Winter is the time when Afghan hunters go up into the snowy mountains with their dogs, known as tazis. These are lean, graceful creatures who use speed and keen sight to catch their prey. To the outside world, they became known as the ‘Afghan hound’ after officers in the British colonial army brought individual dogs to London a century ago. They were immediately popular; one of the first dogs, Zardin, was taken to Buckingham Palace for the queen to view and after he died, was stuffed and put on display in the British Museum. The Afghan hound has since been bred for its long coat, which is groomed to look like silk. AAN’s Kate Clark, considers the place of the tazi, as hunter in Afghanistan and lustrous-haired pet in Britain, as well as its appearance in art, poetry and modern genetics, with interviews in Afghanistan by Sayed Asadullah Sadat and Fazl Muzhary.The tazi, Zardin, brought from Afghanistan and exhibited in London in 1907, created a national sensation.
The tazi is faster, by far, than other dogs, and unlike other dogs, it never gets fat. When we’re out hunting, the rabbits hear us [humans] walking. But the tazi understands the situation and runs ahead and, being so lean, it makes no noise, not even on snow.
Qari Amanullah, Andar district of Ghazni
In Zurmat, most tazis have a long body and a narrow, elongated head. The nose is black. The eyes are dark and almond-shaped. The neck is long and strong and the legs long and straight; the hind legs larger and covered with hair. The tazi has long, silky hair. It is a dog with grandeur, not always sociable, but sweet, lovely and loyal.
Momin Khodayar, Zurmat district of Paktia
The Afghan Hound is an aristocrat, his whole appearance one of dignity and aloofness with no trace of plainness or coarseness. He has a straight front, proudly carried head, eyes gazing into the distance as if in memory of ages past. The striking characteristics of the breed-exotic, or “Eastern,” expression,* long silky topknot, peculiar coat pattern, very prominent hipbones, large feet, and the impression of a somewhat exaggerated bend in the stifle due to profuse trouserings – stand out clearly, giving the Afghan Hound the appearance of what he is, a king of dogs, that has held true to tradition throughout the ages.
* The Club gives no definition of ‘Eastern expression’, but the UK’s Afghan Hound Association defines the “Eastern or Oriental expression… typical of the breed” as the dog looking “at and through one.”
The Afghan Club of America
Tazis, like all dogs, are descendants of wolves which came to be domesticated when living near and with humans. Uniquely among animals, dogs were domesticated before settled agriculture – several thousand years before – probably, as genetic archaeologist Greger Larson has described, when “Free-ranging wolves attracted to the refuse generated by human camps most likely followed a commensal pathway to domestication that was neither deliberate nor directed.”
Over the millennia, humans have bred dogs selectively to make them suited for different activities. The result was dogs specialised in guarding, herding, retrieving, hunting – using sight, hearing or smell, to catch different prey and in different landscapes – and for companionship. Humans also bred to select different sorts of behaviour, such as aggression, hyper-friendliness and boldness. Such artificial selection has made the dog the most variable mammal on earth, with huge divergences in colour and type of coat, shape of tail, skull and body, and size – from a tiny poodle weighing less than a kilo to a 90-kilogramme mastiff.
Among this variety of dogs are the sighthounds, and the tazi is one of them. Bred to hunt, relying on keen eyesight, rather than scent or sound to find their prey, the tazi is typical of this group of dogs – lean, deep-chested and long-legged, intelligent and fast in the chase.
The tazi, a greatly-prized hunter
In Afghanistan, hunting with tazis is a popular winter pastime in many areas of the country. One owner, Qari Amanullah, who lives in the Nawar area in the Andar district of Ghazni province , bordering Paktika and has two dogs, described the tazi as fast, clean and intelligent.
In our area which is mountainous, a rabbit which knows itself to be seen, will always try to get to the highest part of mountain; its larger back legs mean it can run uphill very quickly. But the tazi that has hunting experience knows the escaping ways of the rabbit and will run to the top of the mountain first to block its way. Once that way’s blocked, then the rabbit will try to come back down, but its small forelegs means it can’t run fast downhill and is easily caught.
