John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
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: