Na HISTÓRIA da Humanidade

Doves and Pigeons in History

Artigo do site:

Pigeons have been cultivated for thousands of years, for many different reasons.

Records from ancient Persia, Egypt, Israel, Greece, China and many other locations in the Middle East and Asia prove that pigeons were cultivated for food, for use in religious ceremonies, sports and, of particular importance in history, as messengers.


Doves and Pigeons as Symbols

It is interesting that this common little bird, so familiar to all of us, has represented some of the most noble and positive symbols, in almost every culture around the world.

white dove flying_260_flipped

The dove has been associated with motherhood and femininity. For example, the Sumerian mother-goddess Ishtar is often portrayed as holding a pigeon. The ancient Phoenicians associated Astarte, the goddess of love and fertility, with the dove.

The Greek goddess Aphrodite and the Roman goddess Venus were both  symbolically represented by doves.

In China, the dove historically symbolized fidelity and longevity.

There were superstitions in medieval Europe that claimed that devils and witches could turn themselves into birds, but not into doves – suggesting the purity of the dove.

Judaism refers to the dove as a messenger of hope and peace (the story of Noah), and you find the dove used as allegory in King Solomon’s Song of Songs about love and beauty.

Motke_Blum_Dove_of Peace_550

Dove of Peace and Love by Motke Blum of Jerusalem

In Christianity, the dove is seen as a symbol of the Holy Ghost at Christ’s Baptism, (Matt. 3: 16-17: “…and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon Him.”).

Today we find the dove used frequently in secular literature and art as a symbol of love, fidelity, devotion and peace.


Canadian Millennium Stamps with White Dove      Canadian Millennium Coin with dove

What is it about this bird that has made it worthy of association with such lofty concepts?

Pigeons as Messengers

The story of Noah in the Bible describes one of the earliest uses of the pigeon as a messenger. Noah sent the pigeon from the ark to see if the deluge was over. It was sent a few times before it came back with a branch of an olive tree in its beak, which proved to Noah that the waters had begun to subside. There are even earlier writings, such as the Sumerian ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’, that also include a story about a great flood and how a pigeon played the role of a messenger.

Tablets, found in Mesopotamia (areas around Iraq and Iran of today), as well as Egyptian hieroglyphics, suggest that pigeons were being domesticated by both civilizations already around 3000 BCE. Eventually, in time, they learned how to use their homing instincts for communication purposes. For example the Egyptians would release pigeons in order to announce, to the people, the rise of a new pharaoh.

First century BCE Mosaic of Scene with Egyptian Columbarium for Breeding Pigeons found in Palestrina beside Rome1

First century BCE Mosaic of Scene with Egyptian Columbarium for Breeding Pigeons found in Palestrina beside Rome1

There are records that indicate that Phoenician merchants used to take pigeons on their ships during their business trips in the Mediterranean and would let them go whenever they needed to release information about their business tours.

The Greeks used carrier pigeons to release the results of the Olympic games and to send messages about victories in their battle fields.

Frontinus, the Roman writer, tells about the use of carrier pigeons by Julius Caesar. There are documents about the existence of columbarium in Rome that contained over 5000 pigeons.

Conquerors throughout history, such as Hannibal and Genghis Khan, also used pigeon-post as a communication network.

Carrier Pigeon

Carrier Pigeon

The added value for using pigeons as message carriers in the ancient world was quite significant.

When compared to other means of long distance communication in ancient times, such as smoke, drums and human messengers, pigeon carriers provided a more private and discrete way of transferring messages.

Between the end of the 12th century to the mid 13th century ADE, the use of carrier pigeons reached its peak. Marco Polo in his writings mentions, in admiration, the      extensive use of carrier pigeons in the east.

The use of carrier pigeons was so well known in the 1800s that many people believed it was the carrier pigeon, in 1815, that brought the message of Napoleon’s defeat in the battle of Waterloo to Nathan Rothschild, 3 days before Wellington’s human messenger. This has been disputed by a Rothschild family biographer. A few years later, however, pigeons were used by the young Reuter Agency to communicate stock exchange information between Germany and Belgium.

Postal Pigeons

Postal Pigeons

During 1870-71 during the war between Prussia and France, messages were sent from and to seized Paris. This was the only way of communication between the city to the neighboring towns.