They are intelligent, obedient dogs, Amanullah said. For example, once the tazi is familiar with travelling out to hunt in a car, when it sees its owner preparing to hunt, it will immediately jump into the back of the vehicle. “The tazi stands calmly,” Amanullah said, “and will not create any noise or mess.” It will also always let the driver know if it needs to get out to go to the toilet and, before it gets back in, “The tazi cleans its feet and then gets back inside the vehicle.” He described the tazi’s faithfulness, recounting when one of his dogs was stolen. When it heard the sound of his motorbike, one day, he said, it started barking madly from inside the home of the thief:
I heard my tazi’s bark and banged on the gate very hard. The owner came out very angry at the disturbance, but when he opened the gate, the tazi immediately rushed up to me and started bounding about in front of me. You see how smart and loyal the tazi is!
Another hunter, Gul Ahmad from the Qarabagh district of Ghazni, who is now in his mid-40s, said he had been hunting since he first “grew a moustache,” together with his Uncle Farid, who is 70. In his district, every village has three to five hunters who own tazis. He explained both why hunting is a winter sport and why it is popular with local farmers in Hazarajat where the two men go to hunt:
In February, rabbits have their litters and people then stop hunting until October when the babies have grown into adult rabbits… The Hazaras are really fed up with these rabbits. They nibble the bark of newly-grown saplings – almonds and apricots – destroying them, so people are happy when we come to hunt the rabbits.
When asked whether they ever hunted foxes, he replied: “What would we hunt foxes for?” Fox furs used to sell, he said, but not any more, whereas rabbits are hunted for food. Even so, he said the main aim is still enjoyment, he said, not business.
Another hunter, Momin Khodayar from Zurmat in neighbouring Paktia province, said there was less hunting than in the past. Partly, this was because there is less snow on the mountains these days – snow makes prey more visible and also drives animals down to lower, less steep ground, which helps a sighthound by giving it a longer line of sight. Momin also said the decline in hunting was because the war had left people exhausted and anxious: “People’s hearts are broken [by the war],” he said, “but they still try to keep their traditions.” Young men especially, he said, would still get together with friends to go hunting rabbits or any other animal they saw. He echoed Gul Ahmad in Qarabagh, saying the aim was not really the hunting, but getting out and enjoying winter days when they were free from farm work. Hunting, he said, attracts not only villagers, but also people who drive out from the city:
All those who go hunting collect whatever they have killed. They give it to one person to take home to cook and then all the others gather at his home and stay, eat and tell stories.
Amanullah said the properly trained tazi knocks a fox or rabbit to the ground and holds it until the hunter arrives: “This allows the owner to slaughter the animal, which makes the meat halal for human beings.” Even if the dog does bite the rabbit, said Gul Ahmad, the meat is still halal: “The mullahs say that, whenever you want to release your tazi after a rabbit you should say ‘Allah-u Akbar’, which means that, even if the tazi bites the rabbit, or even kills it, the meat will still be halal. That this was the case was also mentioned by the Zurmati hunter who quoted a Quranic verse. ) He also said they give any meat of an animal banned for human consumption to the dogs – or hunters may use it in another custom:
They throw the haram meat into a friend’s compound and then that friend must prepare halal food and invite all friends over for dinner. But if he catches the person who’s thrown the haram meat, he beats him and it is he who has to throw the party.
A properly-trained tazi, the hunters said, will also – unlike other dogs – never sniff or steal food if it is in their vicinity. Along with dogs trained and kept for herding or guarding, the tazi is not considered impure. Momin Khodayar from Zurmat again cited the Quran and an account of a group of young men persecuted for their faith and advised by God to take refuge in a cave who were guarded by their dog lying across the entrance (Al-Kahf 18:18).
