A LADY HUNTS WITH THE SHAH

The modern king of ancient Persia recaptures for an American visitor the adventure and elegance of sport in one of the world's oldest civilizations
December 24, 1962

Before the marble walls of a Persian palace, soldiers stood stiff-backed and motionless. Near by, a dozen grooms, resplendent in gray and gold, fussed nervously with their mounts. The horses, eager to be off, pawed the earth and snorted at each other. In the warmth of the morning sun I waited outside the imperial stables at the end of a mile-long drive lined with poplars. Suddenly in the distance there was the sound of horns, and the massive silver grille of a limousine loomed into sight, followed by a caravan of tooting cars. Wearing riding clothes, His Imperial Majesty Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, stepped nimbly from his peacock-blue Rolls-Royce and greeted me with a warm hello.

Two days before, excited and a little nervous, I had visited the Shah's summer residence at Shemiran outside Teheran. Seated on a sofa of intricate petit point in a gymnasium-size room furnished in marble, mahogany and crystal, carpeted in a ransom of Persian rugs and hung with a museum collection of paintings, I wondered what the man who lived here would be like.

From pictures I knew that his hair had become grayer and his face stern in the 13 years since I had glimpsed him riding, smiling and cheerful, down Park Avenue on a state visit. I knew he had been playing a forceful and enlightened role in running his government and that somehow he still found time to play good tennis, ski, drive his cars fast and his planes (to the chagrin of his advisers) even faster. I knew, too, that he is an expert horseman and an equally competent shot. His interest in hunting and (he outdoors, in fact, was my reason for being in Iran.

After a stiffly formal correspondence with the imperial court, I had been granted permission to hunt with I his Majesty and was now about to be presented officially to him. This was anything but a casual affair. A harried court secretary (who was evidently more nervous than I about the audience) left at least a dozen messages at my hotel covering everything from duplicate reminders of the exact time I was to be at the palace to detailed instructions on the length of the sleeve (not short), color (not black) and type (not décolleté) of dress I was to wear. Three times he reminded me to wear gloves and a hat.

At the locked and heavily guarded gates of the palace I had been stopped by eight fierce-looking young men with shaved heads and high-collared military uniforms who, in one motion, raised their bayonets and stepped menacingly toward me.

The guards remained on alert until the secretary rushed up some 10 minutes later, apologized effusively for being late and ordered the guards to stand at ease. After making the necessary phone calls to unlock the gates, he escorted me to the palace up a drive lined with lanterns and paved with perfectly matched gray-green stones. All along the way, guards clicked their heels and presented arms as we passed.

Inside the palace we were greeted by more guards and more heel-clicking as we were led toward the great room where the Master of the Hunt was to give a pre-audience briefing. His Excellency, Atabai, who is also Master of the Horse and Director of Palaces (there are four large and more than a dozen small ones besides the one we were in), explained through an interpreter that His Majesty would see me in an hour.

I was then questioned again about my background and given further last-minute instructions on protocol. The formality and stiffness of the interview was heightened by the language barrier, and when tea was served I realized regretfully that I didn't dare drink it because I had no idea whether I was supposed to take my gloves off. By the time an attendant announced that His Imperial Majesty was ready, my knees were shaking.

For the first time since I had stepped from the cab at the palace gates, the guards, soldiers and servants mysteriously vanished, and I found myself entering the imperial reception room alone. Before I realized what had happened, a gray haired man in a double-breasted suit was striding toward me with the long, smooth steps of an athlete, his hand outstretched and a broad smile on his surprisingly young face, fixing his warm brown eyes directly on mine, the Shah of Iran said in a soft, low voice, "I have been waiting a long time for your visit."

From this first meeting with the Shah, the tension and stiffness of the palace and the imperial court were gone. He was as relaxing as an old friend, chatting comfortably on a variety of subjects from cigarette smoking to current economic problems. When tea was served I never gave a thought to the gloves resting in my lap. Throughout all our conversations, whether sitting casually around a coffee table, riding side by side on horseback or stalking up a hill after game, he was far more relaxed than his entourage.

This entourage, incidentally, might well have qualified as an army on sheer number. Except for driven shoots (like hunting, shoots involve guns and game but entirely different techniques), I had never before hunted en masse and I found it an unnerving experience. In addition to the actual hunters, consisting in our case principally of His Majesty and me, there were the Master of the Hunt; the Master's son, Lieut. Kambiz Atabai, who interpreted for his father; the imperial gamekeeper, who functioned as the No. 1 scout; an assistant gamekeeper; a photographer; an artist; two members of the imperial guard, who carried excess gear, easels, tripods and lenses; and, finally, one imperial horseman for each person of the entire party, making a grand total of 20 people. The party did not end with people, however, because each of us had a horse.