In the 1st World War a portable pigeon home was created in order to accompany the soldiers to the front. This enabled them to send messages almost instantly. It is known that the French espionage service used carrier pigeons to send messages to and from their agents behind the lines.

One of the most famous carrier pigeons of the 1st World War was “Cher Ami” that saved around 200 American soldiers. Despite injuries inflicted by the German army, this little pigeon managed to get its message to the Allies in time to save the soldiers and the pigeon quickly became a symbol of heroism. Today its stuffed body can be seen in the Smithsonian Institute in United States.

There was also an extensive use of pigeons in World War 2, and decorations for valor were awarded to 32 of them, including two famous pigeons – GI Joe and the Irish Paddy.

During the British Mandate over Palestine, carrier pigeons were used by the Jewish organizations. In 1948 during the war of independence, carrier pigeons were used by the Israeli army to send and receive messages from the seized city of Jerusalem when other means of communications failed.

The development of technology and new means of communications have resulted in a reduction in use of carrier pigeons, but their place in history is recognized, well appreciated and remembered.

The Columbarium

The great demand for pigeons resulted in a lucrative occupation for those who bred and sold the pigeons.

Columbarium_in_Beit_Govrin_Israel_550_l  - 14

The habit of sacrificing was a common practice in the ancient world. At that time human sacrifice was experienced in central America, some tribes in Africa and some ancient tribes in Europe like the Germans and Kelts. In ancient Greece human sacrifice was a practice in order to appease the gods. Also in Egypt and Mesopotamia this was a practice in times of crisis. For example, Meisha, King of Moav, sacrificed his son (Kings 2,3,27).

Jephthah the Gileadite, to fulfill his pledge to God, sacrificed his daughter (Judges 11,31). The story goes that Jephthah pledged that, if he succeeded in his battle against his enemies, he would sacrifice the first to come out of his home to receive him….this turned out to be his only child – his daughter.

The Bible condemned human sacrifice and called for a substitute, as clearly indicated in the story of Abraham and Isaac. According to the Biblical laws of sacrifices (in particular Leviticus (Vaikra) 1-16), it is imperative that sacrifice should only be of small cattle, goats and sheep or of a pure fowl\bird.

Pigeons fit this last category. Plus which, they had an advantage over the other options because they were easy to breed. Therefore they fulfilled at least two basic needs: they served as a source of food and as an object acceptable for sacrifice. As a result a flourishing industry developed for cultivating pigeons.

Stone fragment with Hebrew Word "Korban" (Sacrifice) and etching of pigeons, discovered in Jerusalem in 1960s2

Stone fragment with Hebrew Word “Korban” (Sacrifice) and etching of pigeons, discovered in Jerusalem in 1960s2

In the beginning they were bred in small dove cotes, and with time they were cultivated in larger structures called columbarium.

Beit_Govrin_dove_cotes_550_l - 12

Hundreds of ancient columbaria have been found in Israel, a few dozens of them in and around the city of Jerusalem. Most of them were built in manmade caves. The others were built above the ground in the form of towers. These were found in the City of David, Jericho, Masada, Herodium and in other cities in Israel, dating back to the Hellenistic and early Roman periods.

Most of those that were built above the ground did not survive. Some that were created under the ground remained in good shape. A number of them, found close to Beit Govrin, south-west of Jerusalem, are shown in the pictures in this page.

Beit Govrin_colombarium_1_550_l - 13

The relative softness of the limestone that exists in the foot hills of Jerusalem helped to create the underground structures. These were created in round shapes, square shapes and/or complexes that included several rooms and halls with connections among them.

In the walls of these rooms, hundreds of niches were dug, each big enough to allow a mother pigeon to lay 2 eggs and to grow her baby squabs.

These complexes contained sometimes thousand of pigeons. Their droppings were used to fertilize the agricultural land around – thereby introducing an additional benefit to the industry.

Columbarium_in_Beit_Govrin_Israel_550_l  - 14

Columbarium can also be found in many places around the world: England, Scotland, Wales, France, central Europe, Italy etc. It is possible that the Romans introduced the practice into the conquered areas. In medieval times, raising pigeons was often considered the right of nobility and, as a result, you can find dovecotes that are still standing beside their castles.

In France a dovecote (colombier) was usually built out of rocks or from brick or cob. You can find dovecotes in France that could accommodate over 2,000 pigeons. The pigeons were encouraged to breed in clay basins or sometimes braided wicker baskets.

