There’s a charming legend that says when it came time for Noah to select the dog that would board his ark and save the species from the Great Flood, he chose the Afghan Hound.
As with most folklore, this story is best kept in soft focus. Sighthounds – which is what the Afghan Hound most decidedly is – are plentiful in Central Asia and the Middle East: The wide-open spaces and oppressively hot climate are precisely what created the need for these long-legged, aerodynamically built canine hunters.
But millennia ago, breeds as we understand them didn’t exist: Instead, there were general categories of dogs that were much less defined than the closely curated breeds we know today. So the image of a dog resembling a modern Afghan Hound – with its tousled topknot, distinctive saddle and patterning, prominent hipbones, and ring-curled tail – springing in its unmistakably aristocratic way up the gangplank of Noah’s Ark isn’t exactly likely.
And besides, with having to tend each phylum of known creatures in his floating menagerie, Noah certainly didn’t have much time for all that grooming.
Ancient History of the Afghan Hound
Historical accuracy aside, what the tale of the Afghan Hound aboard Noah’s Ark does communicate to us in no uncertain terms is just how ancient this traditional hunter of gazelle and snow leopard is.
Like many of the Eastern Sighthounds, the Afghan Hound was first brought to Great Britain by military men as a sort of living souvenir from the exotic lands in which they were posted. The very first of these imports was Zardin, who was purchased in India by Captain John Bariff and was believed to have been born in Iran. When Zardin was exhibited at the famous Crufts dog show in 1909, he created such a stir that Queen Alexandra requested he visit Buckingham Palace.
Even a glance at the surviving photos of Zardin shows why: He had many of the characteristics that are prized in the breed even today, from his “snowshoe” feet to the visible saddle on his back. Zardin was such an enviable specimen that he became the model for the first-ever Afghan Hound breed standard, which was written in 1912.
Unfortunately, World War I soon pre-empted any interest in dog breeding, and none of Zardin’s bloodline survives in modern Afghan Hound pedigrees today.
But after the bullets stopped flying, British imperialism kept a steady stream of soldiers and civilians heading to Afghanistan and neighboring lands, where they inevitably grew intrigued by these exotically primitive dogs.
And as the dogs began to arrive on British shores in greater numbers in the first quarter of the 20th Century, fascination turned to intense debate over which Afghan Hounds were the authentic ones.
Authentic Afghanistan Hounds
Afghanistan has a varied topography, from expanses of plateau and desert to the craggy, inhospitable mountains that provided such fortress-like protection to the fugitive Osama Bin Laden. (Speaking of that terrorist, some Afghan Hound owners experienced a backlash during the difficult period following September 11 because of the breed’s name and origins – so much so that the Afghan Hound Club of America briefly considered a name change.)
In the face of this widely divergent topography, Afghan Hounds in various parts of the country developed differently – as all breeds do, evolving to suit the conditions in which they lived.
The first bonafide Afghan Hound kennel in the United Kingdom had so-called “steppe” or “desert” type dogs, which had sparser, silkier coats and racier outlines. In 1920, Major and Mrs. G. Bell-Murray and Miss Jean C. Manson returned to Scotland with a group of dogs that came to be referred to as the Bell-Murray strain.
By contrast, “mountain” Afghan Hounds had heavier coats, more bone, and greater angulation. This type of Afghan was brought to England in 1925 by Mary Amps, whose husband was stationed in Kabul. Assembled from the mountainous areas around that key Afghan city, the Amps dogs became known as the Ghazni strain.
The most famous Ghazni dog was Sirdar, who evoked the previous headline maker, Zardin, in appearance. Bred in the royal kennels of the king of Afghanistan, Sirdar wasn’t a large dog, but he soon evolved an oversized presence in the country, winning at Crufts and helping popularize the breed.
Not surprisingly, the Bell-Murray and Ghazni dogs battled it out at dog shows, while outside the ring their respective breeders arm-wrestled over whose strain of dogs should predominate. In the end, both were crossbred, and the Afghan Hound that we have today represents a middle ground between these two polarities.
Aloof & Dignified
While there was impassioned debate in those early years over what an Afghan Hound should be on the outside, there was universal agreement about what the breed should be like on the inside. The often-quoted phrase in the AKC standard – “eyes gazing into the distance as if in memory of ages past” – beautifully sums up the Afghan Hounds strikingly aristocratic bearing. As much as the exotically patterned coat and tousled topknot, the breed’s aloof, dignified temperament should exude a kind self-possessed primitivism: In a just a flash of his steely almond-shaped eyes, the Afghan Hound tells you that he knows who he is, and from whence he came, stretching back before recorded time.
As much as they provide a link to a more feral, tribal world of the past, Afghan Hounds are now also indelibly associated with the future: In 2005, after many exhaustive attempts, South Korean scientists produced the world’s first cloned dog, a black-and-tan Afghan Hound named Snuppy who was proclaimed TIME magazine’s “Invention of the Year.” Several years ago, researchers created four more clones from Snuppy’s stem sells; three of the “reclones” survived.
If only Noah had the technology, that would have been a much simpler solution.