A word about the horses: they were stallions! This significant fact explained the extra 10 men in the party. Whenever one of us leaped (or, as in my case, was thrown) from his stallion, the imperial horseman specifically assigned to that person galloped up to hold the horse by its reins. This usually discouraged the riderless stallion from doing one of several things: biting a hunter or biting another horse and thereby creating another riderless stallion; kicking a hunter or kicking another horse, again creating another riderless stallion; or, most cataclysmic of all, galloping wildly back to the imperial stable hotly pursued, as likely as not, by the rest of the horses, most of which could count on being riderless by the time they reached the barns.

The flashier sides of their personalities aside, the Shah's horses were fundamentally the best schooled and the most responsive I have ever ridden. The rough, mountainous terrain in which they are used for hunting demands unusual sure-footedness combined with tremendous stamina to withstand 12-and 14-hour days of almost continuous riding, some of it at sustained gallops. Few horses could stand up to the test, but for two weeks I rode the same stallion, aptly named Bombast, and he was as full of high spirits on the last day as on the first. As good as the horses were, however, 20 people on 20 stallions are still a crowd and most of the game in the vicinity agreed.

The technique of Persian group hunting is to follow a quarter of a mile or so behind the imperial scouts, sometimes in a long single column, occasionally, where the terrain permits, in small social bunches. The imperial scouts, with the sixth sense and 20X vision that local trackers the world over seem to have, scan the surrounding peaks and ridges as they move along. As soon as one of them decides that that tiny black speck on the horizon is not a sunspot but a mouflon (the mountain sheep that abound in the imperial hunting areas outside Teheran at Farahabat, Jajerood, Sorkhehesar and Sanjariun), he holds up his hand for the procession to stop while an approach to the game is figured out.

There are several ways to make the approach. The Shah's favorite is to gallop straight to the game, chasing after it at breakneck speed through the mountains unmindful of rocks, ravines, cliffs and pulleys until he is within rifle range, and then either to leap from his horse to fire or, if there isn't time, to fire from the saddle. The leaping is interesting because instead of dismounting in the conventional fashion, he throws his left leg forward and over the horse's neck so that he slides to the ground already in shooting position. The amazing fact is that he usually hits his target.

The game can also be approached, if wind and geography are right, by plotting a stalk within shooting range. This, of course, is a common and dependable approach in the U.S. But few American hunters take along 19 other people and 20 stallions. Between the jangle of bridles, stirrups, rifles, lenses, tripods, thermoses and myriad other metal objects and the clop, clop, clop of the horses' hooves picking their way among the boulders, we sounded like a convention of junk dealers on parade.

And yet we managed, on occasion, to get within shooting range of a herd of sheep using such a cacophonic approach. This can only be attributed to a combination of exceptional good fortune, unsophisticated game (the area is hunted only by the Shah and his guests, and then infrequently), and a very noisy gale to mask the sound effects. Even so, the fact that we ever got shots by this method continues to amaze me.

Once we spotted a band of ewes standing motionless on the top of a rock promontory, and suspecting that there were probably rams near by, we stopped to scan the area with field glasses. So far ahead that they were merely tiny dots moving across a narrow saddle, we sighted a herd that numbered at least 100 sheep. They were running in waves of 10 or a dozen at a time from the protection of an outcropping of rock, into the clearing and across to cover on the other side.

"They're heading for a basin on the far side of this mountain," His Majesty whispered and handed me his glasses for a better look. "It's a long ride from here but the wind is very good. We would have to go a little fast to get there before they leave, but you will have a fine shot." It seemed the sporting thing to go along with the plan.

His Majesty took the lead and I was about a nose behind. The troops, clanking and jangling, brought up the rear. Just as I was beginning to think it was not only colorful but rather good fun to be cantering across the Arizonalike countryside with the Shah of Iran, His Majesty's horse shifted into high and the race was on. Everywhere he went, I went—but not with the same riding form.

