“They are hammam towers, brother,” Mohammad Hola tells me. “Hola take you to one.”
My de facto guide and new friend (whose nickname comes from his uncanny Spanish proficiency) is referring to the treehouse-like, wooden towers that stand atop rooftops all across Cairo.
“Hammam, brother. You say pigeon, we say hammam. They are for pigeons.” he clarifies, seeing my confused face.
I’d first spotted the ubiquitous, mysterious towers the day before while exploring Cairo. On my backpacking trip around the world, I am in Egypt for merely 10 days. I expected to only see the Pyramids of Giza and the temples of Luxor. Now, I am shaking my head in disbelief at how naively I’d dismissed Cairo as a generic capital.
The deep vocals of the azan emanated from the mosques all across the city, reverberating through the chilly evening air. Anyone living in Cairo recognizes the sound calling the faithful to prayer, but to me, it is foreign. The sun was glaring hard, its rays of yellow light diluted by the haze that covers the city, including the minaret on top of which I was standing. I smiled to myself, revelling at what a little bakhsheeh (Egyptian for tip or bribe) to the mosque caretaker can do. Suddenly, my eye was drawn to the fluttering of a flock of pigeons; they flew in circles above the cluttered concrete rooftops of the city, only their silhouettes visible against the strong sun.
Just as I was about to head down the spiral staircase, my attention was drawn to what roughly resembled a treehouse. Upon closer inspection, I realized that the pigeons weren’t haphazardly flying around in circles, but surrounding a sort of rooftop loft. As though I’d taken off a blindfold, I suddenly spotted countless other rooftop balcony-like structures, each one with a flock of pigeons fluttering around it.
My interest was piqued and I was eager to see one of these pigeon towers for myself. Luckily, I knew just the guy. Since I arrived in Cairo, my relationship with Hola transformed from an innocuous ‘Come to my perfume shop’ scam into a series of odd excursions, during which Hola took me away from tourist spots like the Khan el-Khalili market to smoke hookah at local teahouses or visit the garbage neighborhood, whose residents are the informal garbage collectors of the city. All this in exchange for a healthy fee, of course.
Like all previous outings, my inquiries regarding today’s destination are only met with a mischievous smile. I shake my head and follow him, chuckling. By now I’m as used to his withholding ways as he is to my unorthodox requests (it took two days for him to stop trying to convince me to visit his perfume shop).
“Come this way. Hola take you where you want to go,” he says again. I follow, feeling
completely lost in the narrow, meandering alleyways of Cairo. I can understand perhaps why so many citizens of Cairo are drawn the rooftops and the sky. The sensation of standing on top of the minaret with a fresh breeze in my face and gazing out across the city feels a world apart from the decrepit concrete buildings and muddy roads rife with potholes and riddled with trash that I now navigate.
After some asking around, we enter an apartment complex (with no front door) and make our way upstairs to meet Abdullah, a pigeoneer. Hola relays my request to see the pigeon tower to Abdullah. Judging by the quizzical look on his face, he probably finds my request as odd yet bemusing as someone asking to see a doghouse. Nonetheless, he complies and takes me to his rooftop, where I stop in my tracks.
This is no treehouse. What’s in front of me is a four-story, makeshift wooden loft akin to a medieval watchtower. Abdullah grins at my shock, clearly proud of his hobby.
“Wait until you see the hammams,” Abdullah says, urging me forward like a little boy eager to show off his collection—except this collection consists of 200 pigeons and a four-story rooftop coop. We walk up onto the first level of the pigeon coop and climb a ramshackle smorgasbord of ladders, steep stairs and trapdoors, ascending through the levels until we reach the top. All four sides of the balcony are filled with pigeon nests, save the narrow entrance we’d come from. I stand in the middle and spin around, trying to imagine how it would feel to be the master of all these birds.
Abdullah strolls over to a coop, unlatches the door and takes out one of pigeons. Inside each of these little cages is a bowl for water and a bowl for seeds. Holding the bird, he explains how he’d first fallen in love with pigeoneering as kid following his uncle around his pigeon coop. That childhood passion for hammams stayed with him through his teens and young adult years, and the first thing he did after getting a job and his own place was invest in pigeons. Now Abdullah is married and has a child, but his adoration for his hammams has not wavered.
“We love it, brother. It’s an old hobby,” he says, petting one of his beloved birds. Abdullah spends a few hours every day cleaning, feeding and letting his birds out to train them. For him it’s exciting but also a way to relax. He praises the birds’ loyalty and affection to their owners.
“People you know for many years, then one day they hurt you,” he says, “But hammams are loyal. They always come back to you.”
Abdullah has been doing this for ten years now, starting with a few pigeons and breeding, buying, and training them until today. Now, his 200-plus pigeons consume about 300 kilos of pigeon seeds a month, costing him roughly $120 USD every thirty days.
While Abdullah is content solely to breed and train his pigeons, other pigeon fanciers make a profit by selling young ones in the “pigeon market” which takes place every Friday. Some pigeoneers even raise showcase pigeons, meticulously breeding them to perfect their features,from their chest size to their tail colors. While the average hammam goes for roughly 150 Egyptian Pounds ($8 USD), these showcase hammams go for nearly ten times that price.
Abdullah tells us stories of pigeon battles, where each pigeoneer takes turns releasing his pigeons in the enemy’s property and then attempts to capture as many pigeons as they can—both by using traps and by luring them in using their own pigeons. The next day the process is reversed.
Whoever has captured more enemy pigeons wins. Sometimes the pigeon wars engulf whole neighborhoods, Abdullah says, and there have even been cases of police involvement.
“This is more than just an expensive hobby; it’s a thousand year old culture of the city,” he says. Now it’s time to let out the pigeons, first the best trained ones and then the others, who follow their lead. I watch for a while as Abdullah expertly directs the birds with a series of whistles and hand signals, training his beloved, loyal hammams.
I watch the flurry of wings as the hammams rapidly shoot away, only to gracefully float back as they bank and turn. Now Abdullah signals for them to fly higher and further away. I watch them gradually grow smaller, their features soon indiscernible from each other. After flying some distance away, they will return by nightfall. The newer pigeons learn the way home from the more trained ones, Abdullah explains.
As Abdullah’s flock of pigeons fly away, I turn my gaze away from the sky above my head to the skyline of Cairo. The glint of the evening sun paints everything in its intense light. All across the city, flocks of hammams take flight from the wooden pigeon towers that burgeon up from the grey, concrete landscape of the city. On top of the towers, pigeoneers everywhere are staring into the sky, away from the hectic streets of Cairo to the open sky where their hammams roam freely, soaring over the vast city, but always sure to come back home.
Photographs by Shervin Abdolhamidi
Edited by Ivy Scott