Şahin (hawk). Falconry, however, has almost entirely disappeared in modern Turkey. Most vestiges of it were swept away along with other trappings of the Empire when it collapsed in the wake of the First World War. Its decline in Europe and elsewhere happened through the course of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries and was linked to the rise of the firearm, industrialisation, and the collapse of the feudal societies with which its practice was tightly bound. In the twentieth century, the transmission of falconry knowledge has depended on a relatively small pool of dedicated practitioners. Yet here and there, in regions sheltered to some degree from the transforming currents of modernisation, falconry has survived into the second half of the twentieth century as part of the fabric of everyday life.

 

The men who practice atmacacılık are mainly Laz, an ethnic minority of some 50,000 or so people living in the provinces of Rize and Artvin to the east of Trabzon, and who speak in their homes a language related to Georgian. The history of atmacacılık remains fairly obscure. The earliest possible reference I have found comes from Johan Schiltberger’s Bondage and Travels, an account of the author’s odyssey through Anatolia, Russia, and the Middle East around the turn of the fifteenth century, when the region then known as the Pontos was loosely controlled by the Grand Comnenian Empire. Schiltberger, a German fighting in the army of King Sigismund of Hungary, was captured by the forces of Ottoman Sultan Beyazit I, for whom he then served as a runner and visited much of Anatolia. He describes a legend encountered when travelling in the Kaçkars, of a castle in which a beautiful virgin is guarded by a sparrowhawk on a perch. To whoever sits outside her chamber for three days and three nights without sleeping, the virgin grants a single wish. If the wish contains any trace of pride, impudence, or avarice, the supplicant will be cursed. The legend seems to refer in a garbled way to the medieval practice known as ‘the watch’, by which a falconer would sit with a newly acquired hawk for three days and nights, allowing neither himself nor the bird to sleep. After a while the hawk, in its tired state, would simply forget to be scared of the man, and accept its human perch.

 

I flew to Trabzon in early September, where I was met by Doğan Smith, Turan Basri, and Louis Smulders. Turan and Louis were both falconers, British and Dutch respectively. Doğan, an American biologist who has dedicated himself to the study of the tradition, was our guide. In the string of towns along the E70 coastal highway, you can tell the falconers by the crisscrossed scabs and scratches on their hands: they do not use gloves. We were standing outside the falconers’ cafe in Pazar; a group looked on, hawks on fists, cigarettes in mouths, as Metin Yoğurtcu shook a quail carcass before his bird then tossed it a few feet across the car park. Drawn by its eyes, the hawk slid from his arm and unfurled its wings into a diagonal fall; it levelled – breaking with a flutter – grasped forward with its talons and alighted on its prize before casting its eyes about as if searching for challengers, then fussily refolded its wings. Little by little, he was teaching the bird to hunt from his hand, or rather to hunt irrespective of his presence, and to allow him to approach and retrieve the kill. Metin, early 40s with a square jaw, blue eyes and hair a premature white, eased the bird back onto his fist and raised it to his eye, stroking his hand along its neck and back and looking at it with an air of rapt, guileless pride. The hawk, ignoring him, darted its head this way and that, indifferent to his touch. Above them the traffic of the coast road rumbled on.

 

I don’t know where I had imagined these men before I met them, but it was not here, not in the urban sprawl of these coastal towns. In Pazar, the falconers’ club was tucked beneath an overpass of the E70; in another town, behind a run down bus station. Moonlighting as atmacacı for two months of the year, the rest of the time they were janitors, grocers, pharmacists, or electricians. A more likely setting might have been the one for which this region is best known in Turkey: plunging wooded valleys, pristine mountain pastures, tea terraces, and scattered villages of timber houses. Though I had never set foot in it, this landscape was familiar from the photographic murals that jump from the walls of regional restaurants in improbable, overpowering greens.

 

 

III.
When I was first told about atmacacılık, I had known little about falconry, but what I did know mingled with my greater ignorance to make the tradition (the capture of a sparrowhawk, its training in a week, its release) seem almost mythical. As a teenager, I had harboured a brief fantasy of becoming a falconer, and had read about it for a week or two before realising that the commitment, hard work and patience it required were beyond me. I knew it was a delicate and time-consuming practice, and that of all the raptors the sparrowhawk was among the most notoriously difficult. It seemed almost impossible that a man could train a bird plucked from the wild in so little time. My amazement increased when I learned that the atmacacılar handled them with none of the usual paraphernalia. They did not use hoods, which are often put on a hawk’s head in order to shield it from alarm during transport. They did not even use scales to weigh their birds, usually considered crucial in the case of the sparrowhawk, which due to its small size is acutely sensitive to either under- or over-feeding.

Unlike humans or dogs, most species of raptor are not social animals and are incapable of forming dominant or submissive relationships. They have never been domesticated, in that we have never influenced their evolution for our own ends. They are iron-willed, driven by inflexible passions of fear and hunger; a falconer’s task is to eliminate the first and manipulate the second. If mishandled, the bird will remain in permanent rebellion until it dies of stress or exhaustion. It is sensitive to the subtlest of new experiences, and accepts the falconer’s presence only when it stops viewing him as a source of danger. The falconer must come to share this sensitivity and moderate even his most trivial actions. Coughing or blowing one’s nose, for example, may cause deep anxiety. Jack Mavrogordato, in A Hawk for the Bush, an authoritative work on the training of sparrowhawks, advised falconers to breathe softly around a newly acquired hawk, avoid staring at it, and wear dark glasses to hide their alarming human eyes.

