The swift

This is about the bird and its appearance in the Quran.

We (my wife and I) live at the edge of the upper reaches of a stream valley on the European side of the Bosphorus. The stream drains a plain where Sultan Abdülmecid (1839–61) once invited immigrants to settle. That area is now called Mecidiyeköy (village of Mecid), and until the 1950s, it was mostly open fields.

Now there are no open fields. There are no streams either, unless they flow through culverts under streets called, for example, Ihlamurdere Caddesi (Linden Stream Road). Abdülmecid’s Ihlamur Kasrı (Linden Palace) is still there, surrounded by trees; but the city has been built up around it. There is little greenery near our flat, except in the large, walled, Christian and Jewish cemetery. There seem to be few insects.

But there are birds. Now in early June (2012), one can hear seagulls squawking, even at 4 a.m. Astronomical twilight begins around 3:30. Nautical twilight is about 50 minutes later; this is the time of the morning prayer call. From our perch above the valley, I can hear the call from several mosques, not just the one down the street that I see from our balcony if I lean out. I am pretty sure the call is not prerecorded, and its timing is not exact; the interval between the first and the last of the morning calls can be half an hour.

Meanwhile the seagulls have started flying. Mostly they fly up the valley, away from the Bosphorus and its fish; I do not know why they do this. As the sky brightens, I still see many gulls silhouetted on the roofs on the eastern side of the valley; but their numbers gradually diminish.

At a quarter past five, I see the first swift in the sky. Then there are two more, swerving about in unison. Fifteen minutes later, there is a whole twittering flock. A band of screaming swifts swoop past our balcony. I am put in mind of the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, when American warplanes buzzed the stadium in what was at best a display of extremely bad taste.

The Turkish word for the swifts is apparently ebabil. This word is used in Türkiye ve Avrupa’nın Kuşları, Kuzey Afrika ve Ortadoğu dahil, which is a translation of Pocket Guide to Birds of Britain & Europe with North Africa & the Middle East. However, Püsküllüoğlu’s Turkish dictionary (Arkadaş Türkçe Sözlüğü, Ankara, 8th printing, 2004) gives no definition under ebabil; it gives only references to çobanaldatan, dağkırlangıcı, and keçisağan. The word dağkırlangıcı (literally “mountain swallow”) has no entry of its own; keçisağan has, but it only refers to çobanaldatan and dağkırlangıcı. According to the Turkish bird guide though (which gives also English names), the çobanaldatan is the nightjar; the big Redhouse Turkish-English dictionary gives also the alternative word goatsucker. A literal translation of the Turkish might be “shepherd-deceiver”; but keçisağan would be something like “goat-milker”, and indeed Redhouse says the keçisağan is the nightjar or goatsucker. Neither Redhouse nor Püsküllüoğlu gives the Latin binomials for the various birds.

Our swifts are more precisely alpine swifts: Tachymarptis melba or Apus melba. The Turkish (from the bird guide) is more descriptive than the English: ak karınlı ebabil means white-bellied swift, which is what ours are. The genus name Apus is from the Greek for footless. Never lighting on the ground, swifts must need no feet. If swifts sleep at all, they must be able to sleep in flight, which means they are engaging in unihemispheric slow-wave sleep—sleeping with one eye open, and the corresponding half of the brain awake.

We have the etymological dictionaries of Eyuboğlu and of Nişanyan at home, but neither one lists ebabil. The big Redhouse dictionary labels this word as a learned borrowing from Arabic, with four possible meanings:

1. large flight of birds. 2. legendary birds that destroyed the army of Abraha, an Ethiopian general who attacked Mecca. 3. “the souls of the damned”, birds that fly low up and down the Bosphorus without alighting, Manx shearwaters. [It seems those birds are no longer considered to be Manx shearwaters, but are Yelkouan shearwaters—the Turkish is yelkovan, which also means the minute hand of a clock, or a weathercock.] 4. mountain swift.

So the fourth meaning is ours. As for the second meaning, the legend referred to is evidently based on the 105th of the Quran’s 114 suras. This particular sura, called “The Elephant,” can be quoted in its entirety. Here is Sells’s translation (from Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, 1999):

In the Name of God the Compassionate the Caring

Did you not see how your lord dealt with the people of the elephant
Did he not turn their plan astray
Did he not send against them birds of prey, in swarms
raining down stones of fire
making them like blasted fields of corn

Sells’s commentary on this surah shows the difficulty of translating the Quran:

The term translated as “birds of prey, in swarms” (ṭayran abābīl) has been debated by commentators. Some argue that, in order to reflect a more realistic vision of battle, the word ṭayr should be translated as horses, despite its primary meaning as birds of prey. [Redhouse gives tayr as a learned Arabic borrowing for “birds; winged things; bird”.]

