Thursday, May 2, 2013

Egyptian Fayoumis

                                                                                    Photo credit Cyndy M. Carroll, Syrynx Farm

The Fayoumi Chicken, known in its native Egypt as the Bigawi, traces its history back 3,600 years, to around 1550 BC. Its development was shaped by long periods of isolation, changing direction when new birds arrived with traders and conquering heroes. The Fayoumi in the 21st century is a unique living treasure.

It emerged at the crossroads of the flourishing civilizations of India, Sri Lanka, Africa and the Near East and reflects those ancient cultures. Its progenitors sailed on trade ships and were carried overland with armies and caravans. On its journey through history, it developed its distinctive identity in consecutive stages, from one significant point in history and location in geography to the next.
Egyptian traders sailed forth loaded with millet and sesame to trade for the incense, spices, essential oils and resins they used religiously to mummify the dead. Punt, on the Horn of Africa, had coffee, myrrh and frankincense, India had cumin, turmeric, black pepper and citrus. Sri Lanka had cinnamon and ginger. Indonesia had cloves. Everything worth anything eventually ended up in Egypt and it arrived through trade carried from every corner of the ancient world.

Trading ships came from India to the shores of Punt, what is now northern Somalia, where trading partners made the deal and subsequently carried the goods north to Egypt via Yemen and Oman. The Bigawi fowl came along with domestic cattle, precious metals such as gold, silver, bronze and electrum, a naturally-occurring gold and silver alloy, and gems such as emeralds, amethyst, malachite and turquoise.

The Indian Sub-Continent and Sri Lanka in relation to Northeast Africa: The Horn of Africa, Punt, and Egypt; the Sinai Peninsula and the Arabian Peninsula

The chickens that came with the earliest traders were valued as ceremonial birds, rather than for their economic value as food. Their ancestors were Red Junglefowl, with influences from the other wild junglefowl species: Grey, Sri Lanka and Green Forktail. Each species is adapted to different environmental conditions, and passes its unique traits on to its offspring. In Canaan, present day Israel, the Hebrews bred progenitors of the Asil, which had arrived from India, into an egg-laying wonder. This domesticated chicken is one of the Fayoumi’s ancestors. Pharaoh Thutmose III, Queen Hatshepsut’s younger brother and co-regent, brought them to Egypt after the battle of Tel Megiddo in 1479 BC.

Thutmose III would have brought them to Fayoum’s great temple complexes of the Amen cult, where they were kept as exotic curiosities rather than domestic fowl. Egyptians already had plenty of geese, quail ducks and guineafowl. They ranged free in sacred gardens and building complexes. The ancient Egyptians must have been fond of the Canaanite fowl to allow them to free range in such an important monument of Egyptian culture.

Climate was working against the Fayoum, as its water table began to drop. The Fayoum basin had been a lush agricultural area where coriander, artichokes, Egyptian garlic, Egyptian tree onion, leeks, radishes, lettuce, watermelon and kamut wheat were developed. Drought took its toll on crops and population.

About 70 years after the Battle of Tel Megiddo, scores of dazzling male Sri Lanka Junglefowl arrived along with a major tribute of cinnamon from Sri Lanka during the reign of Thutmose’s great grandson, King Amenhotep III. In Ancient Egypt, failure for the river to rise was seen as a failure of the God-Kings themselves. The birds’ arrival was a blessing, because their multi-syllabic crow sounded to the Egyptians like the mantra river priests chanted, pleading for the river rise:
Haaypi Haaypi! Herhut! Heqet! Herhut! Heqet!
Hail to thee, O Nile! Who manifests thyself over this land, and comes to give life to Egypt!
Herhut! Heqet! Herhut! Heqet!
Come and prosper!
Come and prosper!
Herhut! Heqet! Herhut! Heqet!
O Nile, come and prosper!
O you who make human beings to live through His flocks and His flocks through His orchards!
Herhut! Heqet! Herhut! Heqet!
Come and prosper, come,
O Nile, come and prosper!
Haaypi! Haaypi Hotep! Haaypi Hotep!