 

Should a bird of prey escape even for a few hours, it will swiftly revert to its wild state. Habits that run counter to its nature – trust in humans, for example – will quickly fade if not constantly reinforced. Upsetting or traumatic incidents, meanwhile, sear themselves indelibly on their minds. A falconer cannot lose his temper with his bird, ever. Victories in the ‘manning’ process – days of calm in which the hawk slowly feels itself more comfortable in human company – are only ever provisional, but defeats are often final. In falconry, perhaps more than in any other of the alliances we force on animals, it is the human that must bend his life around the hawk. The bird transforms only subtly, and only insofar as the human is transformed in its own eyes.

 

Raptors radiate an air of savage intelligence. When one thinks of ‘bird-brained’, one imagines the prey species, pigeons and so on. In fact, the reasons for us assuming their stupidity are quite shallow. Their eyes are monocular, placed either side of the head, unable to consider one object together. When a pigeon twists its head from side to side, it creates the impression, to human eyes, of a creature with a limited perception of the world around it. The eyes of a predatory bird are binocular, like our own. When its face is turned towards you, you have no doubt that it is considering you. The psychotic yellow of a sparrowhawk’s eye, the permanent scowl of its brow, its head endlessly and minutely adjusting its gaze, convey the impression of a mind both acute and imperious, in which humans are merely threatening objects to be tracked and avoided.

 

The visual world Accipiter nisus inhabits is far richer and more spacious than our own. Its eyeballs, only about 10 per cent of the surface of which are visible in the face, are so large that they touch together in the middle of its skull, and are nearly the same size as its brain. Its vision is similar to other birds of prey: a highly flexible lens allows it to scrutinise objects 500 yards away as easily as those a foot away; its retina receives a broader range of light than our own, edging into ultraviolet, and in a resolution eight times higher. Like those of all birds, its eyes are immobile, and to gain a better view of an object the entire head must be rotated, lending it an expressive air of inquisitiveness. Often when studying an object it will crane its whole body forward and down, perhaps because its twin foveæ – the parts of the retina with the greatest acuity – are located on the lower half of its eyeball. When a hawk studies its handler in this way it looks almost as if it is bowing, creating a false impression of submissiveness.

 

The sparrowhawk is a prolific killer of small birds. In a single year in the wild, a successful breeding pair and their chicks will consume a weight of flesh equivalent to 2,200 house sparrows or 600 wood pigeons. It is among the family of raptors known as the short-winged hawks, so called because they are adapted for flight in woodlands. Long tails and a narrow wingspan make them more manoeuvrable than the falcons, their long-winged cousins that are adapted for soaring in the open sky. The sparrowhawk is a creature of stealth, of lethal ambushes and camouflaged pursuits through the undergrowth. Many birds of prey happily eat a variety of meals, but the sparrowhawk’s diet is unvariegated: it feeds exclusively on small birds. This means that even in comparison to other predators, its life is geared uniquely around the mania of hunting. Unlike falcons and eagles, which usually kill their prey instantly through force of impact, a sparrowhawk will grip its victim, clenching and unclenching its talons until it is so thoroughly perforated as to be immobile. It does not particularly care about killing it, so long as it is still enough for the hawk to begin eating. A sparrowhawk that cannot kill twice a day, every day, is unlikely to survive long, and in this battle to feed themselves the majority quickly fail. Of those that successfully fledge, as many as two thirds of all males and half of all females die in their first year, principally of starvation. They are creatures balanced between their own death and that of their prey, crafted by the constant pressure to kill.

 

Along with their larger cousin the goshawk, they are often seen as the crude butchers of the raptor world. People who have observed them closely, however, believe individuals develop sophisticated hunting techniques, learning for example to imitate the flight of harmless birds in order to fool their prey. They are experts at using cover – tree trunks, hedges, garden fences, parked cars – in order to maximise the element of surprise. Their hunting is practical, unglamorous, but effective. Falcons and eagles are showmen by comparison. A falcon will ascend into an amphitheatre of sky before folding its wings and diving on its prey: a stooping peregrine is the fastest creature on the planet. The suspense is greater, the outcome less certain. This translates into eagles and falcons being considered the more prestigious birds. Of the two short-wings, it is generally the goshawk that is the more popular: it is larger, easier to handle, and can take a wider variety of prey. In northeast Turkey, it is impractical to fly falcons and eagles in the enclosed landscape of thickly wooded mountains, valleys, and small fields, and there is little game large enough for a goshawk. The target is quail, and the only hawk adept at taking it is the sparrowhawk.

 

 

IV.
We traded the grey congestion of the coast for the uplands above Arhavi, where narrow valleys cast shade over steep terraces of tea and stands of hazel, and homesteads smattered the slopes. Further up, this gave way to woods of chestnut and hornbeam, as we drove up a track cut by the parks commission to fight forest fires. We had with us the shrikes, which had little bowls of meat or egg fixed to their poles for sustenance. The birds, mainly females with plain brown backs and whitish breasts, radiated an intense, miniaturised energy: hopping up and down the length of their sticks, sampling their food, studying and working with their beaks at the strings tethering their legs. The birds are fitted with blinkers that allow them to see only downward, intended to prevent them panicking at an approaching hawk. In the old days these were made using a quarter of a hazelnut shell, stuck on with pine resin. Today they are usually a semicircle of leather, warped using a lighter flame and stuck on with superglue. The men insist that these simply fall off after a couple of weeks without causing any lasting injury.

The sea, a primary blue, was stretched smooth as a platter beneath the sky, and the green mountains piled hazily into the distance as the coast curved away into Georgia. Beneath the migration route, the trappers had set up hides covered with brush with narrow eye slits facing eastward, towards the oncoming migration. Above us flowed an unending procession of birds of prey. There were hundreds, probably thousands; steppe buzzards and honey buzzards, red kites, hen harriers, Montagu’s harriers, pallid harriers, a range of eagles: imperial, Bonelli’s, and others I could not distinguish. In places they gathered in eddies, towering upwards on thermals until they were mere specks in the blue. The men ignored this spectacle; sparrowhawks fly low, close to the treeline, easy to miss. Next to the hides were a series of nets, loosely pegged to a semicircle of hazel rods. When a sparrowhawk approaches, the shrike is stuck out and the pole waved so that it flutters above it. The hawk dives at the shrike but hits the net. The shrike generally survives the encounter, although I was told there are occasional casualties: a clever hawk will see the trap and attack from the other side.

 

I had not seen it approach, but one was suddenly thrashing in the net. It was retrieved and tightly bound in a handkerchief, and left on a table, where it lay like a cob of corn with a livid, staring head; this was the start of the training process. A hawk, if it must be physically constricted, should be constricted entirely. If it is able to struggle even slightly, its agitation will increase, but if it is unable to move at all it will grow calm. After a while the captured hawk was equipped with jesses – leather straps fastened round the legs to secure it to a tether – and moved to a perch beside the hut, where it sat, wings drooping and mouth agape. If I approached even within a few metres it would bate wildly from the perch, but within an hour or two it began to calm.

 

The trappers claim they can catch as many as twenty sparrowhawks a day in this way. Most are immediately released, since the falconers use only newly fledged females; sparrowhawks being the most sexually dimorphic of raptors, and the males are too small to reliably hunt quail. The females are so much larger – almost double the weight – that they are known to hunt and kill the males. Raptors caught on their first migration, known as passagers, were once the birds of choice for falconers everywhere. They have the advantage over eyasses – birds taken as chicks from the nest or reared from eggs – of already knowing how to hunt, making the falconer’s job easier. Haggards, older birds caught on their second migration or later, are more hardened in their fear of man and therefore more testing. The most dependably human-bonded birds are imprints, eyasses reared by hand that believe the falconer to be their mother. These also harbour negative traits: they will often scream for food and their lack of wariness around humans can make them unusually aggressive.

 

When raptor populations plunged worldwide in the 1960s, due mainly to the use of the pesticide DDT in agriculture, the trapping of wild hawks was tightly regulated or banned in many countries, and captive breeding programmes began. In Turkey, legislation banning atmacacılık was passed in 1984, but the tradition continued much as it always had. After lobbying from falconers, it was re-legalised in 2002. Today falconers must be licensed, and are only allowed to trap sparrowhawks, and only a certain number each year.

 

While sparrowhawks are among the world’s most abundant birds of prey, the practice remains controversial, and is despised by Turkey’s environmental and animal rights lobby. The falconers argue their tradition has a positive effect on the population. They take hawks at a time in their life cycle when the natural mortality rate is highest – around 50 per cent – and claim to release them well fed and in peak condition. Conservationists on the other hand say that the birds’ survival chances may be damaged by their captivity, and by the consequent delay in their migration. Since no scientific data has been gathered on the subject it is hard to say more. A very feasible study could be done in which trackers are fitted to sparrowhawks used in atmacacılık and those released immediately on capture in order to compare their fate once returned to the wild.

 

In recent years, another criterion for the selection of sparrowhawks has become increasingly important: the colouring. Doğan has recorded at least sixteen subtly differentiated hues recognised by the falconers, from kara (black), to kızılçam (red pine) and beyaz (white), and which category a bird falls into is the subject of frequent and heated teahouse debate. The birds vary in their juvenile plumage: they are pale breasted with darker backs, ranging from brownish-slate to shades of buff or ochre. Most prized and rare is the white sparrowhawk, fading pictures of which usually adorn the walls of the falconers’ cafés. One old man pulled a wallet from his pocket and showed me with relish at least a dozen creased photographs of bygone hawks as if they were old sweethearts. In recent years the obsession of some atmacacılar with this purely cosmetic quality has been taken by more serious practitioners as the sign of a general malaise. ‘In earlier times it was only important that it was a good hunter because it had to catch quail. The colour didn’t matter,’ said one falconer. A growing number of atmacacılar are interested solely in trapping the hawks for fun, or having a fine-looking bird to take to the teahouse. ‘I only do it to be out in the mountains, in the fresh air and the joy of having the contest between the small bird and the large bird,’ said one. ‘The moment it is in the net I’m not interested any more. Unless it is an exceptional bird I release it straight away. If it is a very beautiful bird I take it to the café and show it off.’

 

 

V.
Once a year on 23 June, the eve of the feast day of Trabzon’s patron Saint Eugenios, the women of the city would bathe in the Black Sea. This tradition persisted among the Muslim population long after the Christians, among whom it presumably originated, had left the city, and was witnessed by the historian David Winfield in the summer of 1960 as he was supervising the restoration of the frescoes at the city’s Hagia Sophia. It continues to this day in towns along the coast in the form of local marine festivals, known as aladurbiya.

During the course of that work Winfield met Anthony Bryer, with whom he was later to write The Byzantine Monuments and Topography of the Pontos. The product of four decades of research and scholarship, this forensic work quarters every valley and town of the region, delving into the roots of their names, the legends and traditions of their people and plumbing 2,500 years of historical literature.

 

It is also an epitaph. The Pontos – a region of the Black Sea coast stretching from the west of Trabzon to the Georgian border in the east, bound by the Kaçkar Mountains – had ceased to exist as a cultural region by the time their work was published in 1985, and had become a purely historical thing. It was the victim of a century-long process of cultural, ethnic, historical and environmental destruction. In the years since Bryer and Winfield first met, ‘the Pontos has suffered a greater physical transformation than in its entire previous history,’ they wrote in their preface. ‘We believe these decades are the last in which our work would have been possible.’ William Hale, a retired professor of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, who worked on the Hagia Sophia restoration with Bryer and Winfield, recalls that in those days tobacco fields and grazing cows stretched to the beach where the women held their ritual bath.

