Dovecotes, Tradition and National Identity in Egypt

On Mubarak's Mind
Portrait of Mubarak, Abdine Palace Museum, Cairo. Photo: TMK, May 2008.

Dovecotes are not only an omnipresent part of many Egyptian landscapes. They are also very much part of the national identity of modern Egypt, as seen for example in the above portrait of Mubarak in the Abdine Palace in Cairo. It shows a contemplative president surrounded by symbols of the modern Egyptian nation-state: airforce, industry, agriculture, Mahmoud Mokhtar’s sculpture Egypt’s Renaissance, pyramid, mosque, Coptic church, the Nile and a pair of dovecotes.

Dovecotes are used to raise pigeons (hammam). They are often built on the upper stories of houses but frequently they are also of the stand-alone, tower-like variety. There is a great number of different sizes and types. The continuity of the tradition of raising pigeons in dovecotes is nowhere more apparent than in the Fayum. Here, excavations in the 1920s and 1930s of the Roman town of Karanis revealed six dovecotes, representing only a small fraction of the original number (Husselmann 1953; Gazda 2004: 13-14). Visitors touring the Fayum today encounter similar examples across the landscape, using the same construction technique and the same ceramic pots for nests. So many connections are apparent in these relatively mundane artefacts: between past and present, between local tradition and national identity, and between object and observer (the awkward gaze of a Westerner on a society seemingly unchanged by time…).

Have a look for yourself:

Dovecote C65 at Karanis, excavated by Francis Kelsey and his team from the University of Michigan (from Gazda 2004: fig. 22).

Dovecotes in Fayum
Dovecote in contemporary Fayum. Photo: TMK, May 2008.

Dovecotes in Fayum
Close-up of pots used for construction of nests. Photo: TMK, May 2008.

E.M. Husselmann. 1954. “The Dovecotes of Karanis”, TAPhA 84: 81-91.
E.K. Gazda (ed.) 2004. Karanis. An Egyptian Town in Roman Times. Ann Arbor, MI: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

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