The Pigeon Breeders of Cairo

Dec 3, 2019 0 comments

Perched on rooftops across Cairo, like water tanks on elevated platforms, are rickety wooden cages where Cairenes keep their pigeons.

Pigeon keeping is a tradition that is older than Ancient Egypt. For thousands of years Egyptians have reared pigeons both for sport and for food. References to pigeon husbandry can be found in hieroglyphics and Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets from more than 5,000 years ago. Unlike in the US, where pigeons are considered little more than rats with wings, pigeon meat is highly prized for their moist, dark tenderness in much of the rest of the world.

pigeon towers of cairo

A pigeon tower in Cairo. Image credit: Egyptian Studio/

In earlier times, raising pigeon was a hobby for the rich. Now it’s the opposite. The more underprivileged and shabby the neighborhood is, the more likely you’ll find pigeon coops there. Many pigeon fanciers in Cairo today are young men who had inherited their flocks from their fathers. Others had fallen in love with the hobby and started their own at a young age. These men and boys have command over their birds, guiding them across the sky with shrill whistles and sometimes a flag. Training them requires an impressive knowledge of animal husbandry, as well as incredible patience, but unlike dog breeders who can showcase their crafts in celebrated venues like the Westminster Kennel Club, Cairo’s pigeon fanciers go mostly unnoticed by the media. Despite this lack of media attention and recognition, pigeon breeders share a deep pride in their flocks, in their loyalty and discipline.

The pigeons are raised primarily for hobby. Others are trained for show, racing and competitions. A peculiar competition popular across neighborhoods in Cairo involves releasing the birds in the air allowing them to mingle with flocks raised by rival breeders. Then, as the birds are recalled back to their coop, a couple of pigeons from the opponent's flock gets drawn in. At this point, the breeder will trap these birds and keep them. Some breeders specifically train their pigeons to lure in birds from rival groups.

pigeon towers of cairo

Pigeon coops in Cairo. Image credit: Rachid H/Flickr

Related: The Pigeon Towers of Iran

Breeding pigeons is an absorbing pastime. In the 10th century, al-Aziz Billah, the fifth caliph of the Fatimid dynasty, once had six hundred carrier pigeons trained to bring him cherries from Ba'albek. Three hundred years later, al-Muzaffar Hajji, the Mamulk ruler of Egypt was notorious for spending extravagant sums on pigeons, mostly on betting and pigeon races. When the senior emirs warned him of the excesses, the young sultan flew into a rage and had all his pigeons slaughtered one by one, as a warning to his emirs that they could meet the same fate. Not long after, al-Muzaffar Hajji was deposed and killed.

On his death, a poet wrote: “You intelligent people, think about the strong al-Malik al-Muzaffar! How much wrong and injustice did he commit, till the pigeon play became the seriousness of death!”

pigeon towers of cairo

Image credit: Manuel Alvarez Diestro

It was said that those who played with pigeons died poor, presumably because they would spend all they possessed on their hobby and neglect their work. Indeed, for many young men in Cairo pigeons have become an alternative to education, they preferring to spend time with the birds or hanging around the pigeon markets instead of going to school. But many parents prefer it that way, because it keeps their kids away from drugs, out from the street and from crime.

“I’ve never done drugs, been in trouble, not even smoked a cigarette. This keeps me so busy, it keeps you out of trouble,” recalls Basha Suleman, a father of seven, who started his first pigeon farm when he was 6.

For some, pigeons have almost replaced family.

“Without the pigeons, I would have married years ago,” tells one pigeon breeder. “The pigeons are my wife. The pigeons are my children.”

Checkout photographer Amanda Mustard's website for some beautiful photos of Cairo’s dovecots.

pigeon breeders of cairo

An old woman selling pigeons in a Cairo market. Image credit: Kirsty Bisset/


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