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Bracelets are for the difficult times: jewellery and economy

The jewellery a woman receives when she marries is hers to do with as she pleases and it is often regarded as her own economic means. An old Arabic saying underlines this idea: ‘el-hadayad li'l wa't el-shadayad’ (gifts [of jewellery] are for the difficult times). If a family needs money, a woman can decide to sell some of her jewellery, or parts of it. Indeed, a woman’s silver jewellery often represents a family’s savings account. The real capital of the household however consists of cattle and, in the case of sedentary groups, land. Jewellery forms an additional investment and was used as currency avant la lettre, as indicated by a jewellery find at Tel Miqne-Ekron in Israel that was inhabited in the seventh century BC. Two of the three hoards of silver jewellery that were discovered here consisted of small pieces that were broken or worn. As such, they were unlikely to comprise the stock of a silversmith, or a woman’s jewellery collection. It has been assumed that this hoard was ‘small change’, used as some sort of money. A similar hoard, from around 1300 BC, was found in Tell el-Amarna in Egypt. It consists of irregular gold bars, silver pieces and rings, as well as a silver figurine of a Hittite god. The silver items alone would have been enough to buy some ten cows or oxen. At this time the value of goods was often expressed in units of another material, such as a weight class called deben or specific silver items called shaty. These silver standards were probably rings, worn as pendants. The word for silver in ancient Egypt, hedj, was actually used to indicate an abstract connotation that comes close to our word ‘money’ and this monetary use for jewellery is still found amongst the Tuareg, where ring-shaped pendants, called zinder, are used today as adornment and currency alike. The use of coins as currency, with a set value and a standard silver content, is relatively recent. Rulers have issued coins since the beginning of classical antiquity, but these were of varying quality, size and value. Jewellery as a means of payment has a very long history, deeply rooted in the civilizations of the Middle East, and is still closely connected to the economy today.

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Marks and stamps

An Egyptian silver stamp on the inside of a bracelet. Photo: AVAJ Bosman.

Maker's mark of the Egyptian silversmith Mohammed elMekkawi on the outside of a Siwa bracelet. Photo: J.Bos.

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Originally, Bedouin and traditional jewellery did not carry hallmarks; the region’s jewellery tradition predates their use, as well as modern state boundaries. As each piece of jewellery was individually ordered from a silversmith, the amount of silver to be used was carefully discussed, weighed and paid for. To establish the correct amount of silver, the material was balanced against a known amount of silver, for example a set of coins such as the Maria Theresia Thaler (see below). At around the beginning of the twentieth century, most countries adopted an official hallmarking system. Morocco saw its first official silver stamps around 1860 and introduced a nationwide hallmarking system in 1925. Egypt implemented silver hallmarks in 1906, Algeria in 1859. Since then, stamps on silver jewellery have shed light on the place and year in which the item was marked. However, a silver hallmark on a piece of jewellery does not necessarily provide information on provenance or date of production. For a very long time, existing pieces of jewellery were marked only when they were sold; their exact value only needed to be established at the moment of sale. To illustrate its value, an item of jewellery usually displayed its silver stamp on the outside, where it would be most visible. Stamps are found on the outside of bracelets, in the middle of pendants, on individual dangles... all to show the piece’s officially recognized value and thus the status of its wearer.

Dating and sourcing jewellery Not all silver jewellery carries a silver stamp. Older pieces, especially ones that did not change hands during the course of an owner’s lifetime, often lack an official stamp. Indeed, silver stamps may be a complicating factor in the collection of nomadic and traditional silver: the absence of a stamp may imply that the piece is not silver but it could simply indicate that the piece pre-dates the use of hallmarks. Another confusing factor is that a stamp may record the moment of sale, not of production. Also, an item of jewellery could have been sold in a different city or region than the one from which it originated. Silver stamps can be very useful when trying to date a piece of jewellery or establish its origin, but it is important to bear in mind that a stamp may have been added later, in a different region. The only fact that a silver stamp reveals for sure is that the item of jewellery is silver.


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Coins are also used to decorate clothing, such as these women’s bodices and embroidered choker from Afghanistan.

Coins

Coins on a necklace from Morocco.

The use of coins or ‘umla’ is widespread throughout the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. Coins decorate headbands and face veils, dangle from chains and temple ornaments and are used in rings, brooches and bracelets. The jingling sound made by a row of jostling coins is an audible testimony to the economical affluence of the wearer. To the modern eye, any monetary value the coins may have is annulled by their decorative value. They may be pierced and sewn onto clothing or strung onto metal wire; they might be hammered into dish-like shapes, soldered onto diverse items of jewellery or even decorated with glass, coral or semi-precious stones. To the wearer and potential buyer of such a piece of jewellery, the coin is not so much a monetary token, but an item whose value is directly related to its silver content. Issued by an official mint long before the introduction of silver hallmarks, coins were an indication of an established and guaranteed silver content, and retained this importance until a gold standard was established; a coin then represented a certain amount of gold in the state’s treasury. For this reason, some coins were appreciated much more than others. Two coins that both possess a high silver content and are of consistently good quality, proved to be of major importance in the nomadic societies of the Middle East, and indeed in the economical landscape of the entire world. They are the Spanish columnario or pillar dollar, and the Austrian Maria Theresia Thaler.

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The Spanish pillar dollar

The Spanish pillar dollar, preferred currency for pirates and traders alike. Photo: KIT.

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From 1732 onwards, Spain began to produce machine-tooled coins, replacing those that had been in circulation since the fifteenth century. The new coins featured the Spanish coat of arms on the obverse, a design that was replaced in 1772 by a depiction of the bust of the reigning king, King Carlos III, under his order. The reverse showed two stylized pillars of Hercules flanking two globes surmounted by a crown, symbolizing Spanish supremacy over both the old and new worlds. The instantly recognizable pillars caused the coin to be called columnario in Spanish, colonnato in Italian, and ‘pillar dollar’ in English. It was minted in five denominations, eight, four, two, one and one-half Spanish reales and was produced solely in South America, in the Spanish colonies where vast amounts of silver were to be found. The main mints were in Mexico City, Lima, Santiago, Guatemala, Bogota, Potosi and, for a short time, in Popayan. The eight-reales coin soon became the most popular in international trade due to its consistent silver content and its wide availability. The silver mines in South America delivered an abundant amount of material, and it was used exclusively in coins for export to Europe. Because of its reliable silver content, the coin was counterstamped and other countries occasionally altered it, through clipping, to serve as their own official currency. Between 1797 and 1808, Great Britain used counterstamped pillar dollars as ‘emergency currency’ and coins bearing Chinese marks have also come to light. The coin was also brought to Tunisia through trade and commerce; it was never directly imported from Spain. When the pillar dollar was mentioned in documents however, it was always accompanied by the text: ‘minted by the enemy of religion’ (i.e. those outside of Islam). The pillar dollar was so strong that it served as official currency in the United States when the country first became independent and although it was used right up until the 1870s, it ceased to be official currency in 1857 and its circulation slowly decreased from that date. The eight-reales pillar dollar formed the basis for the smaller denominations that would later be part of the US monetary system; the coins were cut in halves, quarters and eighths, and were easily accepted as currency since they were derived from a well-known coin of established value. These parts of the pillar dollar were known as ‘pieces of eight’ and were to feature in many piracy tales, from the classic Treasure Island to the more recent Pirates of the Caribbean. There were many pirate attacks on the ships that carried the vast amounts of silver coins from South America to Spain, leading to their appearance in many legends of pirates’ treasure hoards.