Even this tribute failed to restore the water table. As the desert steadily encroached, most of the people left Fayoum. The fowl, hardy birds, hung on and adapted to flourish in the marshes amongst the reeds. They foraged in the thorn forest and took shelter in the dense palm forests surrounding the evaporating lake bed.  For the next thousand years, this population bred on its own in isolation from other influences.

Drought stalks the Fayoum

But the weather was not on Thutmose’s side. The drought that had begun a century before continued to dry up the Fayoum basin. The water table dropped, leaving stagnant pools of water that allowed insect-borne diseases such as malaria, bilharzia and river blindness to add to the region’s misery. Surface water became more saline. Even the religious temples would have had a rough time of it.  By Thutmose III’s time during the 18th Dynasty, Itjtawy was already largely in ruin. After Thutmose III's death, the center of Egyptian government and politics moved to Karnak and the Delta. Many of the temples within Fayoum fell into further disrepair.

Hundreds of generations of chickens would have hatched among this very limited population, probably never more than a few thousand.

The Sri Lanka Junglefowl roosters added genetic diversity to what must have been a rather inbred population. The result was a uniquely skewed founder base. The addition of so many roosters would have unbalanced the equilibrium between the sexes for a few generations. Survivability and capacity to fight were probably significant for the first few years but ultimately the flock would have found its balance again. Male Sri Lanka Junglefowl defend their nests and enjoy extended relationships with offspring. Females often have up to three suitor/providers, who hold guard over the nest site and take over the chores of nurturing eight- to twelve-week old chicks while she hatches another clutch. Under this social organization, called facultative polyandry or serial monogamy, hens can raise three to five clutches a year. They may breed year round, which has been observed in captivity in bantam chickens, many old breeds of which are also derived of Sri Lanka Junglefowl sires in their deepest antiquity.

Males may have responded by forming cooperative guilds rather than competing aggressively. It could also lead to the marked precocity, early sexual maturity, of Fayoumis. Roosters start to crow as early as five weeks old and pullets begin to lay at around four and a half months. Today, when Fayoumi flocks have a surplus of roosters, two or more per hen, the entire group gets along amicably. Of course teenage roosters don’t learn to cooperate until later in their life.

Nature reclaims the Fayoum

The Fayoum remained basically deserted, save for a few temples and larger fishing villages. Farmers continued to cultivate the area, but Fayoum’s population was a fraction of what it was during its ascendance. The Fayoumi chickens naturalized in their environment. They were as isolated as they would have been if they were marooned on an island. They took their Junglefowl heritage and returned to the wild.

Sri Lanka Junglefowl are native to the semi-arid coastal mountain habitat, not the rain forest.
That heritage served the feral Fayoumis well, helping them succeed at forging for insects and other invertebrates in the marshes along the lake and river. It may be that the considerable influence of Sri Lanka Junglefowl in the genetic pedigree of the Egyptian Fayoumi is what rescued its progenitors from extinction. Like that wild species, the hybrids had to find food where there was very little to be found and compete with native wildlife all the while avoiding formidable predation. Their saving grace may have been their ability to capture flies in mid-air and being able to nest amongst the crowns of old palm trees . One still sees them in the more remote reaches of the Fayoum wading along canals and irrigation ditches, apparently living almost entirely on flies.

Fayoumis find ways to survive

The Fayoumi had a long walk along the road of survival before it came into its own. Predation must have taken many.  Every movement of these noisy foreign intruders was most assuredly watched by native predators. Birds, both adults and chicks, whose plumage contrasted with the background of bright white and burned grey of shore and hillock, ochre and red of sand would have been vulnerable. Camouflage plumage would prevail in survivors, making them less obvious as they made their way across the ever-growing banks of lakes and canals. They would have needed camouflage even at night, when the moon shines so bright as to make the light-reflective desert as clear as day.  

