We are continuing our series on jewellery with a 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 are looking at the long history of jewellery in Morocco.
The oldest shell beads
Morocco is located on the western shore of North Africa. It connects Europe and Africa: the narrow Street of Gibraltar and the vast network of Saharan caravan routes enabled trade with the wider world. The oldest adornment found in Morocco was excavated in the Cave of the Pigeons, near Taforalt in the east of the country, where shell beads dating as far back as 82,000 years ago were found. The shells to create these beads were collected on purpose on the coast and then perforated. A study of these perforations shows that the beads have been worn strung on a cord, and what is even more remarkable is that some of the shells show traces of red colour. They may have been worn directly on something dyed with red ochre, which caused the colour to transfer onto the beads. Here, jewellery studies possibly reveal the presence of body aesthetics in the deep past. Even older beads were found in Bizmoune Cave, near Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. Here, 33 shell beads were excavated dating back to 142,000 years ago. These as well show signs of red ochre and intentional perforation, underscoring the intrinsic human need to communicate through adornment.
Due to its strategic location, western North Africa formed the stage for many power struggles. During the Arab expansions in the 7th and 8th centuries, the indigenous Amazigh territories were colonised, as was the south of the Iberian Peninsula. One of the cities founded by Arab conquerors in Morocco was al-Basra. Here, excavations have brought to light material hints at the ongoing unrest after the Arab conquests: during the 10th century, someone buried a small treasure of silver coins, gold and glass beads in the hope of returning to pick it up later. Analysis of the glass beads has revealed the wide network in which al-Basra functioned. Some of the glass came from North Africa and Southwest Asia, but notably also from Europe, where glass bead-making had taken a flight during the early Middle Ages.
The city of Sijilmasa, in the oasis of Tafilalet, formed an important trading hub for more than six centuries. From here, trade expeditions to the African kingdoms such as Ghana and Mali were launched to obtain gold: the long trade routed through the Sahara, as they had existed for millennia, continued to provide access to the rest of the African continent.
The Amazigh empires
West African gold was minted into dinars around the 11th century by the Amazigh dynasty of the Almoravid, whose control over Sijilmasa formed a stronghold in their expansion. The Almoravid founded the city of Marrakech as their capital, rebuilt other places such as al-Basra, and took control of the south of the Iberian Peninsula as well. Sijilmasa was important for another reason as well: in the vicinity, silver mines were discovered, from which silver could be extracted to mint silver dirhams. Western North Africa continued to exert a profound influence on the Mediterranean and Western Europe. In the 12th century, Amazigh tribes in the High Atlas developed a powerful empire that would later be known as the Almohad dynasty. The Almohads ruled over much of North Africa as well as the Mediterranean and parts of Western Europe and structured their rule along the old Amazigh tribal federation systems that had existed for centuries. The stability provided by the Almohad empire is reflected in material culture: ceramics and textiles were much prized in Italy, while silver dirhams minted by the Almohad dynasty remained accepted currency in western Europe up until the 16th century.
These Amazigh empires also created the circumstances in which Amazigh, Arab, and European cultural traditions merged in a shared visual language. The exquisitely carved wooden minbar of the Koutoubiyya mosque in Marrakech was created in Cordoba, and the use of enamelling for example, which was flourishing during the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt and Syria, was developed further in Spain and Morocco. After the Catholic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and the defeat of the Almohad dynasty, both Jewish and Muslim craftsmen fled to North Africa. This migration movement lasted until the 17th century, and along with the craftsmen centuries of expertise and knowledge of techniques and patterns travelled to Morocco that is still reflected in the traditional jewellery of today. The Jewish trade quarters in the main cities were known as mellah, whereas in the more rural parts Jewish families mixed with Amazigh tribes. Both suffered during the colonial period, and most Jewish families left Morocco after the Second World War.
Silver jewellery from Morocco
Urban jewellery in gold, created in cities such as Fez, Meknes or Rabat, still echoes the workmanship of the Middle Ages in their design and use of precious stones. The silver jewellery worn throughout Morocco is immensely varied and differs regionally as well as per tribe. One of the most distinctive elements of dress is the ornate clothing pins or fibulae worn by Amazigh women. Their designs as well as techniques used are rooted in history and strongly connected with the identity of both the wearer and her tribe. Silver bracelets, elaborate headdresses and girdle clasps can also be attributed to individual regions, while the stringing of chunky amber and coral necklaces differs greatly across the country. There is a world of history behind the immense variety in jewellery throughout Morocco that is hard to capture in a single blog: some reading suggestions about its many regional styles are provided below.
This blogpost is based on
- Baron, S. et al 2020. Medieval silver production around Sijilmasa, Morocco, in: Archaeometry Vol. 62 (3), pp. 593-611
- Bouzouggar, A. et al 2007. 82,000-year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behaviour, in: PNAS Vol. 104 (24), pp. 9964-9969
- Draguet, M. 2021. Berber Memories. Women and Jewellery in Morocco. Mercator Fonds, Brussels
- Flint, B. n.y. Exposition permanente d’arts saharien et amazigh du Musée Tiskiwin de Marrakech. L’Art de la parure sur l’itineraire Marrakech-Agadez-Tomboctou-Marrakech. Voyage en dix étapes. Tome I: étapes 1,2,3,4,5 Imichil-Timimoun-Agdez-Gao-Djibo. Marrakech
- Fromherz, A. 2009. North Africa and the Twelfth-century Renaissance: Christian Europe and the Almohad Islamic Empire, in: Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations Vol. 20 (1), pp. 43-59
- Gonzalez, V. 1994. Emaux d’al Andalus et du Maghreb, Edisud, La Calade
- Messier, R. A. 1974. The Almoravids: West African Gold and the Gold Currency of the Mediterranean Basin, in: Journal of the economic and social history of the Orient, Vol.17 (1), pp. 31-47
- Robertshaw, P. et al 2010. Chemical analysis of glass beads from medieval al-Basra (Morocco), in: Archaeometry Vol. 52 (3), pp. 355 -379
- Sehasseh, el M. et al. 2021. Early Middle Stone Age personal ornaments from Bizmoune Cave, Essaouira, Morocco, in: Science Advances Vol. 7 (39)
- Stewart, C. 2017. Remarkable Berber Jewelry at the Met, online post [https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/collection-insights/2017/berber-jewelry-morocco-algeria]
*Featured Image: Pair of silver clothing pins, known as tizerzai or tiseghnas