Training a tazi is a serious endeavour and begins when the dog is still a small puppy. Gul Ahmad said it takes about two years and a great deal of commitment, but if this is not done “The tazi will act like a stray dog, immediately eating the rabbit it’s hunting.” Tazis are well looked after, as Momin Khodayar described:
In the time of hunting, hunters give three to five hens eggs to their tazis every morning so that they are in a good condition for winter hunting. They keep the tazis at home in a warm place, sleeping near the oven in the house… The hunters have trained the tazi so that it will go outside and come back in when it needs to.
The hunters’ affection for their tazis is clear, as is their keen appreciation of the different varieties. Amanullah, for example, keep the longer-haired bakhmali (velvet) strain, suitable for his mountainous area of Ghazni: “The longer the tazis’ coats are,” he said, “the healthier they are, because in Wardak, Nawar, Bamyan and other cold areas, they are able to run and live longer. The tazis that have less hair cannot live long in cold areas and will die young. Momin Khodayar called the long-haired variety a tiger tazi. He also spoke about the variations in coat colour – white, golden, red, grey, or black – and singled out a particularly lively variety known as the Irish tazi.
Its coat is red with white spots with sometimes a narrow line down the centre of the skull. The coat is smooth, shiny and beautiful, longer on the chest, ears, tail and hind legs and short on the head and forelegs. It has a long, slender head, he said, that is at least twice the distance between the ears.
Irish tazis hunt birds, but tazis in general may be used to hunt rabbits, wild goats, jackals and foxes. In Afghanistan, however, it is the tazi that can hunt deer which is most prestigious, as one saying puts it:
The snouts of the tazis that have killed deer are black.
In other words, a brave, accomplished dog, who is able to hunt even the quick and elusive deer, can be recognised by the blood on its snout. This saying is used to describe brave people capable of accomplishing difficult tasks.
None of our interviewees mentioned hunting deer, but maybe that is because of the lack of deer in Afghanistan these days, not the lack of skill in their tazis.
The tazi in art and poetry
The tazi or sag-e tazi – the tazi dog, where ‘tazi’ in old Persian is a synonym for Arab, possibly a nod to its shared origins with the saluki, another sighthound originating in the Fertile Crescent? – features occasionally in poetry. For example, in “The Conference of the Birds”/Mantiq al-Tair by Fariduddin Attar (1145-1220 CE):
خسروی می رفت در رشت شکار
گفت ای سگبان سگ تازی بیار
بود خسرو را سگی آموخته
جلدش از اکسون و اطلس دوخته
از گهر طوقی مرصع ساخته
فخر را در گردنش انداخته
از زرش خلخال و دست ابرنجنش
رشته ابریشمین در گردنش
شاه آن سگ را سگ بخرد گرفت
رشته آن سگ به دست خود گرفت
A king was going to the hunting ground
Said, O dog-keeper! Bring the hound!
The king had a trained dog
Covered in a black elegant attire
A collar dotted with gems
Was the pride around its neck
Golden and bronze anklets adorned its legs
A silken cord around its neck
Regarded by the king as intelligent
The king held its leash in his own hand
Unfortunately, the dog is distracted by a bone and pulls up short. The king is so furious he lets loose the “rude brute into the world,” a fate, asserts the poet, worse than swallowing a hundred needles. The dog wanders off, allowed to go still decked out in all its gems, so that, when it comes to his senses, it will remember how it once had a king for a master and be sorry. For the poet, the story is a warning to those who have found real friendship not to lose it through negligence, but to fully throw themselves onto the path of true love.
