Manuel Alvarez Diestro

Pigeon breeding has a long and rich history in the region, dating back 4,000 years.

Gaze across the Cairo skyline and your eyes might hit stilted, rickety structures precariously perched on rooftops. Looking like horrible POW cages, these are in fact nest boxes for pigeons that've been trained to fly around the city in large, sky-darkening squadrons.

This feathery facet of Egyptian culture served as the inspiration for a great new photography series by Manuel Alvarez Diestro, the same guy who soulfully documented Hong Kong's super-dense cemeteries. The 42-year-old photographer traveled from his London home to Cairo during and after the 2011 revolution to work in some of the city's poorer neighborhoods. His focus was the zabbaleen, a disadvantaged community of garbage people (literal translation) whose duty it is to collect and sort through rubbish, much like Brazil's trash mountain-climbing catadores.

Pigeon breeding has a long and rich history in the region, dating back 4,000 years to when people raised them in conical mud coops. At some point, the hobby developed the offshoot of pigeon flying, a beloved neighborhood sport tinged with cutthroat competition. The ever-vital pigeon-info source Pigeon News lays out how it goes down:

In Egypt, they are typically flown from rooftops in late evening until 1 hour after the sun set [sic], mainly during the wintertime. Flying time is well respected just as Soccer games in that part of the world ... start on time. The competition is based upon trapping birds from other lofts. ... The tricky part is to steer all the birds to wing off together as well as luring one or two birds from other lofts to come along with a hope of eventual[ly] landing and trapping them.

Alvarez Diestro centered his efforts on places where the zabbaleen live, which he says are typically the "marginal areas of Cairo." He explains:

I focused mainly in the zabbaleen or garbage people areas next to the Mokattam Hills and Imbaba, one of the most populated Giza districts. These are heavily dense, marginal neighborhoods for Cairo. Most of the housing is informal housing and all the [pigeon] towers have also been informally raised in a nonregulated environment.

In regard to these areas, especially to the zabbaleen, the whole built environment is like a factory where Cairo´s garbage is informally brought in and people split the recyclable materials to be reused (plastics, metals) from the organic ones with no value. The layers of dirt and disposal have accumulated through the years to the point that it's now part of the urban fabric. Visually, I was astonished to see how in the middle of these chaotic and ultra-busy environments there was an order where people lived with dignity, had organized lives, and fully adapted with their surroundings. 

Although pigeon is also a common item on Egyptian menus, the photographer says he couldn't tell if that's a "consequence of these pigeon breeders." (Maybe not, given the effort that goes into raising some of these super-fancy fowl.) Have a look at a few of the sky-reaching bird cribs he came across:

(Manuel Alvarez Diestro)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo of shoppers in the central textile market of downtown Jakarta.
    Design

    How Cities Design Themselves

    Urban planner Alain Bertaud’s new book, Order Without Design, argues that cities are really shaped by market forces, not visionaries.

  2. Passengers line up for a bullet train at a platform in Tokyo Station.
    Transportation

    The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations

    The nation’s famed mastery of rail travel has been aided by some subtle behavioral tricks.

  3. A pupil works on a cardboard architectural model at a Hong Kong primary school.
    Design

    The Case for Architecture Classes in Schools

    Through the organization Architecture for Children, Hong Kong architect Vicky Chan has taught urban design and planning to thousands of kids. Here’s why.

  4. A map of auto loan debt across the U.S.
    Maps

    Mapping the Subprime Car Loan Crisis

    A new tool by the Urban Institute maps the geography of car loan debt and delinquency.

  5. The opulent anteroom to a ladies' restroom at the Ohio Theatre, a 1928 movie palace in Columbus, Ohio.
    Design

    The Glamorous, Sexist History of the Women’s Restroom Lounge

    Separate areas with sofas, vanities, and even writing tables used to put the “rest” in women’s restrooms. Why were these spaces built, and why did they vanish?