 

Today, an artificial embankment of freshly-blasted boulders makes up the entirety of the Pontic coast. In the past fifteen years, 250 miles of coves, rocky outcrops, shingle beaches, old piers and town waterfronts have disappeared beneath the asphalt of the E70 highway. On a grey afternoon in Trabzon I negotiated with difficulty the four-lane cordon that now severs land from sea. I watched some coots bob in the black water as a thin drizzle flecked the rocks near to where a huge stone visage of Suleiman the Magnificent glowers down on an empty park. I tried with mixed luck to piece together a sense of the old city from the modern one that has engulfed it. I found what had been the nineteenth century Armenian cathedral, its dark stones disassembled and reconstituted into the blockish headquarters of a state bank. In some places, the riddled and half-inhabited remains of the city walls looked romantic. I saw the Hagia Sophia standing alone on a rubble-strewn hill. It was soon to be reconverted into a mosque. Regrettably I did not make it to the citadel, where Rose Macauley’s heroine in The Towers of Trebizond painted the city from the ruins of the imperial palace, while imagining the intrigues of the Comnenian court.

 

I have come to see the E70 not only as the literal link between the towns of the falconers, but as a thread that connects the various kinds of transformation and destruction wrought on the Pontos over the past hundred years. The more organic forces of economic development are now concluding what began in the early twentieth century with ethnic upheaval and forced cultural assimilation. The coast road was the final and dramatic solution to what had been one of the defining traits of the Pontos: its inaccessibility. The region had little in the way of coastal lowlands. The wooded mountains, with their steep river-strung valleys, plunged straight into the sea. For centuries most transport was by boat, despite the poor harbourage. When Mustafa Kemal first surveyed the region as Turkey’s leader in 1924, he was rowed ashore from his ship because the town of Rize had no jetty that could accommodate it. In the 1950s young men leaving to perform their military service were picked up from the beach in a rowing boat that ferried them to a waiting vessel. Before a tunnel was blasted through a shoulder of mountain near Arhavi in 1960, the 100-mile journey from the Georgian border to Trabzon could take six or seven hours. The idea of a coast road had been discussed for years, but work began fitfully in 1987. It then progressed at speed after the election of the current Justice and Development Party government in 2002, which enacted a nationwide infrastructure development programme on the back of an economic boom and was completed in 2007. Today nearly every beach as far west as Samsun lies under asphalt. People sometimes joke that where they once lived on the sea, they now live on the highway.

 

After the Greeks had yoked the Black Sea’s shores with their trading colonies and started to exploit its riches, its name was inverted from Axeinos to Pontos Euxeinos, the ‘Hospitable Sea’. The Pontos was once so closely associated with the sea that it took its name from it. It was a place at once worldly and arcane. In the same way that far-flung islands beget unusual flora and fauna, its thickly wooded mountains and deep valleys made it a haven for the survival and elaboration of obscure cultures; and yet its position at a terminus of the Silk Road, and the sea-spanning trade network of its Greek population, also made it a place distinguished by its cosmopolitanism and tolerance. When the Byzantine Empire collapsed following the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, an unusual Pontic splinter state emerged: the tiny but bombastically-named Grand Comnenian Empire. For 250 years the Comnenes – a deposed Byzantine dynasty – governed over a kind of relict, freighted with the obsolescent pomp of Rome. Its rulers styled themselves ‘Emperors of All the East, the Iberians, and the Overseas Lands’, and its opulence amazed European envoys sent there. It retained its improbable sovereignty through its rulers’ deft diplomacy, and the advantageous marrying of princesses to the neighbouring Georgians and the various Muslim rulers surrounding it.

 

The Pontos remained a place apart long after Trebizond fell to the Ottomans in 1461. Turks settled in the region in greater numbers, but a large Greek contingent persisted, comprising about a quarter of the total population as late as 1910. Trebizond thrived fitfully as a trading port, foreign powers posted consuls there, and Greek and Armenian merchants and bankers rubbed along with the growing Muslim populace in a harmony unmatched in most other parts of Anatolia. Language, religion and tradition bled into one another.

 

This world collapsed at the start of the twentieth century, when the fabric of the Ottoman Empire was torn apart by the competing nationalisms of Turks and Greeks and the machinations of the imperial powers, culminating in a bloody sifting of its ethnic and religious constituents around the years of the First World War. After the purging of the Armenians in 1915, the Greeks were evicted in 1922 as part of a forced population exchange negotiated between Athens and Ankara. The Greek merchants left, taking their trade network with them, and the Communist regimes that later arose on the Black Sea’s farther shores offered no outlet for it to be revived. The people of the Pontos had their gaze torn inland, towards the new Turkish capital Ankara. In the territories of Anatolia Mustafa Kemal Atatürk set in train a state-building enterprise that was antithetical to everything that had hitherto defined the Pontos. The new nation was to be homogenous, inward looking, and avowedly hostile to the region’s non-Turkish past.

 

 

VI.
Over the coming decades, its architectural history was destroyed, vandalised or left to decay. Of the roughly seventy buildings that were once churches in Trabzon in 1915, only ten survive today. Many were dismantled following the departure of the Greeks and Armenians, but what began as an assault on Christian heritage evolved into a more widespread revolt against the past. As the drab modern city expanded, historic mosques were demolished, including one of the oldest, the Tabakhane. Nationally, Ottoman-Arabic script was scrapped in favour of Latin characters and Turkish was stripped of its Arabic and Persian words, meaning that in time historical documents and inscriptions became indecipherable to all but scholars. The campaign of Turkification was most pronounced in the purging of the millennia-old toponyms of towns and villages. The current names of the towns of the falconers – Pazar (‘Market’), Çayeli (‘Teatown’), Fındıklı (‘Hazeltown’) – are bland creations of bureaucrats, imposed over older ones whose roots went twenty centuries deep. Pazar, for example, had been Atina, whose provenance was first discussed by the historian Arrian 1,900 years ago; he suggested it was a place sacred to Athena. In fact, Winfield and Bryer argue, it may have been older still, a Hellenised version of a Lazuri word meaning ‘the place where there is shade’.

