SI Vault
Virginia Kraft
December 24, 1962
The modern king of ancient Persia recaptures for an American visitor the adventure and elegance of sport in one of the world's oldest civilizations
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December 24, 1962

A Lady Hunts With The Shah

The modern king of ancient Persia recaptures for an American visitor the adventure and elegance of sport in one of the world's oldest civilizations

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This entourage, incidentally, might well have qualified as an army on sheer number. Except for driven shoots (like hunting, shoots involve guns and game but entirely different techniques), I had never before hunted en masse and I found it an unnerving experience. In addition to the actual hunters, consisting in our case principally of His Majesty and me, there were the Master of the Hunt; the Master's son, Lieut. Kambiz Atabai, who interpreted for his father; the imperial gamekeeper, who functioned as the No. 1 scout; an assistant gamekeeper; a photographer; an artist; two members of the imperial guard, who carried excess gear, easels, tripods and lenses; and, finally, one imperial horseman for each person of the entire party, making a grand total of 20 people. The party did not end with people, however, because each of us had a horse.

A word about the horses: they were stallions! This significant fact explained the extra 10 men in the party. Whenever one of us leaped (or, as in my case, was thrown) from his stallion, the imperial horseman specifically assigned to that person galloped up to hold the horse by its reins. This usually discouraged the riderless stallion from doing one of several things: biting a hunter or biting another horse and thereby creating another riderless stallion; kicking a hunter or kicking another horse, again creating another riderless stallion; or, most cataclysmic of all, galloping wildly back to the imperial stable hotly pursued, as likely as not, by the rest of the horses, most of which could count on being riderless by the time they reached the barns.

The flashier sides of their personalities aside, the Shah's horses were fundamentally the best schooled and the most responsive I have ever ridden. The rough, mountainous terrain in which they are used for hunting demands unusual sure-footedness combined with tremendous stamina to withstand 12-and 14-hour days of almost continuous riding, some of it at sustained gallops. Few horses could stand up to the test, but for two weeks I rode the same stallion, aptly named Bombast, and he was as full of high spirits on the last day as on the first. As good as the horses were, however, 20 people on 20 stallions are still a crowd and most of the game in the vicinity agreed.

The technique of Persian group hunting is to follow a quarter of a mile or so behind the imperial scouts, sometimes in a long single column, occasionally, where the terrain permits, in small social bunches. The imperial scouts, with the sixth sense and 20X vision that local trackers the world over seem to have, scan the surrounding peaks and ridges as they move along. As soon as one of them decides that that tiny black speck on the horizon is not a sunspot but a mouflon (the mountain sheep that abound in the imperial hunting areas outside Teheran at Farahabat, Jajerood, Sorkhehesar and Sanjariun), he holds up his hand for the procession to stop while an approach to the game is figured out.

There are several ways to make the approach. The Shah's favorite is to gallop straight to the game, chasing after it at breakneck speed through the mountains unmindful of rocks, ravines, cliffs and pulleys until he is within rifle range, and then either to leap from his horse to fire or, if there isn't time, to fire from the saddle. The leaping is interesting because instead of dismounting in the conventional fashion, he throws his left leg forward and over the horse's neck so that he slides to the ground already in shooting position. The amazing fact is that he usually hits his target.

The game can also be approached, if wind and geography are right, by plotting a stalk within shooting range. This, of course, is a common and dependable approach in the U.S. But few American hunters take along 19 other people and 20 stallions. Between the jangle of bridles, stirrups, rifles, lenses, tripods, thermoses and myriad other metal objects and the clop, clop, clop of the horses' hooves picking their way among the boulders, we sounded like a convention of junk dealers on parade.

And yet we managed, on occasion, to get within shooting range of a herd of sheep using such a cacophonic approach. This can only be attributed to a combination of exceptional good fortune, unsophisticated game (the area is hunted only by the Shah and his guests, and then infrequently), and a very noisy gale to mask the sound effects. Even so, the fact that we ever got shots by this method continues to amaze me.

Once we spotted a band of ewes standing motionless on the top of a rock promontory, and suspecting that there were probably rams near by, we stopped to scan the area with field glasses. So far ahead that they were merely tiny dots moving across a narrow saddle, we sighted a herd that numbered at least 100 sheep. They were running in waves of 10 or a dozen at a time from the protection of an outcropping of rock, into the clearing and across to cover on the other side.

"They're heading for a basin on the far side of this mountain," His Majesty whispered and handed me his glasses for a better look. "It's a long ride from here but the wind is very good. We would have to go a little fast to get there before they leave, but you will have a fine shot." It seemed the sporting thing to go along with the plan.

His Majesty took the lead and I was about a nose behind. The troops, clanking and jangling, brought up the rear. Just as I was beginning to think it was not only colorful but rather good fun to be cantering across the Arizonalike countryside with the Shah of Iran, His Majesty's horse shifted into high and the race was on. Everywhere he went, I went—but not with the same riding form.

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