The Beauty Pageant Pigeons of Mesopotamia, and Why They’re Like Cats

‘I love them more than my children’: Generations of pigeon-keepers have brought up birds in the ancient city of Mardin, and not for purposes of espionage or industry

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The beauty pageant pigeons of Mardin.
The beauty pageant pigeons of Mardin.Credit: Artwork: Anastasia Shub. Photos: TrifonenkoIvan, Uskarp/ Shutterstock
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Mardin, Turkey
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Mardin, Turkey

MARDIN, Turkey – Pigeons. Despised by some as pests, with some species even driven to extermination, these birds can be not only smart but spectacularly beautiful. The dove, venerated from the days of Noah, is a pigeon; it was therefore a pigeon that reportedly flew out of the ark as it floated somewhere over the land that is today Turkey and returned with an olive branch in its beak. Which begs the question of how fast that tree grew in the wake of the legendary flood.

But back to the bird: they may be scorned as car despoilers in New York and London, they may be eaten with sauce as a change from chicken in some places, but in the ancient city of Mardin in southeast Turkey, they are beloved.

Local, however, these birds are not. “They are from Mosul,” in nearby Iraq, says Murat Yel, 40, asked about the antecedents of his pigeons as they eat seeds and wander up and down the stairs under the afternoon sun.

The birds, about 15 in number, are gently herded by his son Murtaz, 9, as they strut on the stone staircase that serves as a street in the ancient mountaintop city.

Yel is a professional pigeon-keeper. There are many such in Mardin, says Alim Kocabiyik, a licensed tour guide.

Yel specifically is continuing a family tradition that goes back generations and is teaching his son the profession too, he says. “I love the birds more than my children,” Yel avers, perhaps indulging in hyperbole. His son Murtaz smiles and nods.

Murat Yel.Credit: Valence Levi Schuster

Love aside, one must eat. Why do they keep, and breed, pigeons? Is it for industrial purposes like the pigeons trained to work in industry, identifying defective goods on assembly lines? Are they carrying messages tied to their little feet, conveying words of love or war, or secrets from spies embedded in enemy territory?

No. They compete in beauty contests, Yel explains. His pigeons are beauty queens, with sleek plump golden chests, plumed ankles and pinkish beaks.

Though persuaded by Murtaz to stay within the space of a few steps, the pretty pigeons are supping and mucking about in the open air, unfettered and free to fly into the sky and be gone for all time if so they please. Why don’t they? They are intact – their wings unclipped.

“They don’t want to,” Yel answers. And why is that? Freedom is for fools? Maybe, but the answer is they are sort of trained. When one acquires a new pigeon from Mosul or anywhere else, one keeps it confined to the coop for a period of time, weeks, until that enclosure is imprinted on it as home. And there it will stay forever more; if taken outside, it will reliably return.

Fit for a beauty pageant: gold-chested pigeons in Mardin.Credit: Valence Levi Schuster

That is how the Turkish pigeons of Mardin, who hail from Iraq, are just like cats. That is how one rehomes a cat: keep it inside until it feels, this is home territory.

That is the end of how the pigeons of Mardin are like cats, unless one wishes to compare the silky softness of their feathers with cat fur. They also both tend to look at you as though you were a lizard and seem to similarly evoke mad love in some people.

Pigeon beauty contests are not confined to Mardin. People obsessed with them have created some extraordinarily exotic variants.

Back in the Old City of Mardin, one of Yel’s pigeons scorns the food and wanders about with its flock firmly holding a feather in its beak. Asked why she would do that, Yel explains: it is for the nest.

Murtaz Yel and the family pigeons on the stepped stone streetCredit: Valence Levi Schuster

The coop is a spacious room where each bird has room to nest without crowding, the air kept fresh by the brisk mountaintop breeze. The birds seem to be pleased enough with the arrangement to breed: there are eggs in the nests.

There is a way to pick the pigeons of Mardin up, should you so choose.

He demonstrates how to pick up a pigeon – from the rear so it can’t see you coming, or it scuttles off – and hold it gently cupped in two hands, enabling a close-up view of their charms.

Yel does not speak English: his explanations were translated from Turkish by our tour guide Alim.

The earliest lovers

Mardin is on the southern slope of the last mountain of a vast limestone highland. The soft, porous stone is dotted with natural caves, some of which have been further carved out.

From the Old City atop the escarpment, one can see Syria and the sprawling Mesopotamian plain, weather permitting. “In front of Mardin, there is literally no hill, no mountain. You can see to the end of the world from Mardin,” Kocabiyik says. “You can see all of Mesopotamia, all the way to the Persian Gulf.”

From the (superb) mountaintop restaurant Cercis Murat Konagi, that seemed to be true even though the weather was not particularly permitting.

The Moon rising over the Old City of Mardin.Credit: Emrah Gurel/AP

Like the whole area, Mardin has been occupied since forever. Archaeologists have uncovered Neolithic remains at a site in Mardin called Boncuklu Tarla: so far, 118 skeletons from a settlement apparently about 12,000 years old have been found. The archaeologists also found thousands of stone beads of many colors that had presumably been, at the time, strung together as Epipaleolithic jewelry.

It is here that archaeologists found two bodies, buried in fetal positions, facing each other, Kocabiyik says. One is a man, the other a woman. “They are the oldest lovers we know,” he adds.

As said, the settlement at Boncuklu Tarla has been dated to nearly 12,000 years ago – a bit earlier perhaps than the extraordinary remains found at Göbekli Tepe and similar sites in southeastern Turkey.

Among other things, at Boncuklu Tarla archaeologists have found what they believe was a communal building with stone pillars. And while the lovers were probably not the earliest ever, the sewage system archaeologists think they have identified there may well be.

Mardin by night.Credit: Ruth Schuster

Thousands of years later, Mardin would be a stop on the great Silk Road, originally called “Marida.” Its modern history as a cosmopolitan city began in the early 1100s, when a Turkish beylik (local governorship) arose here, under Bey Artuk. It was the capital of the territory he and his successors ruled in southeastern Turkey, for about 350 years, Kocabiyik says. “They built mosques, madrassas, baths and more, leaving behind a beautiful city made of stone,” he adds.

Looking around, one senses influences from the next-door Middle East and farther-off North Africa, but Mardin is unique: “A brand by itself,” as Kocabiyik puts it.

It is also famous for its diverse population. “In Mardin, Turks live. In Mardin, Kurds live. In Mardin, Armenians live. In Mardin, Arabs live. Of course, Assyrians too,” Kocabiyik says. The city also has a small community of Yazidis, who hailed from Iraq and whose belief system has been horribly misunderstood, he explains. Accused of Satanism, in fact it is the opposite, he explains: God doesn't need their prayers. He is wholly good: they need to pray to Satan to stay away.

At night, the lower city is the lower city, like any lower city, but the mountaintop glows – with electric light, it bears saying – and at least some shops in the market thrum with activity until the wee hours.

“In Turkish, Mardin is called a place to see in daytime and a necklace at night,” Kocabiyik says. “Viewed from the Mesopotamian plain, at night the houses on the top of the hill shine bright, like a U-shaped diamond necklace.”

The Old City is 100 percent protected against development: any building development takes an endless bureaucratic procedure, Kocabiyik explains. It is spotless, except on the stairs where the pigeons do what they do. But they are beloved, and forgiven.

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