Dogs that look like tazis or salukis can also be seen in art across the region. See, for example, this depiction of a hunter and his hound from Herat from around 1555, the strange 1799 drawing of a hound accompanying a ‘peri’, a winged woman who is riding a horse, all three composite images made up of lions, sheep, snakes and animals and even a girl (see picture), and this early seventeenth century portrait of a nobleman with a dog, attributable, wrote Sotheby’s when the painting was sold in 2013, to a follower of the “well-known Perso-Mughal-Deccani artist Farrukh Beg,” possibly Muhammad Ali “ who was active at the Mughal court.” Yet, there are far older depictions of dogs that look like tazis. One hand-painted vase from Susa in what is now Iran (see picture), shows stylised wading birds and beneath them, running hounds. It is about six thousand years old. More accurately, it can be said of all these depictions that the dogs look like sighthounds, which all resemble each other wherever this function has been selectively bred for.
How the tazi became the Afghan hound
Eventually, the tazi came to the west, its arrival in Britain inextricably linked to empire and class. Individual dogs were first brought to Europe, along with other varieties of sighthound, by officers and the wives of officers in the British colonial army from India, Afghanistan and Persia in the late nineteenth century. Over that century in Britain, dogs, which previously had been working animals, become popular as pets and brought into the home. This was also when dogs began to be categorised by form – what they looked like – rather than what they did. Over the millennia, dogs bred for different functions – herder, guard-dog, lap-dog, fighter (with other dogs or bulls or bears), retriever, hunters of different prey and in different terrain and specialising in sight, hearing or smell – had inevitably produced a wide variety of appearances. In late nineteenth century Britain, people rushed to categorise dogs based on their form, to name and standardise them as ‘breeds’. The fashion to have dogs as pets, it has been argued, came after farm animals were banned from city streets because of sanitation concerns. For the then burgeoning middle class:
… the pet dog filled a vacuum. Dogs (or at least certain ‘polite’ dogs) were invited in from the cold of the backyard, or kennel, to join the family at the fireside. In the intimate space of the domestic world, the dog was precious rather than productive, even child-like in its reliance on the humans that surrounded it.
The “demand for purebred dogs as domestic companions” snowballed, driven by the fears of the expanding bourgeoisie that owning a non-pedigree dog would “compromise [their] social status.” Dog shows, with ‘best of breed’ competitions, became popular and the first organisation to rule on what a breed should look like and register bloodlines was established in London in 1873 (the Kennel Club), along with clubs to promote different breeds and register dogs as ‘purebred’.
It was amid this unprecedented ‘dogs-as-pets’ trend, that the tazi arrived in London. That it came was also, of course, made possible by Britain having an empire from which it could extract wealth and resources, including greatly-prized local dogs. Part of the context, as well, was the often strange relationship between colonisers and animals, where greater respect was often paid to animals than the people subject to the British empire – a phenomenon with echoes in post-2001 Afghanistan.
The first tazis to arrive in Britain were exhibited under the name of ‘Barukhzy hound’ – a mangling of ‘Barakzai’, the tribe of the Afghan monarchy – or ‘Persian Greyhound’ (the greyhound is a type of sighthound found in Britain). Only later would the breed acquire the name ‘Afghan hound’. One particular tazi, in particular, stirred the national interest. Zardin was brought from Afghanistan in 1907 by a Captain John Banff (also written as Barff). Zardin was considered to be a ‘mountain’ or ‘Ghazni’ strain of the breed – presumably the same bakhmali (velvet) or tiger tazi still common in Afghanistan today. He was first displayed to the public in a dog show in 1907 where he took first prize in the Foreign Dog category. Zardin took the dog-lovers of Britain by storm; Queen Alexandra requested he be brought to Buckingham Palace for her to see, and after he died, his body was embalmed and put on display at the British Museum. One of the early enthusiasts of this breed, Evelyn Denyer, said he was “taken as the accepted model of the perfect Afghan hound.” In her book, “Anthology of the Afghan Hound,” she quoted a description of Zardin by the “Indian Kennel Gazette” (in then British colonial India), his “very long punishing jaw of peculiar power,” “keen, dark” eyes and protective hair “thick and fine in texture.”