The straightaway wasn't too bad; in fact, as long as I didn't look each time the jagged boulders loomed into sight, it was rather thrilling in an Omar Khayyàmish way. The wind was whistling and roaring past my ears and stinging tears into my eyes. I didn't mind the uphill too much, but the downhill started to get tricky. The real moment of alarm came when I spotted a dried-up riverbed straight ahead and estimated in a horrified glance that it must once have held at least four feet of water.

In one mighty leap, the Shah's horse sailed gracefully across the chasm. Still gaining on him, Bombast and I were suddenly airborne. In retrospect, the part about this ride I find hardest to believe is that, although the horse and I definitely parted company crossing the river, we somehow managed to land as one on the other side. Unfortunately I lost my stirrups in flight and nearly slid off the horse as he plunged straight up a virtually vertical mountain but, with a firm grip on his mane, I decided this had finally become a question of honor. We evidently crossed the finish line at just this point because the Shah came to a halt, winner by a length. He turned to me with that completely disarming smile and said, "Everywhere my horse goes, your horse follows."

We finished going up the mountain on foot, and fortunately the army had enough sense to stay at the bottom. His Majesty went straight to the top without stopping to rest. He ducked down as we reached the crest and motioned me to come along. When I was at his side he continued to wave me forward. This put me momentarily in a quandary. I had been warned not to walk ahead of the Shah under any circumstances since this would violate protocol, but here was a case of imperial command.

The Shah solved the dilemma himself, and I should have realized that he would be as charming under these circumstances as he had been under all others. "You go on ahead," he whispered in a very low voice as we crouched just behind the crest. "I have a telescopic sight and I can shoot from here. The game will surely see us if we both try to cross the top and it is good for you to be closer with open sights."

Just as I crawled over the top all the sheep looked up, shuffled their feet uncertainly and stampeded off in the other direction. My one shot at a departing speck in the V of my sight missed by a mile, and I ducked down to give the Shah shooting room as he sent three Weatherby 300 bullets into as many sheep. I balanced the score somewhat later in the day by taking two rams from two different herds, but I suspect it will be a long time before anyone matches that Imperial Triple.

My best shot came while hunting boar near the Caspian Sea a few days later. His Majesty, whose religion forbids him to shoot boar, had arranged for me to hunt both boar and pheasants on his property overlooking the water at Ramsar. "It is as green as any place you will ever see," he said when he described the area. After the arid, rocky mountains that stretch from Teheran for miles in all directions, I was unprepared for the lush, tangled mass of tropical vegetation that forms a dense, mist-shrouded jungle from the base of the mountains to the sea. In the eerie half light of evening, the Imperial Hotel rises spectacularly above the steaming gardens, looking like a fairy-tale palace. There were pheasants everywhere. Walking through the wet sea of green directly below the hotel, I had no problem flushing birds every 10 feet in spite of the rain that fell unceasingly. But even with dogs the birds were virtually impossible to recover in the brush, and, after losing three, the lure of a hot shower and fresh caviar at the hotel became overpowering.

Besides, my guide had more exciting game in mind. After dark, we were to go out to the rice farms where great, tusked boars often root up entire fields in an evening, doing damage that takes weeks to repair. The farmers are grateful to anyone who will shoot them.

Sarkis Geworkian is their hero. He is always ready to take on one more boar. He considers himself, in fact, the Master of the Persian Boar, and he is not being immodest. In a lifetime of hunting, kings, princes and heads of state have sought his services as a wild boar guide, as well as on hunts for other game, and none went home dissatisfied. Sarkis is not, however, a professional guide in the ordinary sense. When he is not oft stalking game he is something of an entrepreneur in a variety of businesses from service stations to fruit farms. Indeed, the giant grapefruits and oranges he grows on his ranches along the Caspian Sea are a source of almost as much pride as the reputation he has gained throughout his country as a master hunter.

I have the luck of hunting," he explained, using the few English words he knew. "If I, Sarkis, am there, there the games are coming. I am walking through the forest where no leopards are coming. Everyone tells me no leopards are there. But I, Sarkis, look into the forest anyway, and I see not one leopard is coming but five leopards are coming.

"There is Madam coming, HUH HUH HUH. There is three bebé coming, huh huh huh. And there is Monsieur coming. HUH HUH HUH. I have five shots. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Now no more leopards are coming."

Sarkis punctuates his conversations generously with sound effects and hand gestures. Like all the professional hunters I have known, he has one special animal that excites him more than any other. For Sarkis, it is the wild boar. When he is hunting them, everything about him changes. His senses become so acute that they filter out everything but his quarry; perspiration forms on his brow and his hands become clammy.