Not everything was swept away. Hidden in the steep valleys of the Pontos were communities that seemed to defy the rigid categorisation imposed by the new national identity, but which remained in place due to having embraced Islam, often centuries before. Around the town of Of, east of Trabzon, live the Oflu, several thousand of whom still speak in their homes a Pontic Greek dialect that is considered the closest living relation to ancient Greek. Back in the mountains further east are the Hemşin, who speak a kind of Armenian and, unlike their kinsmen, traded the cross for the crescent some five centuries ago. The most numerous, however, are the Laz, perhaps the region’s most ancient inhabitants. They are associated with the Kingdom of Colchis, centred around present-day Batumi, from where Jason and the Argonauts won the Golden Fleece.

 

The Lazuri language is most closely related to Mingrelian, a member of the Georgian language family. It has survived, in the words of the writer Neil Ascherson, ‘like some ancestral wedding dress that is of no use to anyone outside the family’. Today, these old identities are worn lightly, in jest, or not at all. ‘In the past, some of those people living close to the coast were Greeks and those living closer to the mountains were Armenians, but neither of them accept that identity today,’ one falconer told me. ‘They say it to each other as a joke.’ An insult sometimes aimed at the Hemşin by the Laz is dönmüş Ermeni – ‘converted Armenian’ – to which the Hemşin can respond with dönmüş Meğrel – ‘converted Mingrelian’.

 

Today, the Eastern Black Sea Region, as the former Pontos is now known in Turkey, is renowned as a hotbed of conservatism and ultra-nationalism. ‘If people from around here are ever stopped by police anywhere in the country, they let us go as soon as they hear our accent,’ said one Laz falconer. ‘Everyone knows that the people from around here are loyal.’ Trabzon itself is an inversion of the vibrant and tolerant city that preceded it. The young killers of Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist murdered in 2007, were recruited from the city, a fact that is sometimes touted as a source of pride. In the summer of 2013, as a mass protest movement gripped the country, a popular act of dissent was to paint street stairways in the colours of the rainbow. One group made a contrasting statement, however, painting a stairway near the Istanbul street where Dink was gunned down the colours blue and red: those of Trabzon’s football club.

 

In the past two decades a movement has emerged to assert Laz cultural and language rights, but it has more support among the diaspora in Istanbul than in the northeast, where such things are seen as echoing Kurdish separatist aspirations. Some of the Laz I spoke to about it expressed a wistful regret at the slow death of their language. ‘The older generation wanted their children to learn proper Turkish and not a dialect,’ said one falconer in Pazar. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t teach my children the language, and now they are asking me why I didn’t.’

 

As we sat in a falconer’s hide looking out over the expanse of the Black Sea, a golden light flared in the distance as the afternoon sun caught the face of a skyscraper in Batumi, on a faraway headland. Any cross-border cultural ties were effectively cut during the Communist era, and the fall of the Iron Curtain has done little to restore them. The early 1990s saw a horde of impoverished traders from the former Soviet Bloc who flooded Turkish towns and were chiefly known for the shoddiness of the goods they peddled, which threw on its head Turks’ notion of their inferiority to the great powers, and led many to take a prouder view of the country’s place in the world. ‘Natashas’ – prostitutes from the former Soviet Union – set up shop in local hotels, becoming the means by which many local men ruined their families and finances, indirectly boosting religious political parties through a surge in support from outraged wives. Today the situation has settled, but Georgia is still regarded by many with some contempt, as a place of hedonistic escape, and a source of cheap smartphones. Batumi, said one falconer, was a place of ‘gambling, entertainment, and sex. That’s all.’

 

 

VII.
The arrival of an unusual bird brought tension to the falconers’ teahouse in Çayeli, dividing those in the courtyard of the pine-panelled café between fascination and sour disinterest. A young man had entered with a female goshawk on his arm. He had caught it about a week before, but was showing it in public for the first time. Beak aghast, the bird jerked its head at the panorama of threat around it, bating powerfully from its keeper’s fist. A knot of men had formed and was inspecting the hawk, but others remained on their stools, muttering disapproval. In this region there is no game large enough to be caught by a goshawk; the only reason to have one on your fist is to show it off. The serious falconers often complained that many of those catching and keeping hawks had no intention of ever hunting with them. They cared only for the fineness of the plumage – what one called ‘the coffee house criteria’. ‘It is like going to a party with a beautiful girl on your arm,’ one said. ‘A real hawker will spend his days catching quail.’

The young man was obviously besotted with the bird. It had a martial look, and was three times the size of the sparrowhawks around it, which cowered when it was brought close to them. Its breast was cream, tinged with russet, and irregularly flecked with dark vertical brushstrokes. Its eyes were almost white, with only a faint greenish wash, and as it gradually calmed, it cocked its head upwards and scanned the sky as if contemplating escape. The young man said he would train it and hunt with it. A little while later another falconer invited us to his home to see his birds. Our own presence in the café had caused excitement, and the young man had sought advice from Louis on how to care for the hawk, and asked to join us. He got in the front passenger seat, the goshawk still on his fist. As he pulled the door to, the bird bated in alarm, and the door slammed shut on its unfurled wing. He opened it again; the wing fell limply to the bird’s side, a patch of blood clotting the feathers where the bone broke the skin.

