Domestic Animals of Iran


DOMESTIC ANIMALS, on the contrary of Wild Animals, a group of animals raised or maintained in captivity so that they can provide products, services, or entertainment. This article is devoted to the principal characteristics of the predominant systems of domestication in Afghanistan and Persia, what they owe to neighboring or preceding systems, how they have departed from them, and whether or not it is possible to speak of a typically Iranian system of domestication.

The species constitute a broad and fairly heterogeneous zoological ensemble, ranging from large herbivorous mammals through primates, carnivorous mammals, and birds to insects. Not all these species are domesticated to the same degree. Some, like cattle, dogs, and chickens, are domestic species in the most common sense of the term. Others are represented by animals captured in their natural habitats, raised in captivity, and trained in varying degrees for specific purposes (cheetahs and hunting falcons; performing bears and monkeys; fighting crickets, quails, and partridges; and canaries, nightingales, mynas, parrakeets, and other singing or talking birds; Still others, like bees, are kept and exploited in conditions close to those in nature. There is one species raised in entirely artificial conditions and owing its survival only to man’s interest in its produce, that is, the Bombyx, or silkworm moth. Finally, of course, there are hybrids produced by human intervention, like the boḵta/boḵtī resulting from the crossing of camel and dromedary and the mule from donkey and horse.

The type and number of uses also vary widely from one species to another. Aside from the extraction of certain products (notably meat from a limited number of species: sheep and goats, cattle, poultry) and sacrifices for religious purposes, which presuppose slaughter, Iranians exhibit a strong preference for exploiting living animals. Among the polyvalent animals two main subgroups can be distinguished: those like the small ruminants that must be slaughtered to be fully exploited and those, basically donkeys, horses, and mules, that are useful only while alive. Cattle occupy an intermediate position between these two subgroups. The least versatile of utilitarian animals, like the chicken and the pigeon, belong to a separate class.

With the exception of the bee (from which honey and wax are obtained), the Bombyx (from the cocoon of which silk is produced), and the cat (useful as a predator against pests), all the specialized animals are exploited for enjoyment, and some rank as luxuries. They give pleasure (nightingales and other singing birds), serve as ornaments (peacocks), furnish traveling entertainment (monkeys and bears) or spectacle (fighting crickets, quails, and partridges), or are used in hunting by the upper classes (cheetahs and trained birds of prey, which are thus highly valued in both money and prestige).

The most noteworthy species are doubtless the horse and the dog. The former can be subdivided into saddle horses (almost always stallions in Persia and Afghanistan) and less valuable workhorses (although the term yābū is frequently used interchangeably for both). Among dogs coursers (tāzī) are distinguished from the mastiffs that guard flocks and dwellings, particularly among the nomads, and from the wandering dogs that scavenge in cities and villages. Such distinctions can be justified from both biological and cultural points of view, which are, of course, inseparable when dealing with domesticated animals. Ownership of both saddle horses and hunting dogs is limited, if only because of their cost, to social and economic elites that draw status from them and use them for activities that also confer status (war and hunting). For this reason, these animals are carefully selected, raised and trained under special conditions, and treated with a consideration unknown to the mass of their fellows. This inequality of treatment is particularly flagrant among dogs. The esteem in which hunting dogs are held is all the more striking in comparison with the blows and stoning continually administered to the general canine population of Afghanistan and Persia.

Finally, what structuralists would call the “symmetrical and inverse” positions occupied by the common dog and the cat should be noted. Among Muslims the dog, though “familiar,” is considered unclean, whereas the cat, a distant predator, clearly enjoys a more favorable status; among Zoroastrians, on the contrary, it is the cat that is considered “unclean” and “a creature of darkness” while the dog is “honored as the creature nearest in dignity to man”. There is also a clear similarity between Zoroastrian respect for the dog and the relatively conciliatory attitude toward this animal in certain branches of Persian Sufism (Nurbakhsh), a similarity that certainly reflects Zoroastrian influence on Persian Islam, at least in certain locations; in other locations differences in the treatment of dogs clearly distinguish the two communities.

It is clear that there are shadings in Persian attitudes toward domestic animals, reflecting vestiges of successive cultural strata in the history of domestication in the Iranian world. The first great wave of domestication, of cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, and so on, took place in the Neolithic and lasted for several millennia. The rise of states and cities in antiquity generated needs that led to development of specialized animal products. At the same time in the religious sphere the value of the dog and especially of the ox rose; the latter represented “the prototype of animal sacrifice”.

In the 7th century Muslim attitudes and beliefs about animals penetrated onto the Persian plateau, including prohibition of the consumption of pork and blood, contempt for the dog, and greater appreciation of the horse, the camel, the sheep, and so on.

In the 17th and 18th centuries there was intensive development of land and maritime commerce with Mughal India. The army of Kabul received domestic elephants, a practice already attested in the Sasanian and the Ghaznavid periods and one that survived well into the 20th century, imposing winter pasturing of the animals at Jalalabad, where the climate is less harsh. On the other hand, from the Persian Gulf ports (especially Bushehr) there was substantial traffic in Arabian horses, Persian cats, and Pathan mastiffs going to northern India, a traffic paralleled from Kabul to the Ganges plain.

The westernization of Persia that began in the second half of the 19th century, though pervasive, affected animal domestication only sporadically. For example, it produced profound dislocations in the breeding of silkworms in Gilan, but, on the other hand, the great majority of Persians remained untouched by the Western fondness for pets and corresponding zoophiliac tendencies.

Throughout history, then, Afghanistan and Persia seem to have been a sort of crucible for innovations in domestication and zoo technology from various origins. The system of domestication that predominates in those countries is in fact characterized by a mixture of elements clearly borrowed from neighboring systems or inherited from previous periods, in patterns that vary considerably in different regions: first, fairly ubiquitous Turkish elements like crossbreeding of the camel and the dromedary and the zoo technological vocabulary; second, Indian elements, which were particularly numerous in Afghanistan, including relatively free circulation of cows, ensuring the clearing of city pathways and gutters (jūy), and use of elephants for both fighting and riding (especially in royal hunts); and, third, Zoroastrian, the only genuinely indigenous, elements, though of quite modest, even uncertain importance (e.g., the equivocal status of the dog).

Like any cultural system, a system of domestication consists of a stable core, here essentially made up of large domestic herbivores and fighting animals, and a more unstable periphery, where species come and go, exemplified in the modern period, on one hand, by the introduction of the bee, which was domesticated in Kashmir but not introduced into Afghanistan until the 19th century and, on the other, by the disappearance of the elephant, the last one being attested at Kabul in 1306. /1927. The mule illustrates in an entirely different fashion the contrast between the core and the periphery. Mating the ass with the mare has been widely practiced in Persia, probably since antiquity (Negahban), but farther east it has been strictly limited to the Soleiman mountains in Afghanistan, specifically to the high Kurram, in the territory of the Jaji (in Afghanistan) and the Turi (in Pakistan) tribes. This distribution was already attested at the beginning of the 19th century: “Mules are scarcely raised in Toorkistan, the best are bred in Khoorasan; a slender species, but yet hardy, is bred in Pothwar and the neighbouring districts [i.e., Punjab]. They are raised in the vallies of Jajee and Foree [Turi] in Teera [Tirah, the country of the Afridis north of Kurram] and some other places”. Another 19th-century witness emphasized the difference between Afghanistan and Persia on this point: “The religious prejudices of the Afghans object to mules, hence they are uncommon in Afghanistan. In Persia it is by mules that all the rapid travelling and quick conveyance of goods takes place; they convey heavy loads rapidly by long marches and exist upon miserable fare. When mules are well cared for, it is marvelous what an amount of work they will do” (Aitchison). The author thus suggested that this difference had a religious origin. There are in fact some Hadith that condemn breeding the ass and the mare; though of doubtful authenticity, they could have led here and there to a divergence between Sunnite and Shiite practice. According to this hypothesis, the presence of mules in the territory of a Shiite Pashtun tribe (Tūrī) might very well have fostered their introduction into the territory of neighboring Sunnite tribes (Jājī).

It thus appears that the prevailing system of domestication in Afghanistan and Persia does not differ fundamentally from a more widespread “Middle Eastern” system, in which the influence of Islam is preponderant. Rather than an “Iranian system of domestication” properly speaking, there is an “Iranian” variant of this Middle Eastern system.

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