• Sigrid van Roode

The Bahariya discs

The decoration on a piece of jewellery sometimes is puzzling. An example is the round disc worn by women in the Bahariya oasis in Egypt's Western Desert until the 1960’s. Because the origin of this jewellery item has long been subject of discussion, it is a very illustrative case to discuss in more detail.

Bahariya disc (the black in the dangles is not dirt, but a technical glitch)


This is such a pendant. Like all its siblings, it is made of blank metal instead of silver. They are quite rare: in the last 25 years, I have come across an original Bahariya ornament only once. [1] This probably is due to the fact that they were a ‘limited production’: they are known to have been made by two Coptic silversmiths, who lived in the oasis until one of them died. At that point, the other one decided to move out of the oasis and settled in Cairo. They were the only ones that created these discs: with their demise and relocation, no other discs were made. From that moment onwards, the people of the oasis had to buy their jewellery from elsewhere; the two Copts were the last silversmiths in Bahariya. But what do the engravings on these discs represent?


A search for meaning

These discs have been interpreted as derivates of Egyptian zār-amulets, or as Nubian imitation coins, and their possible relation to the Siwa adrim has been investigated as well, but none of these studies have been able to definitively conclude where the unique decoration on the amulets finds its source.It has been suggested that the two silversmiths may not have been as well versed in both technique and decoration, since they were Copts and had little rapport with Islam. [2] It is however not uncommon for silversmiths to be of another social group or faith than the group the smith is catering to. Most of the silversmiths in the Middle East were Jews up until 1948, and they made jewellery for Muslim, Jewish and Christian clients.


Coptic magic

Let’s have a closer look at the representation on this disc shown above. In the middle, a standing figure is visible, hands raised, flanked by two amorph blobs. The head of the figure is detailed with wide open eyes, a broad nose, and curious horizontal strikes through the head.

On top of the head, a few vertical lines are visible. Imagine my surprise when I saw a page of a Coptic magical book, featuring a very similar setup, notably in the detailing of the head! [3] The two 'blobs' appear to be creatures with the head of birds, while the arrow through the head and the headgear itself are also recognizable in their watered-down rendering on the pendant.




Papyrus RMO inv. F 1964/4.14, 11th century



Another form often found on the Bahariya discs is that of a square with a human neck and head, flanked by two vegetal motifs. This representation as well features in Coptic magical papyri, such as visible in this papyrus in Heidelberg shown below. [4] Might the iconography of the Bahariya amulets be based on Coptic charms?


Right: drawing of a Bahariya disc after Weissenberger 1998

Below: Pap. Heidelberg Kopt. 685




Coptic smiths, Coptic charms?

I feel that one fact has been overlooked in determining what the depiction on the Bahariya pendant could mean. It is the mere fact that the smiths were Copts that may prove to be the explanation for the iconography on the amulets: not because they were less skilled than Muslim smiths, nor because they had no interest in creating amulets for rituals outside their faith, but because they based their designs on the iconography that was well-known and used in their religion. With this possible origin however, we still don’t know what these pendants meant to their wearers, who were largely Muslim. As both silversmiths have passed away, they can no longer share their story. Did they use a magical papyrus as their sourcebook? Was there any other reason to decide for this type of decoration? In this particular case, it is too late to find out for sure. What this example does illustrate however is the importance of regarding jewellery in its wider sociocultural context instead of only as adornment.


This post is based on the chapter ‘The Evil Eye and Other Problems’ on magic and jewellery in my book Desert Silver.


References

[1] Weissenberger, M., 1998. Les bijoux des oasis égyptiennes, in: Bliss, F. 1998. Artisanat et artisanat d’art dans les oasis du desert occidental egyptien, Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, Köln p. 319, also mentions that these amulets have completely disappeared from the markets.

[2] Weissenberger 1998, p. 319

[3] Raven, M. 2012. Egyptian Magic. AUC Press, Cairo, p. 172

[4] Heidelberg Inv. Kopt. 685 (Meyer) Lage 5 Seite 12 and 9, digitally available on the website of the Papyrological Institute of Heidelberg university here


Materiality of Magic-series

In the Materiality of Magic-series, I will be sharing more on these capacities of jewellery and personal adornment. It is in these expressions that we learn about the people themselves: what they feared, hoped and wanted, what their life looked like. In this way, jewellery offers us a view from within, an intimate glimpse on the life of its wearer. To me, that is the true power of jewellery and personal adornment. Discover more about the many uses of amulets here!