 

The thin sobs of the goshawk – an unexpectedly feeble sound, helpless and self-pitying – rendered silent the other commotion that erupted in those first few seconds. We immediately set off for a vet. The young man’s face was heavy with dejection: he seemed close to tears, and there was an air of grief in the car. On the way we talked uselessly over the circumstances of the disaster, trying to rationalise and explain it, our efforts punctuated with awkward silences filled by the bird’s faltering cries. It was the young man’s fault. He had never taken the hawk in a car before, a new and frightening experience to which it should have been introduced with care. He also made a basic mistake by holding it on his right fist – the door side – rather than on his left. We talked about what would happen next. No one thought the vet would be of much help. Louis believed the kindest thing was to kill the bird: the break meant it would never fly again, or at least not well enough to survive in the wild, and it would be miserable kept in captivity and unable to hunt. The young man said he didn’t care; he would keep it as a pet. The vet turned us away, saying there wasn’t a person in the whole country who could help. We went on to the falconer’s house, and Louis took the hawk and bound its wing to its breast, in a position he said might allow the bone to mend. He recommended putting it in a dark, quiet place. They took it to a shed, and I didn’t see it again.

 

I saw the boy again when we returned to Çayeli a few days later. When I asked him about the bird, he showed no flicker of his former distress. He said he had shown it to an older falconer who had immediately wrung its neck, telling him it was bozuk – broken.

 

 

VIII.
‘When I was a child there were 5,000 falconers here. Now there are 300,’ said Kemal Özbayraktar, head of the falconry association in Arhavi. ‘Our culture is dying.’ Kemal is a tall man in his early seventies with silver hair, a polished Istanbul accent, and an air of dignified severity. We visited the home his father built in the hills high above the town, where his elder brother now lives. Up the steeply twisting lane to the house, a medley of the exotic and the familiar glowed in the afternoon sun: kiwis and chestnut, hazel, hornbeam and tangerine, banks of faded papery hydrangeas, and below, pillows of tea rippling down the hillside to the town, where the slender minarets and smokestacks of the tea factories merged with the gathering dusk.

More than anything, it was the arrival of tea that marked the fall of atmacacılık. In the early years of the Turkish Republic, the provinces of Rize and Artvin were among the poorest and least developed in Turkey; the people were mainly farmers, living on maize and rice. Falconry had long been a part of this subsistence lifestyle. The oldest falconers still remember the women of the household plucking quail and pressing them into huge clay pots where they were salted and stored, then consumed through the winter. Hızır Yoğurtçu, an 80-year-old with limpid blue eyes, recalled the limitless bounty of the days when farmland covered the coastal strip and ran up the river valleys.

 

‘Once I went out with my father, and by the end of the day we had ninety-nine quail,’ he had told me at the Pazar Hunting and Falconry Club, where he held court. ‘My father said we should have a hundred. Just as he said it the hundredth got up, just next to us. And then we had another, so it was a hundred and one in a day. That was fifty years ago by the Fırtına River.’

 

The new regime was looking for ways to drag the northeast out of its penury and isolation. The state had made fitful efforts to encourage the cultivation of tea in the area around Rize since shortly before the Ottoman collapse, and these continued in the 1930s. Regulations were drafted for the industry but it was only later, when the Democratic Party came to power in 1950, that a plan emerged to put tea at the heart of the regional economy. The state created an entire industry from scratch: it built factories, trained workers, subsidised plantings, created the market and bought the crop. Hitherto Turks had largely been coffee drinkers. Coffee had to be imported, however, so new tariffs on foreign coffee and tea effectively excluded any competition.

 

It was a spectacular success. The product of the eastern Black Sea coast flowed to every corner of the country, turning Turks into a nation of tea drinkers almost overnight. In those early years, people in the northeast called their new crop the ‘green gold’. When he was a child, Kemal remembered, a kilo of tea was the same price as a kilo of olives or sugar. The government paid an incentive to plant it, and every family cleared every patch of soil they could put a spade in to make way for it. ‘We lost the hazelnut woods, we lost the corn and we lost the rice. The whole region changed,’ said Kemal.

 

Men worked in the factories, women in the tea fields. The verdant plantations were a desert to the creatures that once thrived on the corn and rice, however, including the quail that would hole up in them during migration. ‘Where tea is planted, not even grass grows below it. There’s nothing left for quail to eat,’ said Kemal. Not that it mattered. With the salaries they now earned, people no longer needed to produce their own food. In less than a decade, the northeast changed from being a place which people left to seek their fortunes into a magnet for migrant workers. The benefits trickled through the whole economy: local hauliers were contracted to transport the harvest, a construction boom created work for builders, furniture makers, plumbers, and so on. People left their villages and moved into houses and apartments in the coastal towns, such that today, the entire strip from Trabzon to the Georgian border is an almost unbroken stretch of conurbation. The pressures and responsibilities of modern life left little space for something as time-consuming and suddenly obsolete as falconry. ‘In the past, a wife would say to a lazy husband, “At least you could go out and get a hawk and catch some quail,”’ said Kemal. Now the popular stereotype is the reverse: where once a wife would berate her spouse for not hawking, she now berates him for doin it. ‘All women hate it,’ pronounced one falconer. Falconry had become boş işi – ‘pointless work’.

 

Whatever nostalgia there is for the past, however, is overridden by a sense of the enormous material progress the tea brought. The misgivings most people express about the industry has more to do with the bust that hit it in the 1980s, and which has dimmed its lustre. In today’s neoliberal Turkey, the tea industry is a relic of the past: still mostly in public hands, with the government company, Çaykur, setting a fixed annual purchase price for the harvest. Turkish tea is dependent on protectionism, since it could never compete on an open market with tea from India or China in quality and production cost. Nonetheless, as Turks now routinely rank among the top tea consumers in the world, it has become the product by which the northeast proudly defines itself, and the mainstay of its economy. In the centre of Arhavi, a statue has been erected showing a man and a woman clasping hands, each thrusting their free arm up into the air. They brandish the twin symbols of the town: the woman a sprig of tea leaves, the man a sparrowhawk. Positioned almost back-to-back, they seem to be walking in mid-stride, as if pulling each other apart.