In the 1920s, another British officer, Captain Bell-Murrey, imported a taller, finer-boned tazi, which was less hairy and more uniformly-coloured, and was thought be a lowland or desert variety of the breed. This was followed by maybe two dozen more dogs, including one called Sirdar of Ghazni, brought over by the wife of another British officer, Mary Amps. According to Denyer, Sirdar had come from the royal kennels of King Amanullah in Paghman.
These two women, Evelyn Denyer and Mary Amps, set up rival clubs to promote the breed: the Afghan Hound Club in 1925 which largely sponsored the lowland tazis and the Afghan Hound Association in 1927 which sponsored the mountain type. “There was great rivalry between the two factions for quite some time,” owner and champion breeder of Afghan hounds for almost fifty years, Jill Cross, told AAN. “It was only really after the war years that all of this died down and therefore there was more amalgamation between the two types,” although, she said, you can still see throwbacks to the two earlier varieties. Of the two clubs, it was the Afghan Hound Association alone that survived and is still promoting the breed to this day. Of all the ‘founder’ dogs of the breed, Sirdar of Ghazni, was ultimately the most important, providing nearly 30 per cent of the gene pool of the modern breed, according to the Institute of Canine Biology.
The Afghan hound grows its coat
Today, the Afghan hound is one of about 450 breeds of dog recognised globally. The controlled breeding of the last hundred years to keep breeds true to, typically, a handful of founding ‘dams and sires’, has meant that, a 2004 study of dog genetics found, breeds are highly distinctive: in 99 per cent of cases, breeds could be correctly identified solely by their genes. The study also found that nine breeds were genetically divergent from all the rest, occupying basal positions in the dog’s genetic family tree. They include the Afghan hound and its closest relation, the saluki, another sighthound. The author of this report got excited at the thought that the Afghan hound might be an ‘ancient breed’, as some have contended. However, genetic archaeologist Greger Larson of Oxford University said the genetic distinctiveness of these so-called ancient – or the term he says is more accurate, basal – breeds just means they were part of dog traditions outside western Europe and predated the rush to name and standardise breeds in the late nineteenth century. He and co-authors have described how the “lack of recent admixture with other breeds likely facilitated by geographic and cultural isolation” is what makes them divergent from other modern dog breeds.
Once in Britain and elsewhere in Europe and North America, where Afghan hounds quickly spread, they came to look very different from the tazi, even the bakhmali (velvet) variety because of their extraordinary, long-flowing, silky coats. Not all Afghan hounds have them, but this came to be the archetypal Afghan hound look. The especially long hair is the result, Greger Larson, told AAN of selective breeding “for novel and extreme traits including long hair.” Breeder Jill Cross also described the “explosion of breeding” in the UK between 1960 and 1980s where breeding lines characterised by “a more profuse coat” were followed as they were “seen to be more glamorous.” She said, however, that even more important for giving Afghan hounds their distinct appearance is owners following a “dedicated grooming regime.” She described the shampoos, conditioners and equipment developed to show the coat off to its full glory.
Modern, coifed Afghan hounds look so other-worldly, one wonders if they would still recognise a rabbit if one jumped out in front of them. Yet the hunting instinct cannot be bred out so quickly, as indicated by one of the side activities run by the Afghan Hound Association – lure coursing. This is a sort of hunting game designed, writes the Association, to allow sighthounds to “use the speed and turning power” which they were bred to possess:
Lure coursing takes place within a large, well fenced field and uses an electrically powered motor to pull a plastic bag lure round a series of pulleys to simulate prey running at speed in a zigzag pattern. The lure is driven at a speed which is appropriate to the breed of dog. At the present time Afghan Hounds are one of the top breeds taking part in lure coursing in Britain and are also well represented on the Continents of Europe and North America.