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The coins also found their way to the Middle East, where they were prized for their solid silver content; their use was widespread in the Ottoman Empire. The coin was variously referred to as kara gurus, kebir gurus, tamam gurus, real kurus and riyal. This last term is a derivate of its Spanish name, real, and became the word of choice in Arabic to indicate official coins. In Egypt, where the pillars were misinterpreted as cannons, the dollar was nicknamed Abu Madfa (Father of Guns). The coin is listed in the Hand-book for Travellers in Egypt, published in 1847, as one of the preferred currencies to bring to Egypt, the other being the Maria Theresia Thaler. The book explicitly notes that a ‘dollar’ is equal to twenty piastres, unless it is a pillar dollar or Maria Theresia dollar. In the first case, it is equivalent to twenty-two piastres and in the second, twenty-one. The pillar dollar was apparently rated higher than its two dollar siblings. Notably, in the south of Egypt and Ethiopia the pillar dollar of Carlos IV was preferred over the Austrian Thaler.

The Maria Theresia Thaler A coin that had been issued by King Farouk of Egypt, worked into a pendant.

The Maria Theresia Thaler has always been the most widely accepted coin in the Middle East.

If the Spanish pillar dollar was the first coin to be used internationally, the Austrian Maria Theresia Thaler was to become the most widespread and well-known coin in Africa and Asia. It was especially popular in the Middle East and North Africa. On the obverse, the coin bears a portrait of the empress wearing a widow’s veil and a brooch of pearls; the reverse shows the Austrian coat of arms with the imperial double-headed eagle. The word thaler refers to the Joachimsthal or Joachims’ Valley in Bohemia, and it was here that silver was mined and minted into large silver coins called thalers. Soon this German word became the generic term for any large silver coin and, as such, was quickly absorbed into various other languages. Eventually, it became ‘dollar’ in English. The Maria Theresia Thaler, or MTT as it is commonly known, was first struck in 1741 under the rule of the Habsburg heiress Maria Theresia. Maria Theresia ascended to the throne of the Habsburg Empire in Vienna aged 23, on the death of her father Charles VI. She was crowned Queen of Hungary in 1741, and Queen of Bohemia in 1743, and bore the title of Empress from 1745, when her husband became Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. Maria Theresia ruled for forty years, bore sixteen children and improved the economic situation of the empire, which had serious debts when she inherited it. From 1753, the MTT became increasingly popular; the empress officially announced the silver content of this and other coins to be minted in Bavaria and Austria, and set the exchange rates and the design standards in a treaty with

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The Maria Theresia Thaler worked into a ring from the Arab Peninsula.

Coins on a veil ornament from the Iranian Qashqai-tribe.

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Bavaria. Being officially guaranteed and very hard to forge due to the intricacies of the design, the coin quickly became much sought after by traders and merchants. When Maria Theresia died in 1780, the coin was still in such high demand that it continued to be struck, bearing the date of 1780. It was accepted as official currency in Austria until 1858, when it continued to be in use as official trade coinage, but no longer as domestic currency. Since then, the coin has been in almost continuous production. It played an important role in the coffee trade, was used in World Wars I and II to pay North African allies and has acted as official currency innumerable times. Today, it is still used in the markets of Oman as a solid weight to measure silver objects. It is seen in various items of jewellery from the Maghreb all the way to Southeast Asia, and is still produced by the Vienna Mint today. It is estimated that there are anywhere between 300 million and a staggering 800 million MTTs in existence today. The MTT was the most popular coin in circulation in North Africa and the Middle East ever since it was introduced and has gone by many names: Abu Tayr (Father of Birds) referring to the imperial eagle; Abu Nuqta (Father of Dots) a reference to the number of pearls on the brooch of the empress; and Abu Rish (Father of Feathers) a name suggested by the eagle’s many tail feathers. All these distinctive features were used to check the authenticity of the coin. In purely monetary terms, the coin was referred to as Riyal Faransawi (French Riyal) or Riyal Nimsawi (Austrian Riyal). As a decorative item, the MTT features prominently in the jewellery of Oman, Yemen and Saudi-Arabia where it was used in large necklaces; it can also be found attached to temple ornaments. In Egypt, the coin was sewn on face veils or incorporated into zarjewellery, while in Jordan, Syria and Palestine it graces face veils, head ornaments and other items of jewellery. Usually, the visible side of the thaler is the reverse, depicting the eagle and coat of arms; since representations of human beings are forbidden in Islam, the coin is usually worn with the effigy of the empress on the underside. However, the thaler often has an invisible presence; its high-grade silver content made it the material of choice for a lot of silver jewellery. Occasionally the coin was made into a pendant, on which traces of the original can still be discerned, but the coins were more commonly melted down and reused completely.


