The history of nomadic and traditional jewelry resembles that of archaeology; layer after layer of culture has overlapped and intertwined as the centuries have passed, culminating in the artifacts worn by the last generation of nomads and traditional communities.
The most remote layers of influence in the Middle East are the early civilizations, the cultures of the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians.
Detail of a relief in Persepolis, Iran
Armlets such as depicted in Persepolis were found in the Oxus Treasure. With the rise of the Greek empire under Alexander the Great, and the subsequent Roman empire, the Middle East saw large-scale and permanent occupation by other cultures for the first time. Some elements of Graeco-Roman adornments are still very much present in traditional jewelry.
Roman silver anklet from the 2nd century AD, featuring ram’s heads. Museum of Archaeology, Amman, Jordan
Stylized animal heads are often found on bracelet and anklets. This decoration dates from antiquity and is continued until today. In traditional silver jewelry, mostly serpent’s heads are used in bracelets and anklets to ward off evil. Even though Islam forbids the depiction of living things, this tradition is still very much alive and can be seen from Morocco to Iran.
Pair of silver fibulas from Tiznit, Morocco
The use of fibulas or clothing fasteners stems from before Roman times. The tradition has survived in the Maghreb, where clothing is fastened in much the same in way in which it was done around 2000 years ago. The style of fibulas has evolved and changed over time: nowadays each region or even village has its own distinct style of fibulas. See the Portraits-section for examples on how they were worn.
Necklace with eye-beads from Etruria, ca 3rd century BC. Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels, Belgium
Beads in the shape of an eye, or with decoration in the shape of an eye, have been in use since Ancient Egypt. They are still available on every market from Istanbul to Marrakech. Their decoration of blue eyes with darker pupils has remained virtually unchanged over the centuries. For more information on the protective aspects of eye beads, see Eyes and Hands.
Silver ring from Afghanistan, set with an engraved carnelian
Rings with decorated gemstones, also known as intaglios, are still in use in Central Asia. The decoration on traditional silver rings sometimes consists of watered-down classical themes, such as a depiction of the Pegasus in the ring from Afghanistan shown here. Also depictions of the warrior god Mars and the goddess Athena can still be found in Central Asian rings, along with later decorations.
Writings and Photos from author Sigrid van Roode