Ya Hafeth Ya Ameen: Protective silver jewellery from the Middle East 

TIRAZ widad kawar home for arab dress

Explore the history and beauty of silver adornments from Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Oman. 

Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Oman encompasses an area of over one million square kilometers. The landscapes of these countries touch ocean, forest, wetland marsh, and desert.

Ya Hafeth Ya Ameen: Jewellery from the Middle East 
Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah inaugurated the exhibition, which was made possible by the collaboration between the collections of Widad Kawar and Sami Moawiyah Yousef. The exhibition is on protective silver adornments from Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Oman. The exhibition holds a wide selection of silver jewelry incorporating amulets and talismans from the early 20th century and before, and costumes from each country. In their in their cut and design, the jewelry speaks to beliefs and needs of people who wore them. The various pieces were used in a time when people widely believed in supernatural powers. 

The Exhibition

What if the amulet around your wrist, the ring on your finger, or the necklace around your neck, could protect you from harm?

What if the jingle of jewelry, and the color of coral, allowed your baby to sleep at night, safe from the ‘evil eye’ and the influence of Jinn?

What if in an unsure world – a world in which your family depend on a good harvest for survival, and sickness can easily lead to death – amulets provided a sense of comfort and control, and talismans offered a connection to the mystical powers that seemed to govern your life, but which you can’t always see?


This joint exhibition of the Widad Kawar Collection at the Tiraz Center in partnership with the Sami Yousef Collection, takes visitors back to a time of superstition and magic in the Levant through jewelry.

The focus of this exhibition is silver jewelry, with a particular emphasis on amulets and talismans. Ranging from the early twentieth century to today, the exhibition features hand-selected pieces from Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Oman and Yemen.

Although the forms and practices vary, amulets and talismans continue to be worn across the Arab world to this day. This exhibition transports visitors to the mystical and also practical world of the silversmith, examining various styles and embellishments, as well as previewing traditional costumes that the jewelry is an accessory to.

The Ancient History of Amulets
Amulets and talismans remain one of the earliest forms of recorded history; their usage pre-dates both the Egyptian and Persian empires. A human need for security, and a sense of a connection to the divine, is part of what has made these forms so enduring across the ages.   In the more recent history of the Levant area, jewelry and semi-precious stones have developed into spectacular and deeply beautiful objects. But even today, amulets and talismans are traditionally considered to represent more than simply body adornments.

Bridal Jewelry

Jewelry was inherited by a woman as part of her bridal payment at the time of marriage, and remained her personal property. It identified a women as married or single, and as resident of a particular town or region. Jewelry acted as an investment in times of prosperity, and provided insurance in times of hardship.

Miqlab - Bridal Backpiece, Hebron Villages
1900

The shapes and forms of the jewelry that a bride received would vary; from gems, to coins, drawings, pendants, rings, as well as spoken incantations used to draw away evil or bad luck. The picture displayed here is the back of a Palestinian bride's headdress, called Miqlab. When she is about to leave her father's home, all her aunts sew their treasures -- jewelry and coins -- to a piece of cloth and sew it to the back of her dress as she's leaving the house. In this way, she takes with her both treasure and memories of her family. All talismans have one thing in common: a human need to feel safe in an uncertain world.

Protecting Children

Amulets and Talismans played a key role in protecting the most vulnerable, as well as the most precious, within a community.

Boys were regarded as particularly precious, and so more vulnerable to attacks of the ‘evil eye’ as well as the envy of neighbors. In rural communities across the Middle East baby boys were sometimes dressed like girls, to avoid and confuse Jinn that might come looking for them.

The high-death rate of the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries created an uncertain world. Amulets and talismans believed to have mystical properties provided an important sense of psychological comfort and security.


Obtaining the jewelry

Where would an individual go to buy an amulet, charm or body adornment infused with the correct properties? For everyday needs, most people would go to the local silversmith. For special protection or a personalized good luck charm individuals would need to visit the village sheikh or a local wise person, to order a specially forged inscription on a customized amulet.

Amulets and talismans are deeply person artifacts that can reflect the deepest prayers and hopes of an individual, as well as the struggles and blessings associated with a family or an entire town.