Exhibition Pigeon

Exhibition Pigeon

The breeding of pigeons quickly became a pastime that resulted in unusual varieties of fancy pigeons that were (and still are) cultivated for showcasing, sports etc. At the same time, a loss of control in this breeding process resulted in the widespread propagation of cultivated pigeons -turned wild – around cities and towns ….so much so that the descendents are now enough of a nuisance to warrant the emergence of an industry dedicated to get rid of them.

Read more about breeding pigeons…

1.Photo from Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2009 – “This Place is for the Birds”, Author: Boaz Zissu. The Biblical Archaeology Society.

2.Photo by Erich Lessing, from Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2009 – “This Place is for the Birds”, Author: Boaz Zissu. The Biblical Archaeology Society.


White Homing Pigeon

white-dove_2dove (n.)  probably from O.E. dufe- (found only in compounds), from P.Gmc. *dubon (cf. O.S. duba, O.N. dufa, Swed. duva, M.Du. duve, Du. duif, O.H.G. tuba, Ger. Taube, Goth. -dubo) – Originally applied to all pigeons, now mostly restricted to the turtle dove.

O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs

he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground; But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark. And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.

The dove was regarded as oracular. The poet Virgil tells how two doves guided the god Aeneas (the Trojan warrior) to the gloomy vale in whose depths the Golden Bough grew on a holm oak(also known as the “holly oak”): The doves alighted upon the tree “whence shone a flickering gleam of gold …” At Dadona in Greece, poetic oracles were listened for in the oak groves and prophetic trances initiated by the “Black-Dove” priestess. It was the dove that whispered in the ear of the prophet Mohammed and was his oracle.

The dove was probably the earliest creature to be domesticated by man, for they were easy to raise. From historical records, it was clear that they were domesticated in several, independently different, places in the ancient world. The dove was found in the early Dynasties of ancient Egypt. The first record of its use as a table bird was found in the IV Dynasty (2500 BC). Evidence of an earlier period is seen in the terra cotta dove of Mesopotamia (4500 BC).

Doves (pigeons) were also the only domesticated birds kept in large numbers by the Israelites. It became fashionable, at the time, to build huge dovecotes on the ledges inside the walls. King Herod was referred to as a breeder of doves, as recorded by Josephus the Jewish Historian. During the Roman period, historical references mentioned that these dovecotes sometimes housed as many as 5000 birds. Even large caves were adapted for this purpose. E.g. An example can still be seen in the Judean Hills near Beit Guvrin. – Oh my dove in the clefts of the rock

The homing instincts of doves (pigeons) suggested the image that the bird was a harbinger of good tidings — like the dove in the story of the Flood. “She came back to him towards evening with a newly plucked olive leaf in her beak …” (Gen. 7: 11).

This characteristic is why pigeons (doves) served both as navigational functions as well as message bearers. The earliest records showed that four doves or pigeons were sent in different directions to mark to coronation of Rameses III in 1204 BC. (It was not suggested that they might have carried messages.) The birds were widely used by the Romans in sending messages. Emperor Nero even used them to send results of the games to his friends.

In Central America, there is an orchid called the dove-plant (or Holy Ghost plant), revered by the pious natives because of its resemblance to a dove with outstretched wings … the symbol of the Holy Ghost.

The Hebrew word for dove is Yonah – Jonah was a prophet or messenger of the Lord

The Aztecs’ story maintains that only a man, Coxcox, and a woman, Xochiquetzal, survive, having floated on a piece of bark. They found themselves on land and begot many children who were at first born unable to speak, but subsequently, upon the arrival of a dove (Columba – the dove came back as well _ Columbus) were endowed with language, although each one was given a different speech such that they could not understand one another.

Christopher Columbus – Columba – lit. “pertaining to doves;” from columba “dove.” Lit. sense of “dove-cote” is attested in English from 1881.

