In October, 1806 the North African traveller ‘Ali Bey went by boat from Alexandria, Egypt, on the coast of the Mediterranean, through the Delta to Cairo – a trip that took nine days. His descriptions of the country side are of a landscape and society that in large part has disappeared.
I have selected portions that exemplify some of these lost scenes, especially of livestock and pigeons. The role of doves, or pigeons, as a key source of meat in some parts of the Delta and elsewhere in Egypt is particularly interesting and suggests a lively trade between the farmers of these huge pigeon houses and Cairo. Land being at a premium, pigeons seem to have been a popular item to raise and sell.
Ali Bey – Travels of Ali Bey in Morocco, Tripoli, Cyprus, Egypt, Arabia, Syria, and Turkey, between the Years 1803 and 1807. 1816
At two o’clock on Monday, the 3d of October, I embarked in a cancha, and proceeded up the river. This sort of vessel is used only upon the Nile. Its construction does not differ much from that of the djermes. It is of the same size, and has the same rigging; but it has two rooms, which form a drawing room and cabinet, surrounded with small windows, and a small balcony behind the whole, being independent of the rest of the vessel. I occupied these apartments; and my servants, horses, and baggage, were stowed in the body of the ship.
…At half-past nine a favourable wind sprang up, and we set sail. At ten we entered the mouth of the Nile. What a fine picture! This majestic river, whose waters flow slowly between two banks covered with palm-trees, and those of every other Species; with large plantations of rice, which were then in cultivation; with an infinity of wild and aromatic plants, whose perfumes embalmed the air; with villages, and small houses, scattered here and there with cows, sheep, and other animals, peaceably reposing upon the verdure; with a thousand species of birds, which made the air resound with their notes; with millions of geese, ducks, and water fowl, diving into the water; with large flocks of swans, which appeared as sovereigns among these aqueous animals; all combined to make me exclaim, Ah! why did not the goddess of Love fix her abode upon the banks of the mouth of the Nile!
Dove houses … are very common in all the villages (and) arid hamlets (in the Delta). Pigeons supply the place of meat, which is scarce, on account of the want of pasturage. There are no trees near the river on either side, in this part of the country.
(And further on:)
…The appearance of Rahmanich is not more agreeable than that of the other towns of Lower Egypt. The houses are built upon small heights, and are composed of bricks made of the black earth upon which they stand. As they are not white-washed, they give the town a very melancholy look; which, however, possesses one singularity, namely, there is one quarter composed entirely of dove houses, each of which has a round roof, that gives it the appearance of a large sugar loaf, or parabolic cupola; and the tout ensemble of these cupolas present an aspect truly original.
(several days later):
We passed Zaouch about four. The aspect of this village is extremely singular, which may be conceived by forming an idea of 150 parabolic cupolas, about twenty feet high; the diameter of the base not exceeding eleven feet, constructed of black bricks, and a lofty minaret rising in the middle of them. These cupolas are dove houses; and as they are much larger than the bases, which serve the inhabitants of the town instead of houses, they form rather a town for pigeons than for men.
(Further down the Nile:)
At every instant we perceived barn floors for beating out the rice. The banks were covered with cows and buffaloes. Several of these animals were immersed to their necks in the water: they sometimes plunged their heads under also, and remained in that state for a minute.
(And several days after that):
… we saw some hamlets with dove houses, which appeared to me to be formed of baked earth, and shaped like segments of circles, the diameter of each of which was a foot at the base. These flat-looking cones, the insides of which served as nests for the pigeons, were placed one upon another, and formed large cones like those at Rahmanich, the whole being cemented with mud. A window, placed on the outside, served as an entrance to the birds. The master of the building entered by a door placed in the side of the base, which served him for a habitation. There were a number of sticks fastened horizontally on the outside, which served as perches for the doves.
.Ali Bey concludes:
.. This navigation of the Nile from Rosetta to Cairo is as delightful as the list of so many unknown towns and villages must have been uninteresting to the reader; but I could not pass them over in silence, without failing in the exactitude of my journal.