Jewelry of the Levant
The Levant is an historical term, which refers to a large area in the Eastern Mediterranean.  Today, the Levant covers the countries of Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.  In the past, this area was home to several ancient Mediterranean trade centers, such as Ugarit, Tyre in Lebanon and Sidon. Traditional jewelry was subject to continual foreign influence. Silversmiths from Syria, the Hijaz, Armenia, the Caucasus and Yemen could be found in Palestine and Transjordan, alongside silversmiths of local origin.   Despite differences in pattern and detail, the underlying uniformity of design makes it possible to speak of a ‘Levant Region’ in jewelry, with production taking place at a limited range of centers. In Syria these were known to be Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama, in Jordan Kerak, Salt and Irbid, while the most important centers in Palestine were in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nablus and Nazareth.   These mixed origins created a rich tapestry of jewelry styles; Armenian and Circassian silversmiths introduced black niello and filigree to their work in the late nineteenth century, while the soldering and granulation technique was imported from Hijaz in 1921, and filigree work and embossing came from Yemen.

Contemporary Amulets against the Evil Eye
2015

Amulets were also popular among the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian inhabitants of ancient Iraq. Bequeathed from generation to generation, a vast variety of amulets exist within Iraqi society to this day; from carnelian stones inscribed with names of prophets, saints and patriarchs; to hand shaped artifacts made of various kinds of metals, such as the Khamsa or “the hand of Fatima”, the usage of which pre-dates the Islamic era.

Certain jewelry was believed to bestow beneficial physical effects, in addition to being decorative. Cylinders often contained Quranic verses on tiny paper scrolls, while oval or rectangular pendants (maskeh) were engraved with the name of Allah.

As people became wealthier during the 1920s and 1930s, mass-produced gold jewelry from Beirut and Damascus gradually replaced silver. New types of jewelry emerged that remain popular to this day.

City Fesitve Dress
1900 & 1935
Women wore protective symbols not only on their jewelry, but also on their dress. This costume from Lebanon includes a delicate white scarf with glittery pieces of silver hammered into it; the silver is amuletic.

Amulet Containers, Mahfaza & Kutub
1900

Certain jewelry was believed to bestow beneficial physical effects, in addition to being decorative. Cylinders often contained Quranic verses on tiny paper scrolls, while oval or rectangular pendants (maskeh) were engraved with the name of God.

As people became wealthier during the 1920s and 1930s, mass-produced gold jewelry from Beirut and Damascus gradually replaced silver. New types of jewelry emerged that remain popular to this day.

The Jewelry and Amulets of Yemen
Silver jewelry was worn in Yemen by tribeswomen and town-women, with hundreds of silversmiths living throughout the country, often in remote areas, to supply their customers.   Silversmiths were quick to incorporate traditional beliefs and motifs into their designs; stones such as coral amber and agate offered amuletic protection, triangles signified a woman’s fertility, while shapes of the sun and crescent moon offered safety from harm. The sound of jewelry was believed to frighten evil spirits, while eye shapes would protect from jealousy and the evil eye.  

Yemen

Yemen is the second-largest country in the peninsula, occupying 527,970 km².

Yemen's Techniques

Yemen was two separate countries until 1990, with the jewelry designs reflecting this separation. Turkish influence can be seen in northern silver work, especially in the filigree that became popular during the second Turkish occupation of Sana’a, from 1873 to 1911. At one time jewelry from Yemen was sold across the Arab World, as far as Morocco. Indian jewelers worked in Aden in south Yemen, all the way to the Eastern border with Oman.

By the 1970s the craft was in decline due to changing tastes, economics and the migration of Yemeni Jewish silversmiths to many parts the world.

Oman's Silver Tradition
Oman’s long history of seafaring and trade created a rich a distinctive jewelry tradition. The influence of Oman’s trading partners is visible in Omani jewelry to this day; many Omani anklets and bracelets are reminiscent of Indian jewelry, while a specific type of Omani necklace clearly derives from the Hmong tribes of the Golden Triangle.   And yet, traditional Omani silver has maintained a remarkable continuity of style over the ages, with an unbroken tradition of silver-smiting that dates back to at least the nineteenth century.  Oman is known for always working with very high quality silver.

