Buildings for the Birds

Landscapes of the Middle East and North Africa are dotted with a distinctive architectural feature: the pigeon tower. For Dubai-based urbanists Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib, the towers are indicative of closer human-bird relations of the past and have the potential to inspire renewed forms of coexistence.

Our infatuation with pigeon towers (or dovecotes) began in January 2020 on a visit to Marrakech and Alexandria, just before the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a complete halt. The north African terrains that we passed on our drives between cities, towns and farms were riddled with pigeon towers; they defined these landscapes. Built from mud, lime, clay, earth, terracotta, salt or, more recently, assembled from scrap wood and corrugated sheets on top of other buildings, the towers are an unmistakable typology within the city fabric. Why are there so many?

Pigeon towers in Siwa, Egypt. Photo: Roland Unger, Wiki Commons

Our mother, being a master negotiator (far more capable than we are in bakhshish), managed to get us into a few houses and farms to study these towers. It was clear why they remain relevant within north-African cities, particularly in Morocco, Tunis, Egypt and the Sahel region: they are a part of local livelihood and welfare.

Across the region, farmers diversified their crops by constructing these pigeon towers that act as fertiliser factories.

Pigeon-keeping has been present in the Middle East since the dawn of agriculture.1 Throughout the centuries farmers across the region have learnt to breed them for food and eggs, also realising that their droppings made for superior fertiliser.2 Rich in phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen, the region’s agricultural production performed better with the use of pigeon droppings. During the 17th century, travellers counted as many as 3,000 pigeon towers in Isfahan [Persia] with the largest breeding as many as 14,000 birds at a time.3 Across the region, farmers diversified their crops, growing olives, grapevines, figs and other vegetables, by constructing these pigeon towers that act as fertiliser factories.

Pigeon towers in the Gulf of Aqaba. Photo: Wiki Commons

Throughout the centuries, farmers across the Middle East, from Jerusalem, Rosetta, Damascus, Baghdad, and as far as Isfahan and Tangier, began to experiment with architectural iterations of pigeon towers. Depending on the material resources of the region, different bricks, string courses, moulded mud, brick cornices, muqarnas and friezes styled these structures. In the Levantine region, pigeon towers were mostly circular or turreted structures. Within North Africa, structures are either domed or mimic fort-like buildings. Across east Africa and Madagascar, pigeon towers are assembled from wood and are elevated from the ground with pitched hay roofs. However, the most recognisable of all are Isfahan’s pigeon towers. Vaulted and intricately detailed with majestic turrets, these towers can provide shelter to tens of thousands of pigeons. What the pigeon towers share across this vast region are their functions. They all are built with a honeycomb structure, which allows the birds to fly inside, plus a small side door providing access for caretakers, who enter once a year to extract the manure.

Pigeon loft built from kershef, a material made from salt crystals mixed with sand and clay. Photo courtesy the authors

In the western desert of Egypt, the oasis settlement of Siwa has long been a pilgrimage site for architects who come to visit its pigeon towers and other buildings.4 Here, there is an ancient form of vernacular architecture, mostly built from kershef, a material made of salt crystals mixed with clay and sand. The Siwani kershef brick has become something of a signature in the town’s architectural identity. Small, irregularly shaped blocks are taken from the crust of salt lakes, cut into smaller bricks and distributed to the masons. They are then formed into a mud mortar with one of two forms of clay: tafla or tiin. The dehydration process is crucial to its enduring rigidity. The salt within the mortar continues to crystallise during the drying process, forming a strong bond between the materials. The uniqueness of Siwa’s architecture demonstrates that urban infrastructure can use ecological means – mostly salt and earth – to sustain a population of 20,000. The pigeon towers of Siwa are assembled using this vernacular architectural style which is an exclusive technique native to this rural village. 

The uniqueness of Siwa’s architecture demonstrates that urban infrastructure can use ecological means to sustaina population of 20.000.

More recently, contemporary architects began to experiment with these structures. In Egypt, Hassan Fathy and Wissa Wasif worked closely with craftsmen, creating pigeon tower designs for use beyond breeding. They experimented with potters, carpenters and masons, iterating the pigeon tower’s architectural contours. 

Pigeon towers at the Siwa Oasis. Photo: Mohammed Moussa, Wiki Commons

In Barcelona’s Parc Güell in Spain, Antoni Gaudí also intentionally designed architectural elements that would allow for birds and pigeons to nest. Gaudí built long terraced walls and turrets that would incorporate nests for pigeons and a variety of other avians to reside in.

Oscar Niemeyer’s O Pombal pigeon house in Brasília must be the most iconic pigeon tower of modern times. With its oblong-ovate openings on two sides, this giant concrete plinth, constructed in 1960, stands in the centre of the Praça dos Três Poderes, at the heart of Brazil’s capital. Its interior is constructed with thin rows of horizontal concrete shelves for hundreds of pigeons to perch and roost in. 

Oscar Niemeyer’s O Pombal pigeon house in Brasília. Photo: Wiki Commons

Beyond the use of their inhabitants as an agricultural resource, there is a more complicated history to the pigeon tower. The towers were also a form of weaponised architecture. As early as 3,000 BC, Egyptians discovered that pigeons were capable of returning to the towers they were born in. A pigeon can find its way home from as far away as 3,900 km with a speed up to 160km per hour; the equivalent of flying from New York to Los Angeles in under two days.