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Other coins

Coins can end up in unusual places, such as this coin from Saudi-Arabia that serves as a button on the backside of this silver-and-gold Turkmen guljaka.

In addition to the pillar dollar and the MTT, many local and regional coins were worked into jewellery or costume ornaments, usually taken from the currency of the immediate region or neighbouring countries. Their origin is usually limited to the immediate vicinity of the country in which the decorated object was used. In Saudi-Arabia, Yemen and Oman, local coins are found alongside Indian rupees. These rupees, in turn, are not found in decorative items any further afield than Egypt or North Africa. In the Maghreb, coins from nearby Spain and Western Europe are common, as well as regional coins such as the Dutch lion dollar (esedi gurus in Turkish or Abu Qalb in Arabic), the Italian Victor Emmanuel coins, and France’s ‘gold napoleons’, which are rarely seen east of Libya. In this way, the variety of coins worn as jewellery indicates the larger group with which the wearer is in contact. It also illustrates the visual effect of larger political landscapes. In those countries that formed part of the Ottoman Empire for example, many Ottoman coins are found alongside modern currencies. Incidentally, coins also bear testimony to the existence of greater trade distances. One example is a type of ring worn on both sides of the Red Sea that displays a coin from the Dutch Indies as its centrepiece, or a Saudi-Arabian coin that ended up on a Turkmen guljaka or coat button. Face veils from southern Palestine and Sinai are decorated with a wide variety of coins. In the region of Ramallah, a specific type of headdress is worn where the veil is fixed in place with a cotton band or saffeh, onto which a dense array of coins is sewn. The coins frame the wearer’s forehead and continue all the way round to the back of her head. In Bethlehem, coins are the main decoration on the shatweh, a type of hat worn by married women and decorated with several rows of coins and pieces of coral. Coins used for decoration derive their value from the material they are made from, as well as from the amount that is used in any particular piece. Most of these coins are no longer in use, and originate far from where the wearer is living, so their monetary value is obviously of minor importance. This is closely related to another use of silver jewellery: that of an indicator of status.

Jewellery and the modern shadow economy An array of coins on a face veil from the south of Palestine. The coins include Egyptian and Israeli currency.

In the Middle East and North Africa, as indeed in the rest of the world, jewellery is largely a woman’s affair. Items of jewellery are given to women as wedding gifts and at other special moments in their lives, such as the birth of a child. Since it is the women

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Palestinian haydari-bracelets.

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who run a household’s economy, it is interesting to look at the part played by jewellery in managing a family’s resources. In general, it is the men who earn the household income and provide for the family; women are not expected to have paid work, they are taken care of by the men. This is why women, according to Islamic law, inherit only half of what their male siblings inherit; a man’s inheritance is intended to provide for a complete family, while a woman may keep hers to use however she sees fit. The woman’s responsibility is to keep the household running and make sure all members of the family are clothed and fed. As a man’s income is often not enough to cover daily expenses, the woman finds innovative ways to cater to the needs of their family as well as saving for major expenses that might arise in the future. These savings often take the form of jewellery. Throughout the Middle East, women work in what is known as the ‘shadow economy’. They assist in bath houses, work as fortune-tellers or midwives, help in harvesting crops or work at home creating handcrafted items such as bags and clothes to meet both local needs and the demands of tourism. The small income generated by these activities is rarely subject to taxes since they fall outside the official system and are sometimes even regarded as an extension of a housewife’s regular duties: caring for and helping others. The extra income created by this shadow economy is invested locally and kept completely separate from the official monetary system. Groups of women form informal cooperative networks, to which each woman makes monthly contributions. Each month, the total amount of money the network generates is given to a particular member who can use the funds to help cover any larger family expenses she might have, such as a washing machine or a wedding, but this sum of money is just as often used to buy jewellery. Once every member has been a beneficiary, the network either stops or starts again with the first woman. These networks are part of both urban and rural societies and are preferred over depositing money in a bank account. Many of the women are illiterate, preventing them from reading the status of their bank accounts, and their immediate circle consists of people they know and can trust. Jewellery is regarded as a solid investment since items can be sold whenever the family needs the money. And it can be sold quickly, so a certain amount of money is always immediately at hand to cover, say, medical expenses or lawyers’ costs. However, selling jewellery to cover expenses is only reverted to in extreme situations. If at all possible, women will always try to resolve the situation another way. They might start their own savings’ network, making themselves the first beneficiary, or borrow money from a family member or neighbour, in which case their jewellery will serve as collateral. If jewellery has to be sold, women will often start saving again to buy new jewellery items.