The reference to the stones rained down upon the people of the elephant is complicated by the descriptions of stones as being of sijjīl—a terms related by some to words for writing. Others interpret it as a Persian loan word meaning rock, mud, or baked brick. Still others consider it a variant of the Qur’anic term sijjīn, which is equally obscure and sometimes associated with the fire of final punishment.

(I cannot tell whether sijjīl is, or is related to, the Arabic word appearing in Turkish as sicil with the meaning of “register, judicial record”. This meaning does suggest writing. Nişanyan traces sicil through the Arabic sicill to the Latin sigillatum and ultimately signum; he notes that the French sigle, English seal, and Armenian sikel all have this source.)

Muhammad Asad’s version of the Elephant sura is thus:


(1) ART THOU NOT aware of how thy Sustainer dealt with the Army of the Elephant?

(2) Did He not utterly confound their artful planning?

(3) Thus, He let loose upon them great swarms of flying creatures (4) which smote them with stone-hard blows of chastisement pre-ordained, (5) and caused them to become like a field of grain that has been eaten down to stubble—

Asad ends thus, with a dash, because “The passage is evidently continued in the next sūrah, which, according to some authorities, is part of the present one.” In his long note to the fourth verse, Asad ridicules those commentators who give imaginative descriptions of the flying creatures: those descriptions have a basis “neither in the Qur’an nor in any authentic Tradition”. According to Asad, all one can say is that a miracle occurred.

Lings’s Life of Muhammad (1983, 1991) does provide an imaginative description, which I summarize here. The Year of the Elephant turned out to have been the year when Muhammad was born. Abyssinia ruled Yemen then, and the vice-regent there was called Abrahah. He built a great church in Sana’a and vowed that the Arabs would make their pilgrimages to this site, and not to Mecca as Abraham had ordained. In defiance of this vow, one of the Arabs defiled the church. Abrahah then mounted an army, with an elephant in the van, and set out towards Mecca to raze the Kaaba. Along the way they captured an Arab called Nufayl and made him their guide, on pain of death.

A detachment of Abrahah’s troops took two hundred camels from Muhammad’s grandfather-to-be, Abd al-Muttalib. He came out to demand them back. Abrahah said he should be more concerned for the Kaaba than for his camels. Abd al-Muttalib said the lord would protect his own house. Abrahah gave the camels back.

Meanwhile an observant Nufayl had learned how the elephant was guided. On the outskirts of Mecca, he told the elephant to kneel, and it did. No amount of beating or prodding would make it stir. When the army made as if to return to Yemen, the elephant made as if to follow them; but when the army turned back towards Mecca, again the elephant kneeled.

Then the sky was black with swifts, or birds “like swifts” anyway; each had three pebbles, one in the beak and one in each foot. Hurled at the soldiers, the pebbles pierced armor and caused flesh to putrify. The elephant and his keeper Unays were spared. Nufayl had already escaped to the hills.

Abd al-Muttalib’s son Abd Allah was away on a caravan at the time. On the way back, he got sick and died. But in Mecca, his wife Aminah gave birth to their son Muhammad.

I do not know whether anybody reveres the swift for its aid in preserving the Kaaba; but I should not be surprised if somebody does. I believe the spider is revered for spinning a web across the mouth of a cave where Muhammad was hiding.

One Comment

  1. Ustun B. Reinart
    Posted August 2, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Wonderful and richly informative and even evocative text. Thanks David.

3 Trackbacks

  1. By NL IV: “Feeling” « Polytropy on February 3, 2014 at 11:46 am

    […] do not recall hearing bats squeak. In warmer weather I hear the swifts scream as they swoop past my balcony. I occasionally get a headache, perhaps for the same reason that […]

  2. By Polytropy on January 22, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    […] In an overbuilt city like Istanbul, one can still see a lot of birds, as I reported in my article “The Swift.” When an Istanbul seagull finds a morsel, the bird must sometimes be wary, lest another gull snatch […]

  3. By The Academic Battery Cage « Polytropy on January 22, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    […] In an overbuilt city like Istanbul, one can still see a lot of birds, as I reported in my article “The Swift.” When an Istanbul seagull finds a morsel, the bird must sometimes be wary, lest another gull snatch […]

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