en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 12, Number 5May 1961

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Greyhound of the Desert

Swift scion of an esteemed and ancient line, the saluqi still speeds across the arid landscapes of Saudi Arabia.

The saluqi may be the oldest pure-bred dog known to man. Egyptian tomb drawings from 4,000 B.C. show this lean, wind-swift hunter streaking after desert gazelles. And even earlier (6,000 B.C.) carvings show saluqis hunting gazelles; pre-Islamic poems extolled "the fine-trained, lop-eared hounds with slender sides which lightly outran the sharp-horned white antelope." Two thousand years later the Egyptians mummified him, and Babylonian artists made carvings of him. The saluqi was referred to in Egyptian literature as "El Hor," The Noble One, Royal Dog of Egypt. His gaunt beauty was memorialized by Mogul miniaturists, Veronese frequently included him in canvases and frescoes; and Cellini saluted him in a bronze has relief. The speed and hunting prowess of the saluqi are often recited in Arabic odes. In the oral tradition of the vast Saudi Arabian desert his pedigree was passed on by word of mouth at the Bedouin gift-distributions of new litters. And today he courses after hare in the English countryside from Wiltshire to the Scottish border.

Little is known about the origin of the breed. Archaeology has provided pictorial evidence of its desert beginnings and long durability. But the name, as it now survives, suggests an ancient Arabic background. Saluqi is the masculine singular in classic Arabic. Silaqah is the feminine form; sulqan and salaq are both used as the plural form. Transliteration, at best a tenuous art, has played hob with the saluqi. He is commonly referred to as saluki in English. A close phonetic approximation of the word (as heard in colloquial speech) poses a tough problem: suh - loo - gee isn't far off the mark if you do two things—dwell briefly on the oo sound and use the hard g of grand in gee.

In Bedouin life the male and female saluqi are valued equally. The women and children feed and look after the dogs, but the saluqi is never made into a pet in the Western sense. When they are quite young, the Bedouin children pet their dogs and scratch their ears, but the severities of life in the desert leave little time for the young and older men to practice such amenities. The Bedouins are proud of the breed lines of good saluqis (the Anglicized plural). The women of the tent prepare a "nest" for the female about to whelp. A hole is dug in the sand to provide coolness and shade. A good litter will attract callers who hope for the gift of a puppy. When he was traveling through the steppes and sandy reaches of the Saudi Arabian deserts, H. St. J. (Abdulla) Philby, the late British explorer who wrote voluminously and with profound and sympathetic insight about Saudi life, observed that the Murra and Manasir tribesmen were the best breeders of the saluqi.

The family feeling about the saluqi was effectively described by Philby in an incident during his pioneer exploration of Rub' al-Khali (the 230,000-square-mile "Empty Quarter"—the world's largest sand desert). Philby's party was about to leave a grazing place where a Bedouin family was quartered. It was nearly dawn and the baggage camels had started much earlier. Philby didn't know it, but the baggage train had left with an added member—a purloined white saluqi that belonged to the Bedouin family. The women came out weeping and begged Philby to return the dog. They explained that their children were stricken by the loss. Philby first offered to pay for the dog, but the women would not accept the money. ("The Arabs do not traffic in dogs, whose price is unlawful money.") Finally, he sent for the train of baggage camels and had them brought back. The dog was returned, and the children were delighted to see their saluqi again.

Although they never treat any dog—even a saluqi—as a pet in the American sense, Saudi Arab boys who have gone to the United States to college have not found it hard to enter into the American way of treating the family pooch. American friends in the Arabian American Oil Company generally brief them on this and other everyday customs of the American home. But the saluqi, dreaming of a juicy hare, could never conjure up the menu of a U.S. dog. Like the Arab horse (another splendid animal), the saluqi eats dates, stones and all. He shares meat with his master if the chase is good. And he may get a cup of camel milk from time to time. Philby has told of the saluqi named Al Aqfa who traversed Rub' al-Khali with his party (in bardic times she would have entered into the rhymed lore of the Bedu) and of her cast-iron stomach. During one side hunt, one of the guides was able to snag a baby hare alive for Philby's collection of desert life. That night Al Aqfa ate it. A short time later Philby covered the skin and the skull of another hare with arsenic soap as a first step in preserving it. Al Aqfa again raided in the night. The next day she was ill. But by sundown she had started to throw off the effects of the arsenic. Her good, tough, desert stomach saved her.