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Asawir melvi-bracelets with visible hallmarks on the outside. These are seen in northern Egypt, Sinai and the south of Palestine. They are sold when needed and traded for heavier ones when there is money to spare.

Travellers’ reports of journeys made into Palestine reveal that this involvement of women on the fringes of the economy, investing their money in bracelets and earrings, was already standard practice there in the nineteenth century. In countries where not everyone has access to insurance, where economic crises are common, and where money is more subject to sudden inflation, it is still deemed preferable to invest in objects that can be sold at the going rate when needed, rather than hoard money that may well lose its value over time. It is interesting to note that the value of such jewellery is directly related to the weight of a piece’s silver content. Its design or sentimental ‘weight’ has no bearing at all on its value; it is simply a commodity. As such, a remarkably large part of the Middle East’s economy does not revolve around official banks, but rather dances around the wrists of its women.

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A modern set of plastic prayer beads from Iraq in the ancient shape of eye beads.

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‘Oh women, bedeck yourselves in silver…’: Jewellery and religion

Islam

Islam forbids depictions of the human figure. Islamic decorations are often very intricate designs of floral or geometrical patterns, a decoration also found in jewellery.

The Middle East and North Africa now largely consist of Muslim countries. Saudi-Arabia is home to Islam’s most important cities, Mecca and Medina, and the surrounding countries adopted Islam well over a millennium ago. As a result, the values and traditions associated with Islam have had a big influence on the traditional jewellery of the region. The Qur’an mentions jewellery only in passing, focussing on its function as a reward for the faithful when they arrive in Paradise. Q 18: 30 mentions bracelets of gold as does Q 35: 30. However, the Hadith (a collection of sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet Muhammad as well as to his closest companions and written down after his death), contains many passages related to jewellery. It is from the Hadith that we learn of the preference for silver over gold; this stems from the fact that the Prophet himself wore a silver signet ring. The function of this ring becomes clear in its context. Muhammad wished to send messages to the rulers of Iran, Abyssinia and the Roman Empire, but was told that these would only be accepted if they were sealed properly. So he had a ring made that bore the inscription: ‘Muhammad, Messenger of God’. Another indication of the preference for silver is revealed in one of the Hadith’s sayings quoting Muhammad: ‘The Prophet said: Oh women, bedeck yourselves in silver, but any women who adorns herself with gold and displays it openly shall be punished’. This statement was later revoked and replaced by another, in which Muhammad announced, ‘Gold and silk are permitted to the women of my congregation, and forbidden to the men’. The use of gold is also linked to punishment delivered on Judgment Day, when bracelets and earrings of gold are said to turn into ‘jewellery of fire’. Seen in this light, it is remarkable that gold is now becoming the preferred material for jewellery in most Muslim countries. Its use, however, is not new. In the 1830s the traveller E.W. Lane made a note on the use of gold in Egypt: ‘Women have various ornaments (rings, bracelets etc.) of that material’.

