In the blog series on jewellery, we will focus on the jewellery traditions of various countries in North Africa and South-West Asia. These jewellery traditions go further back in history than the geographical borders we know today, and of course, one country may be home to several cultural traditions. Both the historical context and the cultural heritage of a variety of peoples are visible in the jewellery worn, and we hope to introduce this wider scope of adornment and dress to you. In this post, we will look at the long history of jewellery in Egypt.
Jewellery along the Nile
Egypt’s geographical location in northeastern Africa, on the fertile banks of the river Nile wedged in between deserts, has contributed to a recognisable style: while trade and diplomatic contacts brought international influences to Egypt, the country was also isolated enough to maintain its own style. Although jewellery from ancient Egypt seems to be represented well, what we know of today actually reflects only a very small portion of jewellery that once existed. This is because jewellery of costly materials was often melted down and reused and stones were carved and recarved. Jewellery as is excavated from undisturbed royal burials gives us an idea of the adornment of the elite, while bits and pieces and fragments of faience (tin-glazed ceramic ware) jewellery tell the tale of local jewellery.
Jewellery of the Pharaohs
The Great Pyramid on the Giza Plateau near Cairo was built by Pharaoh Khufu, known as Cheops to the Greeks. The tomb of his mother Hetep-Heres was discovered by chance only a stone’s throw away. A set of ten bracelets per arm, gradually expanding in size so she could wear them from wrist to elbow, were carefully stored in a purpose-made box. The pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom (2040 – 1780 BCE) chose Dahshur as their burial site. Here they built pyramids surrounded by other tombs, and in the funerary complex of King Senwosret III, the treasure of a princess called Sit-Hathor-Yunet was found. The jewellery pieces show the favoured combination of turquoise, lapis lazuli, and carnelian and are very finely made. Among the jewellery were diadems, hair decoration, pectoral pendants, girdles, bracelets, and anklets. The jewellery of Tutankhamun shows the wide variety of materials used: not just gold and semi-precious stones, but also flowers mixed with gold and faience beads.
Gold and faience
Gold was highly favoured by the Egyptians. Because of its warm colour, it was associated with the sun, and because it does not tarnish it was thought the gods’ bodies were made of gold: they were believed to be immortal. Gold was found in Nubia, which is the south of Egypt and the north of Sudan. The presence of goldmines is also why the Egyptians were intent on controlling Nubia: this is where their gold came from. The importance of Nubia as a supplier of gold is even today reflected in its name: the ancient Egyptian word for gold is ‘nub’. Because silver only scarcely occurs naturally in Egypt, it had to be imported. It seems to have been valued over gold during the earliest parts of Egyptian civilisation. Its name ‘hedj’ means ‘white’ – from some sources, it would appear the Egyptians regarded silver as a form of gold.
Faience was much used by Egyptians as basic material for jewellery. Simple amulets, beads and rings would be made of faience, and faience inlays would be used in elite pieces. To the ancient Egyptians, it was known as tjehenet, which means ‘shining material.’
Roman styles in Egypt
During the Greek and Roman periods, Egyptian tradition mixed with new influences. In Fayum Oasis, elite ladies were buried with a painted portrait that adorned their mummy. These portraits show lifelike images of the deceased, dressed out in their finery. The people depicted are dressed in Roman style fashion, hairdo and jewellery, and portraits offer much insight into the jewellery worn. Several examples of this jewellery have also been found in archaeological excavations. Egypt formed part of a long-distance trade network: pearls came from the area of current-day UAE, diamonds, rubies and sapphires were imported from Asia and emeralds were mined in Egypt’s Eastern Desert.
Medieval Fatimid jewellery
Cairo was the capital of the Fatimid dynasty (909 – 1171). The jewellery of this period is exceptionally finely made, using wire filigree and granulation. Not much of it survived, as it was mostly melted down in later periods. Besides Egypt and Syria, Fatimid jewellery has been found in Spain and served there as the basis for later jewellery styles. The openwork filigree of the Fatimids continued to be produced under the Ottomans, albeit less delicate and in completely different shapes, and so continued into the traditional jewellery of our time.
Traditional jewellery from Egypt
The traditional jewellery of Egypt is rich and varied and showcases age-old cultural contacts. Silver jewellery in Siwa Oasis, in the northeast, is part of the Amazigh jewellery of North Africa. Much of it was made in Alexandria and even Cairo, and pieces made by Alexandrian silversmiths also found their way to Libya. The oases in the Western Desert share some of this jewellery but also traded with the Nile Valley – a connection very visible in jewellery. Some jewellery elements are confined to one particular location only, such as the use of the adrim in Siwa oasis, the amulet pendant worn by the women of Bahariya oasis, or the veil ornament worn in Cairo. In the northwest, jewellery worn by the Bedouin of Sinai seamlessly flows to southern Palestine: the Bedouin have their own visual language. The Red Sea coast then shares jewellery styles across the sea and further south. Jewellery worn along the southeastern coastline shows similarities with that worn in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, as well as Sudan and Ethiopia. The Nile Valley has its own range of silver and gold jewellery: jewellery from the Delta is different from that in Middle Egypt, which in turn differs from that in the south of Egypt. Here, as well as in the north of Sudan, the gold jewellery from Nubia is very distinctive: some of the types and elements used in Nubian jewellery found their origin in ancient Egypt.
Egyptian jewellery has an incredibly long history and continues to inspire contemporary jewellers, such as the famous Azza Fahmy, even today. Azza creates not only ancient Egyptian-inspired pieces but also a range of jewellery that pays homage to the country’s recent jewellery tradition.
This article is based on:
- RAWI Issue 7
- Bulsink, M. 2015. Egyptian Gold Jewellery. Palma Egyptology 12, Brepols Publishers, Turnhout
- Fahmy, A. 2007. Enchanted Jewelry of Egypt. The traditional art and craft. American University in Cairo Press, Cairo
- Fakhry, A. 2003. Bahriyah and Farafra. American University in Cairo Press, Cairo
- Fletcher, N. 2020. Ancient Egyptian Jewelry. 50 Masterpieces of Art and Design. AUC Press, Cairo.
- Jenkins, M. 1988. Fatimid Jewelry, its influences and subtypes, in Ars Orientalis, Vol. 18
- Lacovara, P. and Y. Markowitz, 2020. Jewels of the Nile. Giles Art Publishing
- Lane, E.W. 1860. An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. The Definitive 1860 Edition. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo (2003).
- Markowitz, Y. and D. Doxey, 2014. Jewels of Ancient Nubia. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Find more posts about Egypt on our blog:
- Magic and Jewellery in Egypt,
- Embroidery and embellishment from Siwa Oasis,
- Tulle bi Telli from Egypt,
*Header image: Silver bracelets worn in Sinai and southern Palestine