Stamp for early Pigeon-Gram service

Pigeon stamp 2

The Egyptians and the Persians first used carrier pigeons 3,000 years ago. They also were used to proclaim the winner of the Olympics. Messenger pigeons were used as early as 1150 in Baghdad and also later by Genghis Khan. In Damietta, by the mouth of the Nile, the Spanish traveller Pedro Tafur saw carrier pigeons for the first time, in 1436, though he imagined that the birds made round trips, out and back. The Republic of Genoa equipped their system of watch towers in the Mediterranean Sea with pigeon posts. Tipu Sultan used carrier pigeons. They returned to the Jamia Masjid mosque in Srirangapatna, which was his headquarters. The pigeon holes may be seen in the mosque’s minarets to this day. In 1860, Paul Reuter, who later founded Reuters press agency, used a fleet of over 45 pigeons to deliver news and stock prices between Brussels and Aachen, the terminals of early telegraph lines. The outcome of the Battle of Waterloo was also first delivered by a pigeon to England. During the Franco-Prussian War pigeons were used to carry mail between besieged Paris and the French unoccupied territory. Possibly the first regular air mail service in the world was Mr. Howie’s Pigeon-Post service from the Auckland New Zealand suburb of Newton to Great Barrier Island, starting in 1896. Certainly the world’s first ‘airmail’ stamps were issued for the Great Barrier Pigeon-Gram Service from 1898 to 1908. Homing pigeons were still employed in the 21st century by certain remote police departments in Orissa state in eastern India to provide emergency communication services following natural disasters. In March 2002, it was announced that India’s Police Pigeon Service messenger system in Orissa was to be retired, due to the expanded use of the Internet. The Taliban banned the keeping and/or use of homing pigeons in Afghanistan.

The homing pigeon is a variety of domestic pigeon derived from the Rock Pigeon (Columba livia domestica) selectively bred to find its way home over extremely long distances. The wild rock pigeon has an innate homing ability, meaning that it will generally return to its own nest and its own mate. This made it relatively easy to breed from the birds that repeatedly found their way home over long distances. Flights as long as 1800 km (1,118 miles) have been recorded by birds in competition pigeon racing. Their average flying speed over moderate distances 500 miles is around 80 km/h (50 mph),[citation needed] but speeds of up to 177 km/h (110 mph) have been observed in top racers for short distance 100 miles.

Homing pigeons are referred to as carrier pigeons when they are used to carry messages.


Shekhinah is derived from the Hebrew verb שכן. In Biblical Hebrew the word means literally to settle, inhabit, or dwell, and is used frequently in the Hebrew Bible. (See Exodus 40:35, “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud rested [shakhan] upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.” See also e.g. Genesis 9:27, 14:13, Psalms 37:3, Jeremiah 33:16), In Mishnaic Hebrew the word is often used to refer to birds’ nesting and nests.


Messenger Gods and God’s Messengers, from Mercury to Gabriel, are always depicted with wings or winged –

A Mal’akh (Hebrew: מַלְאָךְ‎; also: Mal’ach or Mal’aqh; plural Mal’akhim) is a messenger of God, an angelic envoy or an angel in general who appears throughout the Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic literature, and traditional Jewish liturgy. In modern Hebrew, mal’akh is the general word for “angel”; it is also the word for “angel” in Arabic (ملاك), Aramaic and Ethiopic.

Hebrew “Mal’akh” (מַלְאָךְ) derives from the Semitic consonantal root l-‘-k (ל-א-ך), meaning “to send”. This root is attested in Hebrew only in this noun and in the noun “Melakha” (מְלָאכָה), meaning “work”. The term “Mal’akh” therefore simply means one who is sent, often translated as “messenger” when applied to humans; for instance, “Mal’akh” is the root of the name of the prophet Malachi, whose name means “my messenger”, even though he is not considered an “angel” in the classic sense.

The Bible uses the terms מלאך אלהים (mal’akh Elohim; messenger of God), מלאך יהוה (mal’akh YHWH; messenger of the Lord), בני אלהים (b’nai Elohim; sons of God) and הקודשים (ha-qodeshim; the holy ones) to refer to beings traditionally interpreted as angels. Later texts use other terms, such as העליונים (ha’elyoneem; the upper ones).

The word angel in English is a fusion of the Old English word engel (with a hard g) and the Old French angele. Both derive from the Latin angelus which in turn is the romanization of the ancient Greek ἄγγελος (angelos), “messenger”, which is related to the Greek verb ἀγγέλλω (angellō), meaning “bear a message, announce, bring news of” etc. The earliest form of the word is the Mycenaean a-ke-ro attested in Linear B syllabic script.

Gabriel (God’s primary messenger)

Mercury was a messenger, and a god of trade – His name is related to the Latin word merx (“merchandise”; compare merchant, commerce, etc.), mercari (to trade), and merces (wages).

Mercury-hermes“you’re the babbit”


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