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 blog, we will look at the long history of jewellery in Palestine.
Over Sea and Over Land
This post introduces the history of jewellery in the geographical area of historical Palestine, including the geographical area which is present-day Israel. In Palestine trade routes coming overland from the Arab Peninsula and Central Asia connect with those coming from Egypt and the Mediterranean itself. Here, influences from Western Asia met directly with southern European and northern African cultures, resulting in a pluriform world.
Gold jewellery and sparkling glass
Tell el-Ajjul, the location of ancient Gaza and near the modern town, was a place where gold jewellery was produced in the late Bronze Age. Tell el-Ajjul was one of the principal cities in the southern Levant as it was strategically located on the main route through Sinai into Egypt, near the Mediterranean coast as well as on an intersection with trade routes coming from Syria. Here, three hoards were found, which reflect these international relations in their variety of styles. Some of the jewellery items are clearly Egyptian, such as rings with scarabs. Others are based on more local Canaanite traditions, such as the triangular pendant with a goddess, of which parallels have been found in Syria as well as on the Uluburun shipwreck. Several earrings and a crescent pendant are reminiscent of jewellery still worn today. Jewellery based on Egyptian examples, such as scarabs and other Egyptian amulets is found widely in Palestine from ca 1500 BCE onwards: this is the timeframe in which the pharaohs extended their empire into the Levant. In Beit She’an, over 1,500 glass and faience beads were excavated within a temple site. While the majority of the glass and faience beads were of Egyptian production methods and style, they were strung together with beads and ornaments that referred to Canaanite gods and goddesses.
Besides gold jewellery and glass beads, several hoards of silver have been found in Palestine as well. Silver jewellery has been excavated in Akko, Ashkelon, Beit She’an, Ayn Gedi, Ayn Hofez, Eshtemoa, Miqne-Ekron, Sechem, Tell Dor, Tell el-Ajjul and Tell Keisan. These date from the 12th century BCE to the 6th century BCE and tell us a great deal about trade and contacts. The origin of the silver itself in these hoards has been analysed, and this showed two notable facts. First, the silver was melted down and reworked several times. This is a custom that is widespread throughout Southwest Asia and North Africa, as precious metals were valuable and reused when needed. Second, the origins of the silver found in these hoards are Anatolia, the Aegean and, perhaps more surprising, the western Mediterranean – the Iberian Peninsula, or Sardinia. This points to a trade contact from west to east and illustrates the wide reach of trade networks in the late Bronze and early Iron Age.
Glass jewellery continued to be created during the Middle Ages when for example the use of glass bracelets increased exponentially. Fragments of bracelets are regularly found at excavation sites but are not often well understood. Their method of production, just like beads, did not change significantly for a long time. This makes them difficult to date: it is the excavation stratigraphy that provides a date for the bracelet fragments. One of the locations that were famous for its glass production until the last century was Hebron. Here, the glass industry dates back at least two millennia. Glass beads have been produced here as well, at least since the Middle Ages, and a 1799 travel account mentions the coarse glass beads that were created in Hebron and traded to East Africa. Glass bracelets made in Hebron were considered an indispensable part of a bride’s dowry in 1920’s southern Palestine.
Traditional jewellery from Palestine
Traditional Palestinian jewellery as we would recognise it today stems from the 19th century. Combined with the regional dress and Tatreez styles, it would clearly show where a woman came from and reflected the long history of cultural contacts. Ottoman influences are clearly visible in the choker-style kirdan, a type of necklace worn throughout the former Ottoman empire. Hair jewellery attached to the ends of braids have predecessors in the Middle Ages, and the use of niello reflects the influences of Circassian and Armenian silversmiths. Jewellery items were an indispensable part of dress, such as in the case of the iznaq or chin-chain, which would be fastened to the headdress known as shatweh and help to weigh this down. An abundance of coins worn on headdresses, like the shatweh, saffeh and the wuqayet darahim, but also on simpler bonnets, showed the geographical range of economic contacts. Some jewellery is signed by their makers, such as the haydari-bracelets worn in the region of Bethlehem, where the Sammur and Khalil families were renowned for their craftsmanship.
The Bedouin tribes of southern Palestine and Sinai wore jewellery styles that are related to those of Egypt and the north of the Arab Peninsula. Several bracelet styles preferred by the Bedouin were actually produced in Cairo, such as the broad bracelets with stylised turtles or the heavy silver bracelets with a braided wire in the centre. Beaded necklaces and silver amulet pendants were traded throughout southern Palestine, but the main show of wealth for a woman here would be her abundantly decorated face veil.
Since 1948, Palestinian jewellery has moved with refugees to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and further abroad. Much of it was sold to cover survival needs or passage to a safer place, and as such the heritage jewellery of Palestine is less widely known than other forms of traditional jewellery from Southwest Asia. Tiraz Centre in Amman, as well as museums all over the world, work tirelessly to keep the connection of this jewellery to its geographical and cultural origins alive.
This blogpost is based on:
- McGovern, E. 1980. Ornamental and Amuletic Jewelry Pendants of Late Bronze Age Palestine. An Archaeological Study. PhD-thesis, University of Pennsylvania
- McGovern, E., S.J. Stuart & C.P. Swann. The Late Bronze Egyptian Garrison at Beth Shan: Glass and Faience Production and Importation in the Late New Kingdom, in: Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 1993-05-01, Vol.290 (290/291), p.1-27
- Taha, H., A. Pol & G. Van der Kooij 2006. A Hoard of Silver Coins at Qabatiya, Palestine. Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Ramallah
- Weir, S. 1989. Palestinian Costume. The Trustees of the British Museum, London
- Wood, J., I. Montero-Ruiz & M. Martinón-Torres. From Iberia to the Southern Levant: the Movement of Silver Across the Mediterranean in the Early Iron Age, in: Journal of World Prehistory (2019) 32, p. 1-31
*Feature Image: A woman from Ramah. Credit: Library of Congress LC-USZ62-69080