JOURNEY TO THE WORLD OF
PIGEONS IN CAPPADOCIA
Article & photography for Anadolu Jet Airlines Magazine (Turkish Airlines) , May 2019.
Apart from its beautiful horses that have become a byword for Cappadocia, Cappadocia also has pigeons. In these lands where pigeon-keeping was taken up extensively throughout history, we are trailing the traces of the pigeon holes carved into rocks and their inhabitants gliding in the sky.
I set on my way to greet spring in Cappadocia. I do not know whether it will be sharing its secrets with me but I’m more than ready to listen to the stories behind the gigantesque rocks on which many lives are set up and to behold the unique landscapes from its steep slopes.
The Kayseri-Göreme road is as beautiful as the Cappadocia that I have envisioned. Revealing its existence in all its glory from afar, Mount Erciyes shows its face immediately. As I walk along a road that smoothly glides over the traces of spring flowers of many shades of white and pink, I watch the village houses each one of which resembles watercolor paintings placed on the slopes of the mountains.
When I get to Göreme, white feathers fall on me from the sky. I become all the more intrigued by pigeons, the life they lead here, and their keepers. In my mind, “Cappadocia” which means “the land of beautiful horses” in Persian is graced with one more name: the land of beautiful pigeons. After their feathers I see them: they soar into the sky flapping their delicate wings dotted with brown, black, and white from the steep rock faces. The sound of flapping that echoes, seems to be the sound of Cappadocia. They may not speak but who knows what the flapping of those wings tell us!
In very many places of Cappadocia and on the walls of the rock houses built on steep slopes you see pigeon houses. It is possible to understand that pigeon-keeping dates way back by looking at these holes on the old rock faces. These holes referred to in Cappadocia as “güvercinlik” are referred to as “burç” in Kayseri and “boranhane” in Diyarbakır. Pigeon-keeping in Cappadocia started in the 9th century. Pigeon droppings were used in that period in agriculture and to make the frescoes in the churches more vibrant. Apart from Cappadocia, pigeons were domesticated for thousands of years in many regions of Anatolia. It is even said that pigeons were in fact the first birds to be domesticated.
Looking at the historical records, we see that during the Ottoman period pigeon and pigeon droppings exports were extensively carried out in Aleppo, Gaziantep, and Urfa. From then to this day, the kind of pigeons that are frequently seen are nose divers, spinners, tumblers, messengers, oriental frills and singing pigeons. They are named depending on their specifications and the region they come from.
Among the interesting qualities of pigeons are the balmy voice coming from their depths, which is specific to this species and is called “heaving/cooing”; and the bird milk, a liquid similar to milk that comes from the gizzard of pigeons following the incubation period to feed their nestlings. Moreover, the pigeon figure that we come across in the Anatolian patterns symbolizes peace and good luck. That’s why, throughout history, this bird has been considered to bring good luck.
While tumblers and messenger pigeons were favored in WWII for communication, today they are generally bred as a hobby. Most pigeon keepers consider this adventure they embark upon at a very young age not merely as a hobby but as a sort of “passion.”
The characteristics of a pigeon are assessed by its appearance, its ability to fly for a long time, to navigate, and to perform in the air. Furthermore, its ability to land where it took flight from and to stand with an inflated chest are among the characteristics sought after by pigeon keepers.
“I greet them first every morning“
A few hours before the sun sets, I head over to Uçhisar town of Cappadocia that leaves its visitors in awe with its fortress on a hilltop and the stone houses set up on its slopes. I watch the Güvercinlik Valley of Uçhisar renowned for being windy and its fresh air. This place is a rock haven that seemed to have cropped up all of a sudden by the side of the cliff. Rock faces resembling countenances are like a mysterious canvas behind the pigeons that take off from the slopes. I climb a little higher up and get to another slope. There is a tea garden set up on one of the bluffs here. Mehmet Bey, a.k.a. Çiko, got his nickname for resembling Zagor’s friend Cico when he was a child. And he named his place “Çiko’nun Yeri” (Chez Çiko) for he has been called “Çiko” ever since. Looking at the fairy-tale like landscapes that stretch far and wide before us as we converse, we end up talking about Mehmet Bey’s pigeons. He says, “I, of course, have allocated the best spot on the slope to my pigeons” as he shows me the shed at the front of the slope. We go out to see his pigeons. When the door of the pigeon shed opens, a new door also opens in my mind. I’m listening to the heaving and flapping of these birds with utter surprise; it is the first time, I am so close to them. Oriental frills and tumblers display their skills in the air as all eyes are turned on them. Saying that he has never given up on this passion since childhood, Çiko adds, “For decades, I first say good morning to them.”
In those moments, when the silence that prevailed was broken by the sound of their wings, I see the love and hope in the eyes of Çiko who watches them soar to the sky, and glide far and away. Çiko has taken his share of the positive feelings identified with these birds. Much like pigeons, he reads the sky and speaks their tongue.
As the sun is about to set, this time I arrive at Suvermez, one of the villages of Nevşehir. We meet up with Cumhur Bey. We climb to the roof of his house to see his pigeons. Just like Çiko, he opens the door of the shed with great excitement and by giving them fodder he invites them outside. After feeding some, the tumblers soar up in the sky, and put on a show for us. Watching them flow here and there and how they tumble, I get dizzy. It is as if flooding down from the rooftop, their fervor reaches the mosque and the coffee house at the village square. Cumhur Bey says, “I have been communing with these birds ever since I was a child, that’s why I cannot break away from their world.” I learn from the pigeon keeper that for these pigeons to display all the skills they first have to “regurgitate” food to their nestlings, that is to say feed them, and then, about a year later they are able to show their talents. Bird auctions held at the village at certain intervals are among the hotly anticipated events by pigeon fanciers like Cumhur Bey. He says that he buys new pigeons from these tenders and sells them to other pigeon lovers. And he holds the other birds he keeps for breeding in another shed. Hence, by breeding birds with various attributes, he brings forth new crossbreeds. As we have this conversation, the pigeons give a break to their flight and time seems to slow down when they are lined over the top of the shed.
Pigeon-keeping is the heritage of our history. The pigeon keepers who carry this Anatolian custom to our day are dreamers who spend half the day on rooftops or slopes, eyeing the sky, reading the flapping of the wings of pigeons, and speaking a vernacular similar to theirs.