Survive they did, through a thousand years, until the Greco-Roman period, when Herodotus visited Egypt and noted in passing that wild fowl lived in the marshes. By that time, they were completely wild and served no practical purpose to humankind.  Greek and Roman invaders brought with them their own domestic chickens, recent descendants of the Canaanite hens so deep in the Fayoumi’s ancestry. These tame domestic birds came to live amongst newly bustling settlements along the banks of the lakes of Fayoum as the Greeks once again transformed the basin into a lush region of vast natural resource wealth.

This may well have invited the attentions of a few wild Bigawi fowl, which came to frequent towns and villages, interbreeding freely with their humanized cousins. The modern day Fayoumi Chicken available from hatcheries is generally a descendant of this ancient composite. It has been refined by successive generations of poultry scientists in modern day Egypt, Turkey and Italy.

Fayoumis today

Fayoumis are not recognized for exhibition by American poultry associations.  They are small birds, roosters weighing around 4.5 pounds and hens around 3.5 pounds. Their plumage is similar to Silver Campines and Friesans, which are both descendants of the original Fayoumi. As a rule Fayoumis have silver-white heads on black and white barred bodies, but may vary considerably. They have diminutive single combs and lay small off-white eggs, with a grey or lavender tint. They are reputed to have some natural resistance to diseases such as Avian Influenza, West Nile, Malaria and Choryza.

Modern Egyptian Fayoumi chickens separate into three breeds worth describing:

The Bigawi is differentiated from the Modern Fayoumi by size, colour and temperament. The Bigawi is a bit smaller and battier than the Fayoumi. Females are a rich chestnut brown with bold black transverse barring. Males are difficult to discern from Modern Fayoumi, though they tend to be darker in the wings with darker and longer tails. Both Bigawi and Modern Fayoumi should have dark facial skin and an unusual crow that is distinguishable from any other breed of rooster. In Kassala and Port Sudan in Eastern Sudan, one sees Bigawi fowl that are pewter in colour. They are camouflaged against the dark soil there. Their combs are very like those of the Sicilian Buttercup, another breed with African roots. Many Bigawi roosters are white with grey barring appearing only on the breast or undertail. They are a land race and as such there is some diversity amongst them.

The Shakshuk Fayoumi is the common strain of unimproved Fayoumi that one sees in villages throughout the Fayoum and in the cemetery of Old Cairo. They are brightly colored with vivid yellow legs and ginger hued feathers.

The Dandarawi is a recent dual purpose utility composite created in an agricultural university in Assiut. It was bred by crossing Fayoumis with old African breeds like the Malagasy and European breeds such as the Braekel.

City of the Dead and Mokkatum

In Mokkatum, high in the hills above Cairo, live the Zabbaleen, a minority religious community of Coptic Christians who have served as Cairo's informal garbage collectors for the past 70 to 80 years. A Bigawi Shashuk Modern Fayoumi and Dandarawi composite known as the Mokkatum Fowl scavenges with them in the mountains of refuse. This is an important livestock species to the Zabbaleen, as eggs are a significant part of their daily nutrition.

In the City of the Dead, a four-mile cemetery running the length of Cairo, people make their homes with their ancestors. Established during the first Arab conquest of 642 AD, the cemetery is the site for monuments and shrines to the dead. The poor, fleeing rural poverty, settle there. They share it with flocks of local chickens.

They are unique in appearance, and the locals respect them. They may take eggs that they find, but otherwise leave the birds unmolested. One hopes that Cairene backyard poultry lovers will conserve a few flocks before the chickens are mongrelized with the commercial utility breeds that have become common in Cairo, so that we may continue to follow these birds into the future.

Thanks to Kermit Blackwood for his substantial contribution to this brochure.

Research projects at Iowa State University are exploring their natural immunity to disease, where they maintain breeding flocks but do not sell to the public.

No comments: