There were few traces of the Arab world in what was billed as the Arab world's first dog show, held last October at a Beirut golf club. It was fashionable, it was international and it was big—a surprising 39 breeds showed up. But with one exception, it looked a lot more like Crofts' than Arabia. The exception was the presence of two beautiful salukis, the graceful, smooth-coated, fleet-footed hunting dog which was once the royal dog of ancient Egypt and is to this day the beloved and respected pet and hunting companion of the Arabian Bedouins.
Dog fanciers and hunters alike find the saluki an incomparably beautiful creature. Whether feathered or smooth, the saluki gives an impression of grace, symmetry, strength, speed, gentleness and refinement. It has a proud, finely molded head and muzzle, an arched neck, silky drooping ears, a long curved tail and eyes that are not only expressive but keen. Like the Persian greyhound and the Afghan hound, both also known to the ancient Egyptians, the saluki relies on sight in hunting rather than scent.
This perfection, experts say, is the result of some 8,000 years of domestication and a blood line going back to the animals who, somewhere in the ancient Middle East, were found by nomads, tamed and trained.
Precisely where that happened is a wide-open question. Seleucia and Saleuzia, in Turkey, both claim the first salukis, but lexicographers say the name saluki is most probably derived from the name Saluk, a long-vanished city of southern Arabia famous for its armorers and its hounds. For evidence they cite an early Arab poem, in which the poet says: "Oh, my hound, brought by kings from Saluk."
In any case, the tradition of saluki breeding was, and is, deeply rooted in the desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula. In both tent and palace the saluki held, and still holds, an honored place. Their speed and beauty are legendary, poets have sung their praises and painters have given them immortality by decorating tombs, frescoes and royal pottery with their images. Pedigrees, ranging across the centuries, are learned by heart and sung or chanted, and handed down from generation to generation, some tribes citing pedigrees 1,000 years old.
Since devout Muslims usually despise dogs as unclean creatures, there is a noticeable paradox in this centuries-old tradition. The explanation is that the saluki is not considered as merely a dog. As a hunting companion who brings food in its mouth to its masters, the saluki— al-hurr, the noble one—is as different from the ordinary dog (kalb) as silver is from tin. While a mere dog is kept outside the tent or encampment and often left to fend for itself, a saluki is admitted to the shaikh's tent. Sometimes he is even allowed to ride on the camels with children and baggage so his feet will not be hurt by burning sand.
In desert settlements the master of the hunt is expected to train the saluki to help catch the gazelle, one of the fastest of all animals. He starts by turning the pup over to his children who, for six months, train him to retrieve pieces of meat. Next, the dog is sent after jerboas, graduating slowly to hares and finally to gazelles. Usually, however, a saluki takes little training. The hereditary instincts are so strong that he often learns his duties from other dogs.
Salukis, it is said, can run down a rabbit "in a moment." But chasing the "shy gazelle" is the great desert sport, and for this the dog needs not only sharp eyesight but incredible speed. Gazelles have outdistanced trucks going 40 miles per hour and some hunters say they can hit 50 miles per hour even across difficult country. To catch them, salukis sometimes run in relays along the path likely to be taken by gazelle. At other times the dogs are not released until they're only a few hundred yards from the herd but then, in hot pursuit, race for miles over the desert, their claws tearing at terrain that would break the legs of similar dogs.
Considering the value of such dogs it is no wonder that the desert Bedouin is said to honor the saluki by refusing to sell him. He might sometimes present one as a gift to an esteemed friend, but a purchase was traditionally impossible. Nevertheless, like the equally treasured Arabian horse (Aramco World, September-October, 1972) the saluki soon started finding its way to the West.
The Crusaders, for example, who were fascinated by the speed and beauty of the dog, sent some back to Europe not only for hunting, but as proof that they had really been to the Holy Land. Later, Italian traders in Syria sent some to Venice where they became so popular Paul Veronese painted them and Benvenuto Cellini, one of the world's great sculptors, put one into a bas-relief in Florence.
Much later, in the 19th century, the shaikh of the Tahdwi tribe in the Saliha desert of Egypt gave a certain Colonel Jennings Bramley two salukis which he in turn presented in 1895 to Miss Florence Amherst in England as the progenitors of a now-famous line of English salukis. Twenty-seven years later the British Kennel Club agreed to register the breed and in 1924 England held its first saluki show. The breed was not recognized by the American Kennel Club until 1927, and when the American Saluki Club was formed the same year there were only eight members. Today there are more than 600, proof that the world's oldest domesticated animal is alive and well and living wherever man chooses to lead him.
Paul Brock has contributed to such publications as Dog Fancy, Science Digest, Saturday Review, American Heritage and The New York Times.