Even pigeon fanciers will tell you that pigeons—beautiful in the swept-back symmetry of flight—can be dirty, smelly creatures in rooftop city coops. But in the Middle East—where messenger pigeons once nested in the palaces of caliphs, the graceful birds occasionally still live in settings equal to their splendor. The ruins of Anjar, for example, where delicate arches soar in the air as splendidly as the birds they shelter.
Anjar, in Lebanon's fertile Beka'a Valley, was once the summer palace of Omayad Caliph al-Walid (705-714), who was attracted there by the hunting and the icy springs at the nearby source of the Litani River. Today little remains of what was once a defensive enclosure 175 yards square. There's a cluster of soaring arches, traces of a mosque and some walls built in the Byzantine fashion with alternating layers of stone and brick.
And the pigeons, of course. The beautiful pigeons of Anjar, circling above and around the arches, nesting in the nooks and weathered crannies of golden ruin.
The pigeons belong to Anjar's watchman, also handsomely weathered, a resident of the tidy modern village (also called Anjar) which was established next door to the ruins in neatly-surveyed hillside rows to shelter Armenian refugees during World War I.
Pigeon-keeping in the Middle East goes back beyond Caliph Walid, of course, back as far as Noah. Even further, perhaps, since the wild rock dove (the names pigeon and dove are often used interchangeably) of western Asia is probably the progenitor of the common street and domestic pigeons. You see pigeons everywhere: in picturesque mud-brick crenolations built right into the wall of a house in southern Syria's Jabal Druze region, in whitewashed, egg-shaped dovecotes on free-standing towers among the palms near farm houses in Egypt's Delta. And on city rooftops.
In Lebanese towns, one often sees a man atop a building, sweeping a long flag-tipped bamboo pole in wide circles above his head to keep his flocks aloft. But there, unlike the farming villages, pigeon-keeping is frequently for sport. An owner flies only his males (the females lure them back), training them to fly far afield, then return faithfully to him, if possible bringing with them less-loyal birds which they have tempted away from competing flocks. A coward is the man who keeps his birds close to home.
In Beirut, the pigeons' silent, semi-hypnotic circling often seems a strange counterpoint to the screeching overhead approach of arriving international jet liners. In the tranquil Beka'a Valley the symbol of peace seems somehow more at home. Anjar's watchman flies his birds by clapping, and calls them with a silver whistle, but in the otherwise deserted ruins his flocks do not often face temptation.