Ethnic Jewelry from the Middle East (Page 2/2)
Cultural Interaction and Exchange
From Nubia into Egypt comes the Zar, Zar amulets (Image 2) and other related jewelry. African spiritualism blends with Islamic mysticism, tribal ritual and religious practice. The result is a brisk trade in jewelry and other related items. Nubians in particular have contributed to the spread of forms and design motifs, between Egypt and Sudan.. The exceptionally large Nubian crescent pendants are traditional to Nubia. It was produced for and worn by Nubians in Egypt, immediately south of Aswan. The large silver anklets from Halayib on the Red Sea coast (Image 3) are from the disputed Egyptian/Sudanese border area. In the last few years they have been brought in large quantities of varying quality and design by Egyptian soldiers and traders traveling to and from the area.
Given Nubian dominance in the surrounding areas, these anklets are often referred to as Nubian. They are in fact worn by some Nubians but are also widespread among a variety of nomadic and tribal peoples in the area. These anklets are made not only in Halayib but also in Aswan, Khartoum, and currently in Kassala (eastern Sudan - where they continue to be worn by women of the Rashaida tribe which more than a century ago migrated from the Hejaz in Arabia.
Large silver anklets from the Sultanate of Oman (Image 5) are similarly informative. These elaborate pieces are most often identified as indigenous to the Sultanate. Their stylistic affinity with Indian jewelry however is striking. Some pieces display Indian decorative motifs such as Hindu religious figures. A cursory look at Oman on any map, and a brief investigation into its history, will provide a wealth of information as to the potential relationship between these two countries and the origin of this item.
Looking a bit further west, to the Hadramaut in southern Yemen, one can note striking similarities in form (but normally not decoration) with areas further south on the Indian sub-continent. Again, a map and a bit of history can provide considerable insight into the traditional relationship between the people of the Hadramaut and the Nazims of Hyderabad in south central India. The bird necklace (Image 8) is another issue. It relies more on the migration of craftsmen, and the preferences of the ruling elite for foreign styles.
Beadwork from the Sudan and West Africa traveled over the centuries along caravan and camel routes, through the New Valley in the Egyptian Western Desert, reached north to the Siwan Oasis and moved across North Africa. Common patterns and design motifs, in both beadwork and silver, can be seen across this great stretch of desert. Gold ornaments such as the dandesh, earrings from Girgis in Upper Egypt (Image 9) may also have their origin in Sudan.
Interpretation and Meaning
Two other issues, much discussed, are those of symbolic function and "meaning". Symbolic function deals with when and why certain pieces of jewelry are worn. "Meaning" in such cases is more social and is therefore more public. The Siwan pieces depicted here (Image 7) are a good example. Many of these items were created for specific occasions - weddings, births, circumcision ceremonies, etc. and tradition dictates the place and duration of their wear. Understanding these customs and traditions provides significant insight into cultural perspectives, priorities and modes of expression. The difficulty is to obtain accurate information about behaviors which are either no longer practiced, have been mythologized by modern interpreters, or have been diluted and/or impinged upon by a variety of contemporary beliefs and practices.
The question of "significance" or personal meaning is of even greater difficulty. What did the piece, its form or decoration mean to the wearer or those associated with the wearer? This issue overlaps with that of function but has a deeper, more psychological interpretation which is often dealt with superficially, positing a standard simple relationship between a design or symbol and its "meaning".
For example, it is often said that "fish mean fertility" (Image 12), "crescents signify Islam" or the palm of the hand is associated with the protective "Hand of Fatima". The question is much more complex. Even if the interpretation may be correct - to whom and on what level is "meaning" being attributed?
The astral and vegetal motifs engraved on cylindrical bracelets from Tunisia / Libya may be interpreted in terms of symbolic values implied by numerous authors. The question is: Is the meaning historical (and unknown to contemporary producers and/or wearers), a function of the craftsman and his training, or a matter of the traditional reproduction of certain forms and designs whose meaning has been lost to the producer and to the wearer? Is there continuity or a break with past associations? Is the item in question simply decorative to the majority of wearers or does it imply more? Would the original wearer of the Palestinian amulet (Image 15) have been aware of the symbolic significance of its elements or simply aware of its protective powers, or oblivious to both?
Coins offer another variation on this theme - in some cases coins are included in a piece and valued simply for their weight in silver or gold. More often, the choice of coins for a particular piece was based not on the actual details of its design, but on the wearer's interpretation of those representations. Columns become cannons; cannons are associated with power. The novel, Lords of the Atlas, provides a particularly striking example of the powerful symbolism of the cannon in Berber society. European Kings and Queens assumed the role of Zar demons, and Eagles became the "Father of Feathers" a protective rather than national symbol.
Influence of Workshops and Craftsmen
Workshops, craftsmen and production processes are an important factor in the maintenance of tradition, and in the development and transmission of meaning. The workshop of Mohammad Mekawi in Cairo catered for decades to the interests of the Awlad Ali of the Egyptian Western Desert, to the inhabitants of the New Valley oases and to the North African coastal areas. While Mekawi's work reflected the preferences and tastes of whom he sold, he no doubt in turn influenced them. A good example would be the stylistic evolution of both the broad cylinder bracelets with fish and bird motifs produced for the oases and the more complex studded curvilinear and cylinder bracelets (Image 13) produced with astral and vegetal motifs for residents of the northern coast and Libyan Desert.
There is a definite evolution in the decoration of these bracelets. The cylinder bracelets begin with engraved fish motifs of great delicacy and balance, such as the one pictured, and move forward towards repousse fish and birds with minimal hand engraving. Later, one finds a few rather unique pieces, which seem to have been produced on special order - combining both repousse and engraving with more complex designs seemingly influenced by art deco. More recently, one finds lightweight machine-made adaptations produced for tourists and urban dwellers. The latter combines art deco elements with more stylized traditional patterns. This evolution in production, and the consequent influence of it on style would have had to be acceptable to Mekawi's clients. It may also have allowed for the spread of these presumably less expensive machine-made items to lower status groups within these same traditional societies,
On another level, it is fascinating to explore the social networks which have supported the production and distribution of items - the designers, craftsmen, production systems, distribution and marketing mechanisms, Individual workshops/craftsmen and their apprentices, quality and origin of raw materials and methods of production tell a story of the evolution and/or deterioration of local cultures and traditions.
Sadly, the majority of traders and dealers prefer to break up larger pieces, to sell pairs or sets as individual items and, in general, to obscure rather than assist the process of placing and dating individual items. Components from both old and new pieces, or pieces from a variety of times and places, are combined to form smaller more wearable items for the modern consumer. Many of these items are resold as originals. Some of the better designers have integrated fine older pieces into attractive modern designs, preserving the integrity and beauty of the original piece, which would have otherwise been lost. Most regrettable of all, the majority of pieces traded in the market are being melted down, their silver content recycled into items that suit modern tastes.
Not only does the understanding of ethnic jewelry contribute to our knowledge of specific traditions and practices, but the overall process of creation, alteration, and destruction of traditional items is in itself a powerful metaphor for broader cultural evolution. Issues regarding appropriate balance between the preserving of traditions, the nurturing of indigenous expression and the importation and adaptation of external elements are all reflected in the evolution of jewelry.
The preservation of individual items and styles provides a living record of the past from which inspiration and innovation can spring, creating a vital link between the past, present, and future.Album Main Page | Previous Page