Not many years ago one of the delights of Middle East living was shopping for old jewelry—especially old Bedouin jewelry, rich in intricate silverwork and touched with the bits of coral, carnelian and pretty stones picked up from the hills and sands during the Bedouin's wanderings.
No more. The lovely, hand-wrought trinketry that once graced the persons of desert nomads is disappearing. The Bedouins themselves are exchanging it for modern jewelry. City jewelers are breaking it up and remodeling it for modern tastes. Artisans who once made the jewelry are retiring or turning to more profitable lines. And most of what remains is already in the hands of private collectors and museums.
According to experts, this trend is widespread. In Saudi Arabia silversmiths are melting down Bedouin jewelry and recasting the silver in new designs. Shops in Aleppo, Homs and Deir ez-Zor, all centers of Bedouin craftsmanship in Syria, are adapting to new design demands. In Karak, in Jordan, two Yemeni jewelers who set the styles in jewelry for several generations have retired. In Beirut a jeweler who could once verify the stamp of a particular craftsman or pick out a technique characteristic to him says bluntly that the old work doesn't pay anymore.
Why? Because, according to those who know and care about such things, life and values are changing dramatically as the Bedouins settle down. Romantic theories to the contrary, says Dr. Salah Yacoub, a rural sociologist who does know and care, the Bedouin is not at all reluctant to swap the rigors of life in the desert for the comforts, the services and the opportunities of life in villages and towns. And his wife is no less reluctant to exchange without thought, pieces engraved by hand in patterns as old as tribal tradition for costume jewelry fresh from a factory stamping machine.
It is impossible to trace such patterns back to their origins, but most Bedouin designs probably go back to ancient Ur in southern Iraq, famous in Biblical times for gold and silver mined from the Kurdistan hills and worked by the craftsmen of Ur.
Another source was Persia, whose designs, sent along the caravan routes to the Nefertitis, Cleopatras, and Zenobias of the day, undoubtedly influenced the nomads. Still another was Rome. Funeral busts in Palmyra, Syria, from the first-century A.D. show similarities to what was worn in the days of Caesars and what is worn in Bedouin tents today. As one expert said, "Customs and traditions die hard in the East."
After the Arab conquests of Persia, the Persian mastery of fine engravings, filigree and inlays influenced Arab designs even more. During Mogul and Tamurlane times, other features were copied, some of which survive today in Kabul, Afghanistan, and in the Jebal Druze area of Syria. This seems to be especially evident in the jeweled coiffures and elaborate diadem headdresses sometimes worn today in Lebanon at weddings.
What has evolved is a wide variety of jewelry: silver pendants plaited into the hair; headbands with dangling teardrops; scarves with ancient coins fixed to the edges; crowns with a disk encrusted with stones; swinging pendants; elaborate chokers; bracelets and pelvic belts. (Because so much silver is required to make them, belts are scarce. But one private collection in Beirut boasts a belt that is at least 100 years old and is composed of dangling carry cases for pins, thimble and scissors; a mascara pot; a perfume vial; and an erasable ivory tablet with a hanging pencil to jot down reminders.)
Many Bedouin designs are functional but most also have symbolic meaning. Indeed some collectors say every item of jewelry relates to some religious expression or ancient belief, and a professor of Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut (AUB) says that many signs of animism—a prehistoric belief that all objects, men, plants and stones are inhabited by souls—still survive in the Middle East jewelry. Occasionally there is a mixture of symbols on the same piece of jewelry. In one collection in Jordan there is a necklace with both the Islamic crescent and a cross.
Common to all Bedouin jewelry are bells and dangling coins from Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman times. Other distinctive features are the Islamic half moon—said by some to be Turkish in origin, but by others to be typically Kurdish. Iraqi jewelry often has turquoise or pearls from Bahrain, a trading neighbor. The filigree is supposed to be Turkish in origin, but from Beirut to Basra, it is not an uncommon feature. Stacked triangles are a feature of the jewelry from Afghanistan. Called a "du'a," the triangle contains a compartment for paper prayers. Many typical Bedouin pieces also have a "du'a" that is cylindrical. (The prayers placed in the compartment are believed by some to ward off misfortune, sickness and death. So, it is thought, does the "hand of Fatima," another common feature, which is adorned with a warning: an enlarged eye with blue-black shadows, and blue ceramic or glass beads.)
To traders, whose agents regularly tramp the refugee camps or the desert plains in the time of Bedouin seasonal migrations in search of bargains, the attraction of Bedouin jewelry is economic rather than aesthetic. To some collectors it is simply rejection of the die-stamped, mass-produced costume jewelry pouring out of Western jewelry plants. But to a few individuals it is something more. It is the echo of a dying way of life; campsites and campfires, shadowy figures crouched under the stars and soft silver sounds breaking into the stillness. To them the disappearance of this jewelry also means the disappearance of the elusive beauty of a life they once symbolized.
Claire Clemons came to the Middle East in 1961, taught English at the American University of Beirut and now teaches at Beirut College for Women.