 

 

IX.
During the few days I spent in Kemal’s company he was rarely without a hawk. It was usually on his fist, or on the hand rest between the driver and front passenger seat in his car, or on the long bar perch in the restaurant at his cultural centre. He had even constructed a perch in the street outside the pharmacy he ran with his wife. Like most of the more serious falconers, he would have one or two exceptional birds which he would keep permanently – another falconer had one that was now 10 years old – and perhaps two or three others that he would capture, train, hunt, and release in the traditional way over the course of a season. Mavrogordato wrote that a falconer should be ‘something of a thought reader, consciously if somewhat surreptitiously watching his hawk and taking note of its passing moods’. The falconers seemed acutely aware of their birds’ moods, even if they appeared to be ignoring them. They would sit, one hand stroking its back and neck, raising or lowering the bird or shifting its position, all the while deep in conversation with their friends. This stroking was constant, and is one of the key tools of manning: in time the hawk ignores the physical contact altogether. If the bird was alarmed, signified by an open mouth or drooped wings, it would be held aloft slightly so it could look down on its captor and feel itself more secure. Eventually it would grow calmer, shift its tongue in its mouth, scan the room, and concentrate on an object other than its human keeper. When a bird is truly relaxed, Kemal explained, it will sit on one claw, with the other curled up into its feathers. The ultimate sign of trust is if the bird falls asleep on the fist: ‘This makes me happier than I can say. It is like when a small child falls asleep on his chair and you carry him up to bed.’

At the cultural centre that Kemal runs in Arhavi he explained the principles of manning a hawk. From the moment of its capture, he said, a good bird can be trained in a week, but more typically ten days to two weeks. ‘When they train dancing bears, they heat the ground beneath their feet, and the heat makes them lift them – it’s done with force. You cannot do that with a bird. The important thing is the love you have for it… There has to be feeling that the owner loves the bird and it will trust him to protect it.’

 

In modern falconry the question of how much time to keep a bird on the fist is much discussed, and yet Kemal and the other falconers I met were not vexed by it. Most would keep a bird on their fists for short stretches of perhaps forty minutes or so at a time depending on its mood, sometimes with almost constant bating. It would erupt into the air and then plunge down and hang – wings open, head to the ground – and be lifted back into place only to do the same again and again. It was good for the hawks to be together, Kemal said, because they would relax quicker in each other’s company. Sometimes these sessions, generally in the teahouses, would continue late into the evening. When a bird is truly accustomed to human company ‘it does not matter if it sits on your fist or on a wooden post.’

 

Food is the most vital tool in training, and a hawk is made to feed from the hand on its first day of captivity. Generally its first meal is egg, which will form a staple of its diet in captivity. The bird is tricked into eating by being encouraged to peck at a fist holding the food. It is generally on the second day that it is introduced to company for the first time, being taken to the tea house, ideally with dogs around as well. When the hawk is sufficiently comfortable the falconer may begin to throw it a dead quail on a lure. After about a week to ten days, or whenever the bird is judged to be familiar enough with people, it is taken out into a field or woods where there is a lot of wildlife; if it shows the proper keenness, such as bating at passing birds, it is generally judged ready. The first quail it is flown at is normally captive bred and released from the hand on a creance – a light, long line that hawks are flown on during training. The field is tilted in the hawk’s favour because if it fails to make a kill on this first attempt the experience can be psychologically damaging; it will not believe it is possible to hunt in conjunction with man, and may refuse to do so in future. When birds are lost, it is almost always after an unsuccessful hunt. If the hawk makes a kill it will generally stay with it and allow the falconer to approach. If it fails to strike however, it will likely go to a tree and continue to hunt alone. Every minute it is gone, its connection to its keeper weakens, its wildness returns. Passagers and haggards of most raptor species – even those kept in captivity for years – are usually able to integrate back into the wild.

 

Mavrogordato noted that passage sparrowhawks could sometimes be ‘curiously and unexpectedly amenable to the discipline of training’, and the question of how the atmacacılar manned their birds in such a short space of time had ceased to seem so mysterious. Kemal estimated that he had handled some 2,000 sparrowhawks over the course of his life; catching several in a day, he was able to sense very quickly which birds might be most amenable to man, even from the way they approached the net. ‘There are smart ones and stupid ones. The ones that see you from far away and attack anyway are stupid, the ones that circle the net and find the best approach are clever… There are some that are so afraid of people that you cannot train them. But there are some that already hunt quail, and if you find one of those then you are very lucky.’ He reckoned he had had only five such birds in his lifetime.

 

Also, the falconers do lose their birds, often. Kemal said he had lost maybe 20 per cent of those he had flown. Sparrowhawks are easily obtained, and the falconers will often have two or three at a time. If one disappears, another can quickly be procured. This means that atmacacılar tend to take more risks in flying a hawk that may not be perfectly manned. Often they are not trained to fly to the fist, which is important if one wishes to retrieve a bird from a tree. Generally they rely on the fact that a hawk will seldom miss its target, and so will not often have cause to escape.

 

At Kemal’s cultural centre in a huge darkened room full of chairs and tables, we watched a documentary about falconry featuring a younger Kemal. In grainy washed-out colour it took us through the stages of sparrowhawking, from the catching of the cricket to the bird’s release. Kemal told the interviewer how he had moved back to Arhavi to pursue his love of falconry. In the final scene, Kemal stood on a rocky sea wall, in a raincoat, hood up. He held the bird and gently kissed its back, before releasing it dovelike into the air in jerky slow motion, waving it goodbye.

