The Eagle of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Ayyūbī is an iconic symbol found on the west wall of the Cairo Citadel, built during the sultan’s rule. The eagle ( or نسر in Arabic) displays its wings with the tips downwards and has its legs splayed out. Its head typically faces right in modern depictions.
Since ancient times, the eagle is a widely used symbol in Egypt. Indeed, the Eagle of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn might very well be inspired by the Egyptian vulture, a so-called gier-eagle held sacred to Isis in the ancient Egyptian religion. The bird was associated with royalty and thus the protection of Pharaonic law, holding an important position among the fauna of early Egyptian societies. The patron goddess of Upper-Egypt and protector of the Pharaoh, Nekhbet, and the mother goddess Mut both were commonly depicted as vultures on Egyptian temples and as juwelry. Later on, the coinage of the Greek Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt often featured the so-called Eagle of Zeus, a popular Hellenistic symbol.
The eagle was a widely used icon of empires and dynasties around the world throughout human history. The Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire and more recently the United States of America all used the eagle as their emblem, on their banners and on their flags. The modern, Middle-Eastern variation however, can be traced back to medieval times. With the establishment of the Seljuq, Ayyubid and Mamluk political realms, the eagle became a fixed and recurrent symbol among these Muslim dynasties. The famous two-headed eagle became a mark of Turkic Seljuq influence. One-headed eagles were used on Mamluk coins and blazons and were part of the royal Ayyubid regalia. The yellow colored canopy (miẓalla) that shielded the Ayyubid sultan from the sun on the two Islamic holidays had the picture of a silver bird embroidered on it.
All these eagles had one thing in common, their appearance. Spread, majestic wings, head facing sternly either right or left and their clawed legs stretched out. This became known as the Eagle of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn. This bird became a prominent and distinctive icon among later states and groups, adopted straight from medieval depictions or with some alterations to its position and appearance. Ironically enough, this bird was reintroduced and popularized in our modern age during the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, becoming one of the most celebrated icons of pan-Arabism. Subsequently, the Eagle of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn is featured on the coat of arms of several Arab states. The Arab Republic of Egypt, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and the Republic of Iraq, all distinctive pan-Arab states, both have the eagle as their coat of arms. The emblem was taken to represent wider nationalism and as a symbol of unity and strength, but grew for many people into a symbol of authority, militarism and political absolutism.
Several non-state actors, especially from an Arab, Kurdish or Turkmen background, took the Eagle of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn as their personal emblem, though with slight changes to its appearance. Syrian opposition groups like Katā’ib Aḥrār al-Shām or Jabhat al-Akrād both featured an eagle on their revolutionary flags and military patches. The infamous Eagles of the Whirlwind (Nusūr al-Zawba’a), the armed wing of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, identify themselves with the eagle, both in name and as a symbol. The Kurdistan Regional Government, which governs Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as the Kurdish so-called Asāyish, the police force within the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, also both took the eagle as their symbol.
Unlike the hawk, that refers to the Quraysh tribe, the eagle symbolizes for some Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn, for others Arabism and the rule of law. Mix that with all the attributes humans ascribe to the eagle, and you have a powerful icon.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.