Oman

Oman, a nation on the Arabian Peninsula, has terrain encompassing desert, riverbed oases and long coastlines on the Persian (Arabian) Gulf, Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman.

Oman's Unique and Changing Styles

The addition of small elements of gilded decoration on Omani silver jewelry gained popularity from the 1960s onwards, during a time when earnings increased and vast quantities of gold were readily available from Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Over time, however, Omani women’s fondness for gilded embellishments developed into a demand for pieces made entirely of gold, creating a decline in demand for the silversmith’s craft.

On special occasions, Omani women traditionally adorn themselves from head to toe; they wear elaborate headdresses, forehead pendants, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, finger rings, anklets and toe rings, Individual pieces are imbued with religious significance as well as beauty and function. A woman’s jewelry indicates her financial and marital status, and often represents her tribal or regional identity.

The color and material of certain types of jewelry is held to attribute special powers to the piece.

Hirz and the Female Jinn

One of the most interesting categories of jewlry in Oman consists of magic squares known as “hirz.” In Oman envy against children is also a popular concern, with jewelry presented to children on special occasions to distract against evil spirits and Jinn. A female Jinn is also drawn on silver, in order to limit power.

Verses from the Qur’an feature prominently in all styles of Omani jewelry for a similar purpose, either as engraved inscriptions or as a rolled-up page sealed inside a decorated Qur’an case.

The Hand of Fatima

The Hand of Fatima, also sometimes known as the Hand of Miriam, is a form of protection that goes back thousands of years. Often cast in silver, the hand is also embroidered into material, and placed on women's dresses. This hand has three fingers, on the chest piece of a dress from Zabid, Yemen.

Silver Decorative Techniques

Whether forged for city ladies or Bedouin women, the same techniques in jewelry production are used. These techniques include:

Repousse “darab shakosh”
Repousse is a decorative technique in which the design is hammered outwards from the back of a thin piece of silver sheet.

Repousse tools used by silversmiths are handmade of hardened steel.

Sand Casting “sakib”
This method reproduces a three dimensional object. Casting involves pouring molten metal into a mold to obtain the desired shape.
These beautiful “Kaffat” necklaces are made by sand casting techniques.

Chasing
Tracing a design on the surface with a punch.

Filigree “mushabak”
This involves twisting and soldering silver wires to produce the desired pattern.

Granulation “habbiyat”

The granulation technique was brought to Jordan by a group of “Hejazi” silversmiths. It means working with granules that are prepared in a pattern, then soldering them on a bar that fashions the pieces according to the desired style.

The technique is often combined with filigree work; balls are made on the surface of a block by first placing the metal then playing a torch flame on it until the snippets melt, forming a ball.

Hammering “tariq”
In this technique, silver is hammered and cut to form the desired shape.

Inlay or Niello “mhabar”
This involves the inlaying of lead, copper and silver into grooves to ornament silver. This technique is attributed to the Circassian and Armenian silversmiths who settled in Jordan in the late nineteenth century.

The Arabic word “Mhabar” derives from the word “ink” and refers to the black color of the enamel. It was used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans

Engraving
This is a way of decorating metal by cutting lines and patterns into the surface. Prime engraving appears with Quranic inscriptions and sacred formula on pendants and amulets.

Jewelry has a long history of care and art in the Middle East. Looking at a container or pendant, we can see into history, a reflection of ourselves.

Credits: Story

Dresses from the collection of Widad Kawar
Widad Kawar Home for Arab Dress
Jewelry from the collection of Widad Kawar
Widad Kawar Home for Arab Dress and Sami Moawiyah Yousef
Director:Layla Pio
Artistic Director: Salua Qidan
Assistant Curator: Asma AlAbazi
PR: Shaden Kawar
Curatorial help: Lindsey Bauler and Emily Robbins
Text: Tiraz Team with portions taken from the exhibition brochure.
Photos: Nour alMaez

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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