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 (1174-1193). The eagle, or nisr (نسر) in colloquial 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 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. These vultures were mostly depicted in the exact same position described in the introduction of this article, which makes the similarities between the two birds all the greater. This, of course, remains highly speculative. We can state with certainty, however, that the eagle was used as an icon of empires and dynasties around the world all throughout human history. The Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire and more recently the United States of America all used or still use the eagle as their emblem, on their banners and on their flags.
The modern, Middle Eastern variation we’re talking about in this piece, however, can be traced back to Medieval Muslim Egypt. With the establishment of the Seljuq, Ayyubid and Mamluk political realms, the eagle became quite a fixed and recurrent symbol among these dynasties. The famous two-headed eagle became a mark of Turkic Seljuq power. 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, as noted by Urbain Vermeulen in his Egypt and Syria in the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk Eras (2005).
Since the bicephalic eagle became a distinct symbol on its own, the one-headed eagle, seen in the royal imagery of the above-mentioned dynasties, developed into a proper characteristic appearance. Spread, majestic wings, head facing sternly either right or left and its clawed legs stretched out. This figure became known as the Eagle of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn, based on the relief found on the west wall of the Cairo Citadel. This bird became a prominent and distinctive icon only among later states and groups, adopted straight from Medieval depictions or with some alterations to its position and appearance.
There is no clear evidence to suggest that either Ayyubids or Mamluks actually made use of the one-headed eagle on their military or political banners on any scale worth mentioning. It’s therefore fair to assume that the Eagle became politically popular only in our modern age, after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, becoming one of the most celebrated icons of pan-Arabism. Subsequently, the Eagle of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn became an important feature of several Arab states’ coat of arms. The Arab Republic of Egypt, the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and the Republic of Iraq are all distinctive pan-Arab states having the eagle as their coat of arms. The emblem was taken to represent wider Arab nationalism, 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 differences in 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 in 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.
It’s safe to say that the Eagle of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn forms a powerful symbol for many in the Middle East, a tangible and visible claim to the Ayyubid sultan’s glorious past and lineage. Mix that with all the attributes humans generally ascribe to the eagle, and you have an effective and distinctive image.
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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.