One searches for the childhood equivalent of "bow-wow and doggie in household Arabic. An Arab guide from the south remembers children who had not yet learned to speak pointing to the family saluqi and saying, approximately, dith . . . duh. And another recalls young children saying ow, ow. But the adult Bedouin would find incredible the adult conversations with dogs that entertain many grownups in America.

The Saudi Arab in training a saluqi will never whip it. (A Bedouin guide started to tell a story about the time when he was a boy and his father caught him kicking at their sleeping saluqi. The father was enraged and . . . the guide stopped, a look of remembered pain clenched on his face.) The training of a saluqi starts at three months on desert rats. It then (if it is owned by a hunting shaikh) starts to work with a falcon. At six months it advances to hunting hares. At eighteen months it is ready to hunt game. Todav there is less and less hunting of gazelle because of the nearing extinction of that superb beast. The Bedouin believes that the saluqi hunts entirely by sight, despite the fact that its sense of scent is acute. A born hunter, the saluqi in the desert night will raise its head to the moon and issue a long wail of imitation in answer to calling wolves.

The saluqi is a beautiful animal, gentle, affectionate and loyal in personality, and on the Arabian peninsula it is seen in two major breeds. To an American the smooth-haired saluqi looks like a greyhound. (Eighteenth and nineteenth-century British travellers called saluqis Persian, or Turkish, greyhounds.) They have long, narrow snouts, deep chests, fine waists, and hocks that are well down. The width between the thigh bones at the top should be about the width of a hand, including the thumb.

Saluqis are found throughout the Middle East and have evolved in a wide range of terrain and climatic differences. A range of height from 23 to 28 inches (ground to shoulder) is permitted, and any color is acceptable. The most common color in Saudi Arabia is grey to white with a range of dark-to-light grey markings. A larger saluqi, reddish in color, with longer hair and feathered ears and tail is bred in the shaikhdom of Kuwait, to the north of Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf. Americans have said that it reminds them of an Irish setter when it races all-out in the bright sun. The saluqi lopes with rare grace, and the female is often the faster of the breed.

The speed of the saluqi has been measured variously and without any real accuracy. At 40 miles an hour a pure-bred does not appear to have reached its ultimate speed. That's about a mile in a minute and a half. One desert observer has said that a good saluqi will not "lose" a gazelle. There is little doubt that this desert greyhound is the fastest of all dogs.

The saluqi may have been introduced to Europe by returning Crusaders. The dog in the bronze has relief which Benvenuto Cellini executed for Cosimo de Medici in 1544 has been remarked by Hope Waters as "strikingly similar to ... the handsomest in England today." This comment by an expert observer confirms the long purity of the saluqi breedline. In 1922 the saluqi was recognized as a distinct breed by the Kennel Club of England. Today breeders are active in both England and the United States.

The American saluqi was imported largely from England and represented in main the same quality as the British-bred stock. New blood came to be badly needed as continued inbreeding weakened the stock. The new blood came unexpectedly in 1949 with an exceptional pair, Ch Abdul Farouk and Ch Lady Sarona Ramullah, from the kennels of King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia.

British Field Marshal Sir Henry Maitland Wilson was the guest of King Ibn Saud at a royal gazelle hunt. All through the hunt one young, black male was noted to be "outstandingly clever." Afterwards, the King took his guests to see all of his saluqis and related their pedigrees in Arabic as each was led out. Some were smooths, some feathered and several had cropped ears. Everyone agreed that of all the saluqis seen that day, the young male of the hunt was the most impressive. Thereupon, the King insisted on presenting the male and a suitable saluqi mate to Field Marshal Wilson. When the Field Marshal was assigned to Washington, he brought the dogs along. The male, Ch Abdul Farouk, (now owned by Mrs. Esther B. Knapp, breeder of saluqis in Valley City, Ohio) was particularly interesting to American show judges because his ears were cropped. He completed his championship, unbeaten, and is the only cropped saluqi with this title.

And Ch Abdul Farouk is no doubt the only saluqi champion bred by a king!

This article appeared on pages 3-5 of the May 1961 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May 1961 images.