Birds of the Near East: From symbol to reality

Birds of the Near East: From symbol to reality

Hürriyet Daily News
Birds of the Near East: From symbol to reality

According to research, 211 different bird species are depicted in paintings and other Egyptian artifacts from about 4000 BC through AD 395. Among the many species are quail, storks, hoopoes, kestrels, herons, martins and lapwings.

According to modern science, birds are the descendants of the dinosaurs, but it’s quite a stretch to think of the huge lumbering beasts we see in museums and movies as the delicate creatures we see mostly perched on tree branches or soaring overhead. From time immemorial mankind has envied the bird’s ability to fly even as humans stole their eggs and killed them for food.

Birds were even more valued by the ancient Egyptians as we know from their wall paintings and from the thousands of mummified remains. They held them in such regard that some of their gods’ heads were those of birds and their written language, known as hieroglyphics, had 65 symbols of birds, from falcons to quail chicks to owls, according to the catalogue for the exhibition “Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt,” at the Oriental Institute in Chicago that opened last month.

According to research, 211 different bird species are depicted in paintings and other Egyptian artifacts from about 4000 BC through AD 395. Among the many species are quail, storks, hoopoes, kestrels, herons, martins and lapwings. Frequently the paintings show hunting scenes, either casting nets over birds in trees or rising from the papyrus that grew along the banks of the river Nile.

Birds were highly regarded

In later civilizations of the Near East, birds were highly regarded, although not anywhere as highly regarded as among the Egyptians who thought that when someone died, his or her ba, the power move lived on. The ba appeared as a bird with a human head and left the tomb during the day, only to return at night to reunite with the corpse.

The most prized birds were hunting birds and a bas-relief from the palace of Sargon, built vy the king of Assyria in the eighth century B.C., shows birds of prey being hunted. Roman mosaics show scenes of hunting birds out after prey. By the seventh century A.D., the tribes in the Arabian Peninsula were already using birds to hunt and the Quran specifically permits the prey to be eaten.

One has only to look at the many paintings of birds that come from the Islamic world to realize that there was a profound appreciation of birds. Even in Ottoman miniatures, one can actually identify the birds being used by the sultans depicted out hunting – head shape, feather formation, color and breast patterns allow for identification even if we didn’t have historical records.

Western sources have generally been ignorant where Arab, Persian and Turkish sources are concerned because there were few translations and few had the essential language skills.

Muslim scholars had access to three different traditions – the pre-Islamic Arabic, the Graeco-Alexandrian and the Indo-Persian, according to Seyyed Hossein Nasr. The pre-Islamic Arabic tradition relies on observation. Graeco-Alexandrian tradition is heavily dependent on the work of Aristotle and Hippocrates.

‘Existence of God’

The Indo-Persian tradition on the other hand portrayed the spiritual and moral significance of birds. Nasr writes, “The main work belonging to this tradition, namely the Kalilah wa Dimnah (Tales of Bidpai), which became a major literary masterpiece of both Arabic and Persian, reveals clearly the concern to learn not only about, but also from animals and to study animals as creatures who share in man’s destiny and who have much to teach man concerning the wisdom of God and man’s duties on earth.”
Over the centuries some of the books on animals, including birds, were efforts to demonstrate “the existence of God and the wisdom inherent in His creation.” Sections on zoology were included in philosophical works, leading to Western sources to further ignore Muslim works. Although there were some books that actually dealt with classifying animals and discussing their anatomies, other works debated whether man had the right to dominate and destroy animals. In one particular story, man is given the right by the animals although he has to remember that he is God’s representative on earth. Otherwise man will suffer if he doesn’t behave accordingly.

One of the major works translated from Arabic into Turkish was written in the 14th century, The Great Book on the Life of Animals by Kamal al-Din al-Damiri. The entries included information on the animal including birds, Muslim traditions related to it, juridico-theological considerations such as eating it, proverbs, medicinal properties and interpreting dreams in which the animal appeared.

Many examples of the Ottoman interest in birds are to be found in the miniature paintings in various books. Frequently one finds images of woodpeckers and magpies as well. Scenes of hunting or gardens show numerous examples of different kinds of birds. They had a particular interest in hunting birds such as hawks. The sultan had a special group of men at Topkapi Palace who were responsible for breeding and training hawks and falcons for hunting. The falcon after all was associated with rulers and suggested power, aloofness and swift judgment. Once it has spotted its prey, the latter cannot escape.

A section of the Topkapı harem was also designated as the aviary in which song birds were kept, although birds were also present throughout the palace. Later the aviary became a kitchen in which the sultan’s meals were prepared.

Cranes walked in the gardens, and parrots were trained to speak for the amusement of the harem women. Dolmabahçe Palace has a more western-like aviary with room for thousands of birds and even maintains a hospital for birds and currently a research center.

The Ottomans also built special bird houses on the outside of mosques, medreses (schools) and other buildings. Some of these had special decorative forms. They also constructed buildings without roofs where pigeons would roost. At regular intervals, people who were especially assigned the duty would come and collect the droppings to use as fertilizer. One such building remains in Beşiktaş just where one turns off Barbaros Boulevard for the Ataturk Bridge.

Bird catching profession

Bird catching was also an honorable profession in the Ottoman Empire and in various miniatures we see men carrying cages with birds in them. People who bought these birds and then freed them thought that they were had performed an act that would help earn them entrance to heaven.
Some of the most beautiful tiles such as those that are on the front of the Topkapi Circumcision Chamber contain images of graceful birds amid the floral arrangements. Birds were also depicted on ceramic vases and plates in addition to tiles.

In calligraphy, one of the most highly praised of the Ottoman arts, Arabic letters were used to form a variety of different images including birds.

Birds are treated in a highly symbolic way in Ottoman literature. One of the species most often mentioned is the nightingale (bulbul in Turkish) whose haunting cry suggests the longing for or loss of one’s beloved. Caged birds in Celaladdin Rumi’s Mesnevi are taken to mean the souls of men who are trapped inside their physical bodies but long for the day when they are freed [by death] to fly to be reunited with God.

A couplet by the 18th century poet Nedim refers to the bird of the heart wanting a nest in Paradise where it will find safety and security, that is, the bird flying to God.