At first, they were used to dispatch letters.5 Later, they were used by the military to send commands, encrypted messages and other information in conflicts ranging from Waterloo to World War II. Paul Reuter started his eponymous news service with 45 pigeons, which he used to deliver stock prices across Europe. Pigeon photography also became an active military technique in the early-20th century. Invented by Julius Neubronner, a German apothecary, who also used pigeons to deliver medicine, pigeon photography was used for aerial reconnaissance during WWI. Still today, homing pigeons are used for smuggling. Pigeons have been discovered carrying cell phones, SIM cards, phone batteries and USB cords into prisons in Brazil.

Pigeon wearing an early electronic tracking system. Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Navy, Wiki Commons

Although the last pigeon post was still operational in India until 2008, many argue that this historic relationship with pigeons has now been all but severed.6 Technological advancements in radars, satellites and logistics as well as fertiliser manufacturing have replaced the old global network of pigeon towers. In many ways, the industrialisation of navigation networks and the introduction of other modern technologies disrupted our balance with nature.

The industrialisation of navigation networks and the introduction of other modern technologies disrupted our balance with nature.

What can pigeon towers inform us about our current anthropogenic practices? We believe they allow us to explore forces of coexistence beyond technology, through means of symbiotic equilibrium, and to unpack our evolutionary ecology while re-examining our ongoing relationships with nature.7 

Pigeon tower in Qesm Ad Dabaah. Photo: Mujaddara, Wiki Commons

We believe architecture can play a role in this re-examination. The decay of our ecological systems requires a renewed contract to re-pivot the world to closer points of equilibrium. This argument does not disregard population growth or even the positive implications of urbanisation but proposes an open-ended questioning of the interdependent nature of our socio-ecological relationships. The manifestation of our relationship with nature can be seen through our built artefacts. Our task is not to nostalgically romanticise them but examine them anew. These include ancient technologies such as the pigeon structures of the Siwa Oasis, but also Polynesian maps, beehives, and other structures, which include forms of experimentation and conservation in urban and rural scapes. 

We do two forms of research, one is about identity across the Middle East and North Africa, with our Brownbook project and other publications of the region. In parallel, we focus on ecology, water systems for example, (for which we recently were recently part of the team that won the Golden Lion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021). As a natural extension of this research, we looked at salt as a building material and that led us to the vernacular of building for nature.

Architecture for nature can help repair our biosphere, and architects can do more than design for themselves.

There are many efforts towards dealing with climate justice, but architecture for nature can help repair our biosphere, and architects can do more than design for themselves. We happen to be focusing on pigeons. If you are settling in a rural area in the Middle East and start out with a pigeon tower you are more likely to survive because you are able to generate fertiliser, which then can generate crops, which then can generate trade, and you begin a pattern of sustainable life.

When people talk about vertical farming, for example, the complexities and the engineering required to established something like that in rural places is almost impossible without having the technical know-how and materials. The processes associated with pigeon towers are part of an indigenous form of identity across this region. They are lost processes. People here tend to look at solutions technically, rather than historically. We think that if you build pigeon towers in the most desolate places, you can really sustain a village with them. Our aim is to try and get a younger generation to start thinking in that way.

This is an updated version of an essay is featured in “Sonic Urbanism: Listening to Non-Human Life”, edited by George Kafka, &beyond collective, for Theatrum Mundi, pub. January 2022.

Rashid and Ahmed bin Shabib are both practising urbanists. For over a decade they have researched and written about cities across the Middle East and are the founders of Brownbook magazine. They have produced several exhibitions and publications and have collaborated with Domaine de Boisbuchet (2021), Lars Müller Publishers (2019), Architectural Association (2018), Vitra Design Museum (2017) and the Serpentine Gallery (2016). They were nominated for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2010 and 2019 and were part of the team behind the UAE pavilion “Wetland” project which won the Golden Lion at the Venice architecture Biennale 2021.

Title video: “Pigeon Tower” © Ibrahim El-Sherif

  1. Robert Allard, Principles of Plant Breeding (New York: J. Wiley, 1999).[]
  2. Arthur Keith, Darwin Revalued (London: Watts, 1955).[]
  3. Amirkhan, Aryan, Okhovat, Hanie & Zamani, Ehsani, “Ancient pigeon houses: Remarkable example of the Asian culture crystallized in the architecture of Iran and Central Anatolia”, Asian Culture and History, Vol.2, July 2010, pp.45–57.[]
  4. Hassan Fathy, Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt, (Chicago: University Chicago Press, 1974) []
  5. Carter Clarke, “Signal Corps Pigeons”, Military Engineer, Vol.25, 1933, pp.133–138.[]
  6. Satyasundar Barik, “Delivered by Pigeon Post in Cuttack”, The Hindu, 2018, online, accessible here (Last accessed 17.06.21).[]
  7. Louis Mumford, The Future of Technics and Civilization (London: Freedom Press, 1986); Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (New York: John Wiley, 2009).[]
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