The Golden Eagle Nomads
"Fine horses and fierce eagles are the wings of the Kazakhs"
- Ancient Kazakh Proverb
Nobody knows exactly when the Kazakhs tamed the Golden Eagle of Central Asia.
Herodotus refers to nomadic eagle hunters in 5th Century B.C. Marco Polo wrote about the Kazakhs in his epic “Travels” account. The name “Kazakh” dates as far back as the 13th century, meaning “independent”, “free” and “nomadic”. These terms perfectly define this legendary people, so famous for their pride and skills on the battlefield. Genghis Khan is said to have had over 5000 "eagle riders" in his personal guard. We do know that since the 15th Century, nomadic Kazakh tribes on horseback, with eagles alert at their sides, have roamed freely across the borders of what is today Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Western Mongolia.
Now at the dawn of the 21st Century, the nomadic way of life is fragile and in danger of being eradicated. History has long threatened these legendary horsemen. The Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin's purges and China's cultural revolution drove the roaming Kazakhs to the mountains and valleys of Mongolia, where they have found refuge and the freedom to live as they have for centuries. But even now in this remote area globalization and the encroachment of the West may irreversibly change the eagle riders' way of life.
Every year soon after the first snowfall these majestic men will head up into the mountains in search of prey. They will lose their eagles on any unsuspecting fox, rabbit, and even wolf. The Kazakhs capture their eagles while young, often directly from their cliff side nests. They take only the female, which are larger and more aggressive than the male. The eagles stay with the hunter for about seven years, during which time man and bird live in symbiosis, bound in survival. With a wingspan of over 7 feet and talons that can easily crush bone, these majestic predators make formidable allies. Today in the more isolated valleys of the Altai Mountains this hunt still provides needed food and furs for harsh Siberian winters. And it has now become an honorable tradition and a right of passage for the Kazakh men.
My personal project has been to document these vanishing nomads before they and their traditions are lost forever. I have had the opportunity to live with their families. To ride, hunt and eat and drink at their tables. And I will forever be changed by the experience. The Kazakh nomads of Mongolia have warmly welcomed me and I am honored to have observed and shared their way of life in such an intimate and personal manner.