In Britain, the number of people keeping Afghan hounds has declined, probably, thinks Jill Cross, because they require such dedication; in the 1980s, there was a problem with owners abandoning their difficult-to-look-after Afghan hounds. The “large breeding kennels,” Cross said, have now more or less gone. She herself has only bred nine litters in almost fifty years:
We feel this is a breed not suited to everyone and because all [the dogs are] so special, we want the very best for them. After all, we are responsible for their happiness for the rest of their lives. They are high maintenance, highly intelligent and can’t just be left to their own devices, so we would have to be sure of the commitment involved [before selling one].
Afghan hounds need a lot of exercise, Cross said, walking five to six kilometres a day, along with ‘free running’. Most are bathed and groomed well on a weekly basis and need “comfy bedding,” care and respect. Grooming and vet services makes the Afghan hound one of the most expensive breeds to keep: “Expect to spend £27,100 – £30,800 [36,600 – 41,600 USD] over the dog’s lifetime,” the sales website, UKPets, warns. As for buying an Afghan hound, it can cost between £300 and £1000 (400-1300 USD).
However, they can be even more expensive in Afghanistan. Momin Khodayar said prices can reach 400,000 afghanis (52,000 USD] for a dog, based on its bloodline, training, hunting ability, speed and beauty – with long hair, long ears and long legs prized. The price also reflects scarcity: hunters do not generally want to sell their dogs. In words that echo Cross’s, Gul Ahmad said that people in his district sell cows and other animals, but only very rarely their tazis. It is not just that a trained dog represents so much work and time, but also because they “keep tazis for pleasure, not business.”
A post-script: Tazi and Afghan hound reunited?
In 1971, the then Afghan king, Zaher Shah, made his first and only state visit to London. Queen Elizabeth met him in a carriage and he and other members of the royal court were driven back to Buckingham Palace. On The Mall, the tree-lined avenue leading to the palace, were twenty or so Afghan hounds, waiting with their owners, and forming, as one British children’s programme described it, a “guard of honour” to provide “a very special Afghan way of greeting the king.” Presenter, Valerie Singleton, provided a commentary (watch the video here):
“It was an exciting moment when the carriage drew near and when the queen pointed us out, the king of Afghanistan seemed delighted to see us. For the first time in their lives, British Afghan hounds were seeing people from their own country… It was well worth bringing them out because their appearance must have made the king feel very much at home on his first visit to London.”
The king certainly looks delighted and appears to recognise the Afghan hound. Yet, when I started to look into this subject, I did wonder if the breed had anything to do with Afghanistan because I had never seen anything resembling the silkily-coated Afghan hound in Afghanistan. Was its name just a mistake? It became, gradually, clear that selective breeding in Britain and elsewhere, as well as grooming, has changed the appearance of this dog so much that it is not at first obvious that these are tazis. Yet, the two dozen or so dogs brought from Afghanistan a century ago – Sirdar of Ghazni and the others – look like the modern tazis pictured in this report and they are the dogs from which all the Afghan hounds in the west are descended. Moreover, hearing British Afghan hound enthusiasts and Afghan hunters speak about their dogs, it also became evident that the nature of the dog is basically unchanged. All the owners described their dogs using a similar collection of words: loyal, sweet-natured, aloof, requiring care and respect. Momin Khodayar, for example, summed the tazi up, as follows:
They are calm, loving and loyal and usually get used to one person only. Their education and training should be done with patience and love, and because of their very thin bodies, they should be exempted from doing hard things. They are loyal, sweet and eager to please their owners.
Jill Cross described them as:
… very loving and happy in their general disposition, needing security and safety, [but] very independent in nature and quite stubborn at times, highly intelligent and also clownish in their antics at times… They maintain their lean look as they are so active, as most hounds are. An Afghan hound needs a lot of attention and because of their independence, aren’t necessarily always suited as a family pet, although the people that are educated and dedicated to this breed wouldn’t have any other!
Edited by Rachel Reid. Translation of the excerpt from “The Conference of the Birds” by Shirazuddin Sidiqqi.
This article was last updated on 29 Dec 2020