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It is said: A man came to the Prophet, and on his finger was a ring of iron. The Prophet said to him: ‘Why do you wear an ornament of the People of Hell?’ The man removed the iron ring immediately, and put on a ring of yellow copper. The Prophet said to him: ‘I smell the odour of idols upon you’. Then the man threw the copper ring away and asked the Prophet, ‘Tell me, Oh Messenger of God, of what metal shall I make my ring?’ The Prophet answered him: ‘Of silver, without any alloy’. (Taken from the Hadith.)

Judaism and Christianity Islam is the most recent religion to have impacted Middle Eastern jewellery, and its writings reveal some interesting insights into its development. However, the Bible and the Torah also shed light onto its significance in the region. It is interesting to note that where an abundant display of jewels is often disapproved of in western Christianity, the Bible does not explicitly forbid the wearing of jewellery and even uses it repeatedly as an analogy for the good deeds and love that God bestows on his people. One of the most revealing passages is found in Isaiah and concerns the women of Zion. It reads like an inventory of all the jewellery that was worn around 750 BC:

An Omani girl shows off her festive costume, which includes elaborate head- and hand-jewels. Later, translators of the Bible would find it difficult to translate the names of these Middle Eastern artifacts into words that their Western readers would understand.

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Moreover the Lord said, ‘Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with outstretched necks and flirting eyes, walking to trip as they go, jingling ornaments on their feet; therefore the Lord brings sores on the crown of the head of the women of Zion, and the Lord will make their scalps bald. In that day the Lord will take away the beauty of their anklets, the headbands, the crescent necklaces, the earrings, the bracelets, the veils, the headdresses, the ankle chains, the sashes, the perfume bottles, the charms, the signet rings, the nose rings, the fine robes, the capes, the cloaks, the purses, the hand mirrors, the fine linen garments, the tiaras, and the shawls. It shall happen that instead of sweet spices, there shall be rottenness; instead of a belt, a rope; instead of well-set hair, baldness; instead of a robe, a wearing of sackcloth; and branding instead of beauty.’[Isaiah 3:16-24].


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Modern Coptic Christian amulet. After the Roman period, large parts of the Middle East became Christian, and stayed so until the advent of Islam in the seventh century.

Traditional jewellery on display in the Jamahiriya Museum in Tripoli. The prophet Isaiah protested against the forerunner of such jewellery. Photo: CH van Zoest.

Silver containers from Yemen and Egypt, used for kohl and other eye make-up.

This example illustrates how difficult it can be to interpret texts written in another time and place, with different cultural norms and values. Older translations of the Bible clearly do not fully comprehend the nature of Middle Eastern attire and jewellery; as a result, the different translations of this passage vary considerably. Translating in a culture and a time that was completely alien from the those of the Bible, the translators struggled to find words for jewellery items that did not exist in their own culture. There are many other references to jewellery throughout the Bible and the Torah that reveal the integral part that jewellery played in society. David sings: ‘As an earring of gold, and an ornament of fine gold, so is a wise reprover upon an obedient ear,’ [Ps 25:12]. There is also another reference to jewellery in the book of Isaiah, this time more favourable: I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels, [Isaiah 61:10].

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Bracelets on a shelf in Tripoli, Libya. The various religions in the region used the same cultural and historical symbols that have been in use for millennia, such as the Star of Solomon, seen on one of bracelets. Its use by the Jews as their exclusive symbol is a relatively recent development. Photo: CH van Zoest.

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Jeremiah voices a complaint made by God in which jewellery is used to illustrate a point: ‘Can a maid forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire? Yet my people have forgotten me days without number,’ [Jer 2:32]. And in the Song of Songs, antiquity’s most famous love poem, the beauty of the bride is enhanced by jewellery: ‘Your cheeks are lovely with ornaments, your neck with strings of beads. We will make for you ornaments of gold with beads of silver,’ [Song 1:10-11].

Desert Silver  

This book, Desert Silver, explores the social, economic and religious background of this jewellery. The traditional silver jewellery of the...

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