Driving slowly along a rutted track in the dark of night, I could hear Sarkis' loud breathing and feel his tenseness, like an electric current, in the jeep. A heavy rain pounded on the canvas roof and almost blacked out the beam of his light as he played it across the rice paddies. The idea was to stop the jeep as soon as the light picked up a boar in the field, jump out and fire before the animal ran off. It all sounded very impractical, but I saw no reason to say so.

All of a sudden Sarkis braked the jeep, and I hit the windshield with a crash. He was jabbering incoherently, but from his excitement I knew he could only mean boar. I lost valuable seconds forcing open the door that chose that moment to jam, then fell flat in the mud as I slipped jumping out. When I finally shoved a cartridge in the chamber and located Sarkis' light beamed from the other side of the jeep into the field, there wasn't time for anything more than a hasty snap shot at a dark shadow disappearing out of the hazy circle of light.

Sarkis was out of the jeep almost before the shot went off. He had a big red setter named Joker with him, and they both acted as if they expected me to come along too. About the most ridiculous thing I could think of at that point was to stumble through an overgrown field in the pitch blackness after what might turn out to be a wounded wild boar. I tried to explain this in English, but Sarkis didn't understand any better than the dog. Reluctantly I started into the field.

I hadn't taken a dozen steps when the dog began to bark and I heard Sarkis cheer. He came toward me in the darkness dragging a great boar by the tail and grinning from ear to ear. I was definitely in with Sarkis.

The best wild boar hunting was in the Elburz Mountains, where we made camp 12,000 feet high in a yoghurt maker's abandoned log cabin. His reasons for abandoning it were clear. Most of the shingles had been blown off" its roof and gapping holes ventilated every wall.

Camp lacked such refinements as sleeping bags and air mattresses, but I was given five blankets. They looked suspiciously thin as I spread three on the bare, wet ground and, dressed in every item of heavy clothing I had with me, pulled the other two around me. By 4 o'clock in the morning, in an agony of aches, I decided if I did eventually fall asleep it would only be the first symptom of freezing to death. I tried to gather some wood to build a fire.

In the night the stream outside my "cabin" had frozen solid and everything was frosted with a filigree of ice. Standing on the top of the mountain in the predawn half light I forgot my misery in the enchantment of the cold beauty around me. Clouds were piled like cotton candy in the valleys far below, and the lights of a village many miles away flickered like tiny birthday candles against the darkness. In the distance were scattered stands of oak and pine trees and deep basins choked with shiny green holly. At least a hundred waterfalls tumbled swiftly into thin, dark chasms lavishly hung with chandeliers of dripping moss.

In one such chasm, later in the day, we happened upon what at first glance seemed to be a family of five wild boars, all snuffling and snorting as they rooted with their tusks beneath a carpet of fallen leaves. I picked a good-sized one for camp (the meat is excellent), and when my rifle went off, to our surprise at least a dozen other pigs exploded up the cliffsides and out from under the brush in all directions. We actually had stepped right by the biggest ones.

Boars weren't the only game that outsmarted us. On our last hunt I had a disappointing experience with an ibex. The Shah was very enthusiastic about the big ibex in the Farahabat region and he wanted me to take home a good trophy. As we rode along, the Shah told me of several that were so old they were white in color and had horns four feet long.

"But one thing you will discover about our Persian ibex," he cautioned, "is that they are not so easy to reach, especially the old ones. I have watched them go straight up a mountain, and then I have tried to see what rocks or paths were there for their feet. I could find nothing to support them. No other animals can climb such steep and smooth mountains as our Persian ibex."

We were fortunate to spot one of the white ibex almost where the Shah expected, but as he had also expected, it was in a practically inaccessible place. The only approach involved a lengthy stalk to the other side of the mountain and then up and over. The horses and troops came part of the way, and for once I felt affection for Bombast. The climb was almost straight up. On horseback it was difficult; on foot it would have been sheer misery.

Near the top we dismounted. I began to understand what the Shah meant about ibex walking on nothing. We slipped and slid over rock faces that were nearly 90° in pitch and finally gave up trying to prevent loose pieces of shale from chattering noisily to the valley below.

Each time we crept up to a ridge expecting to surprise the white ibex on the other side, we found instead only an empty expanse of rock. Eventually we came to a blind cliff and could go no farther. We sat for about 10 minutes on its edge, glassing what we were able to see of the mountain around us, but it was apparent that our white ibex had long since departed.