 

 

X.
I took the bus to Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, where I hired a car and struck out along the shore of the Sea of Marmara towards the countryside beyond the town of Silivri, to meet Salih Doğrusadık.

Through the city suburbs I passed the lagoons, pale and insipid in the dirty morning light, before making my way down a series of forking lanes until I arrived, miraculously, at the small camp Salih and his friends had built in a hollow between some fields. Autumn was greying without the graceful hues commonly ascribed to the season. The landscape was rolling and enclosed in an English way, with pillows of woodland and the kind of sad, feral feel one often gets on the verges of cities. Speculators owned it, perhaps, or people who knew better than to care too much.

 

On a long perch fixed between the branches of a tree were tethered two sparrowhawks. Karakız – ‘Black Girl’ – had been caught about a month earlier, and was ‘70 per cent trained’, Salih said. We sat and drank tea in the square wooden shelter he and his friends had erected. Salih was a mechanical engineer, 50, balding with a wide warm face. Every year he took a month’s holiday, and he spent all that time here, hawking. Once a week he would go to get supplies and see his family at his home in Ümraniye on the other side of Istanbul. The trip between Silivri and Ümraniye would take him across the length of the metropolis, some 40 miles as the crow flies, a drive of four hours, in bad traffic, through a nearly unbroken sprawl of city. Around this time a documentary came out called Ekümenopolis, about urban overdevelopment in Istanbul. It took its title from a theory originated by the Greek city planner Constantinos Doxiadis, who argued that, based on current models of urban development, a time will come when all the world’s cities will fuse together into a single urban sprawl, the ‘ecumenopolis’, encompassing the entire globe. The idea was rhetorical, of course, but the kind of growth it was criticising pertains in Istanbul, where the construction industry is used to lubricate a system of political patronage and where forests of skyscrapers proliferate on the city’s fringes in soulless half-empty wastelands.

 

Atmacacılık arrived in Istanbul in the 1940s when people moved there from the Black Sea coast. Like Rize and Artvin, the city lies on a major bird migration route, and they found that on the wooded hills around Beykoz and Sultanbeyli they could trap hawks in the same way they had back home. Salih was 17 when he moved from Çayeli to study machine engineering at Istanbul’s Yildiz Technical University, and he never returned. He was already a keen falconer when he came to the city. ‘I started playing with birds as soon as I could walk. My father wanted me to be a falconer and I was more interested in birds than my brothers.’ When I asked him about how he remembered Çayeli, about how it has changed, he said that in his childhood you could count the number of people in the neighbourhood who didn’t have sparrowhawks. ‘We were hunting so many quail that we could use them as meat through the whole winter.’

 

Today, among the Black Sea community in Ümraniye, he is one of the youngest falconers. ‘I miss the old days when all of us were doing it… Atmacacılık is a culture that passes from father to son. In Turkey you don’t pick up a hobby when you’re old, you have to grow up with it.’ Like most of the falconers I had spoken to, Salih used the word ‘hobby’ – a direct loan from English – with slight reticence. It is a recent concept in Turkish, and implies both a lack of seriousness and also a certain irresponsible disregard for more weighty matters, such as work and family. What about his own children? He has one son, now 16. Salih’s wife had made him agree not to pressure the boy into taking up atmacacılık. He painted a familiar picture of the wife and hawk at odds. ‘Falconers have to walk a tightrope when it comes to their wives. Sometimes it’s harder to hold this balance with our wives than it is to train the birds.’ He said he would still have taken his son out hawking if he’d expressed an interest, but he never has. ‘He doesn’t know anything about atmacacılık and he doesn’t know much about Çayeli.’ He will graduate high school next year, and plans to study computer engineering at university. ‘I understand why my son won’t get involved. I’m sad but I understand it. We want our son to grow up and be a man, and by that we mean to have a good education, a religious education, get a wife and give us grandchildren. That is when you reach a point of happiness, I suppose.’

 

We went over to the birds and saw that Karakız was keen and ready to hunt. Salih walked through the field, holding her aloft in his crooked arm like a soldier one sees in the war scenes on Greek vases. When the chase occurred it was both slower and faster than I had imagined. The quail had erupted from the grass, a compact whirring of wings. The hawk loosed from Salih’s hand floated behind it, so smooth and silent she seemed suspended in the air. It closed on the quail and the two birds merged and sunk to the ground together. It was over in perhaps five seconds. The hawk sat on its prize with an air of defiance, surveying the weedy ground around it. Sinking to his knees Salih crept forward on all fours and for a moment the two seemed to eye each other in standoff. The hawk did as she was trained, however. She looked about herself with haughty indifference as Salih’s hands reached for the quail. She watched his fingers as he parted the feathers on its head, and presented her with the exposed pink skin of the crown; the hawk pried its beak through the skull and tasted the brain.

 

Heading back along the Marmara, dozens of boats were scattered at the mouth of the Bosphorus: rusting hulks from the former Soviet bloc, oil tankers, vast Chinese container ships. These sometimes wait for weeks to pass through the congested channel, and dot the horizon of the Marmara, lights glinting in the evening, like an armada of floating cities. Again I imagined the flood, and pictured all the boats in the tug of a fearful current, drifting in eerie unison towards the mouth of the strait. I thought of the people of the Pontos thousands of years ago; to them, the flood would have seemed like a slow, ceaseless tide. On that precipitous coastline, the waters ultimately advanced only a few hundred metres. At a certain point, however, they must have feared it would never stop. It is a natural human reflex to imagine the frightening forces of one’s day pursued to their most disastrous conclusion. Fleeing over the Kaçkars, they would have looked back with dread at the thought of the water beyond creeping higher, imagining the day when it would crash over the peaks and inundate the entire world.

 

Alexander Christie-Miller is a writer and journalist who lives in Istanbul, where is correspondent for The Times


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