On the way down to meet the horses, we did spot two average heads and I took the larger at about 400 yards. But we didn't learn until we rejoined the Master of the Hunt how close we had actually been to the big fellow. Atabai had watched our progress through field glasses from the valley. What he had seen, and we had not, was the great white ibex carefully hidden from our view in a niche of rock not 60 yards from where we sat on the cliff's edge.

The unsuccessful stalk had taken us a long distance from where we were scheduled to have lunch and, because of the late hour, my horseman went on ahead to help with the preparations. I would like to think that his absence was partly the excuse for my committing the imperial faux pas of the trip.

Aside from the fact that my horse insisted on trying to overtake His Majesty's whenever they were near, Bombast also looked surprisingly like the Shah's stallion. Both were purebred Arabians, both were white and both had several brownish spots on their necks. When an unfamiliar-looking horseman led a very familiar-looking horse right up to where we were standing and His Majesty stepped back at the same time, I assumed the horse was Bombast. I had one foot in the stirrup and the other just over the saddle when a small and completely aghast voice said: "But that's my horse!" And so it was.

Everyone else was speechless. Atabai looked stunned. The horseman didn't look at all. Lieut. Kambiz later remarked: "That's the first time that has ever happened," and, from the general reaction, he doubtless spoke the truth.

Fortunately, the Shah recovered his composure quickly and, with his customary charm, was most gracious about the error. As he took my hastily vacated place in the saddle, he smiled broadly and said, "I think you would find my horse is not as sweet as yours to ride."

Bombast seemed like an old buddy when I climbed back on, and because it was our last day together I let him have his head—which made for a wild ride. I was concentrating so hard on staying in the saddle that I didn't notice our final lunching place until the horse came to an abrupt stop. Even if I had seen it from a distance, I wouldn't have believed it was real. On other days lunch had been a substantial but simple affair. Except for the imperial atmosphere they weren't much different from hundreds of lunches I have had on other hunts. But today everything was changed.

There, sitting in the middle of the open desert was a tent made entirely of Persian carpets. The around sheet was another enormous Persian rug of exquisite workmanship. Next to it were several smaller ones, each a masterpiece, evidently placed there for wiping boots. Off at a discreet distance was a privy made of Persian carpets.

A half dozen white-coated cooks wearing elaborate chef's hats were grilling kabobs of mouflon and ibex over an open fire, stirring great caldrons of steaming sauces with huge spoons, and sprinkling a little turmeric here or a dash of curry there. In the clear, cold waters of a spring that bubbled mysteriously from the base of a single, umbrella-branched tree, a steward carefully turned bottles of beer and fine wine.

Inside the dining tent the table was set with tissue-thin bone china, hand-cut crystal and heavily monogrammed silver. Vast platters were heaped with salads, cheeses, fruits and golden Persian melons. There were tall stacks of two kinds of bread and round bowls of strangely nut-flavored rice.

It was already dusk on the desert when the last course was served and the last wine poured. The hunt was ended. Outside the horses waited in artistic silhouette against the darkening sky, and a new moon, rising regally above our tent, touched long silver fingers to their manes. The soldiers stood in small groups talking among themselves and the musical flow of their language drifted across the evening. I said nothing. I wanted to hold every impression tightly in my hands.

ILLUSTRATIONBOB PEAKIn the courtyard of the marble palace at Farahabat, surrounded by prancing stallions and smartly uniformed guards, the Shah of Iran chats with author at the beginning of an imperial big game hunt. TWO ILLUSTRATIONSBOB PEAKThe imperial horsemen stay behind with the stallions (left) as the hunters and game scouts begin to stalk a herd of mountain sheep sighted on a far hill. TWO ILLUSTRATIONSBOB PEAKHolding an elaborately engraved and inlaid rifle, the Shah of Iran looks out across the rugged and game-filled mountains of the imperial hunting grounds near Teheran, while the author (right) studies a herd of sheep through her telescopic sight. TWO ILLUSTRATIONSBOB PEAKIn remote and majestic splendor, the Imperial Hotel in Ramsar stands shimmering in the morning mist, forming a dazzling background for dogs and hunters on a pheasant shoot in the wet, green jungles that mark the edge of the Caspian Sea.
ILLUSTRATIONBOB PEAKIn a tent made entirely of Persian carpets, the hunters relax at the end of the day with an elaborate meal of fresh roast sheep and exotic Middle Eastern dishes.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)