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Any person who has once seen the Bedouin jewellery of this region cannot help but become interested in its origin and history. One such person, who lived in Oman for five years, is Oytun Camcigil. Although she is an architect, trained in her homeland of Turkey, she has not practiced this profession while her husband was stationed in various countries in the Middle East. Instead she studied and collected the Omani silver jewellery and then branched out into making fine pieces of jewellery herself from both modern and ancient beads and silver pieces. Recently she showed me her collection and I learned about their origin.

The Bedouin preferred silver to gold for their jewellery, because silver was thought to have protective powers. The head of a Bedouin Family put his wealth in silver on the wrists, ankles and neck of his wife. She felt appreciated by the jewellery bestowed on her, while he had his wealth under his eye and hand if he needed it.
Omani jewellery is generally made from the finest silver by the best silversmiths. Where in other Bedouin jewellery the small cases that usually hold some Quranic verses are closed boxes, these hirz from Oman can open on hinges and are decorated with chasing and engravings, rather than with filigree and granulation. One technique that was refined in central Oman consisted of covering a piece of silver with a thin sheet of gold and then engraving it, so that the silver showed through the gold. In another technique the background silver was blackened with soot and oil or sulphur in order to show off the designs.

The coastal region of Oman has had contacts with the far corners of the world since centuries due to the sea-trade that was conducted between Oman and many other places such as Zanzibar, Yemen, Persia, Iraq, Greece, Morocco, Egypt, and India.
Some designs used in the jewellery of Rustaq, Sur and Muscat show an influence from these countries. The hoop earrings with large cylindrical beads originate from ancient Assyria, while the spiked bracelets and anklets that are made in Muttrah and Muscat hail from Africa. Hollow hoop bracelets show Persian influence. Designs in the Dhofar have much in common with Yemeni designs.
In modern days, when the contact with faraway cultures has become so much easier, places as far away as Indonesia, China and East Africa influence designs.

On the contrary, the interior of Oman was extremely isolated from the rest of the world for very long. It is therefore not surprising that the designs used on pieces of jewellery from Nizwa and Bahla are more primitive and unique than those on silver items from the coastal regions. What is surprising, however, is that these unique Omani designs are found also in Cyprus and early Roman Etruscia. They were brought there by the soldiers of the armies of Alexander the Great and his general Nearchos, who visited the region during their conquest of the Middle and Far East.

Some of the designs that are used are known throughout the Arab world and are meaningful to the owners.
A circular design indicates unity and eternity and is often used in jewellery from Sur, while a spiral denotes progress. A triangle signifies the spirit. The ubiquitous fish design is a symbol of fertility and reproduction, while various hand-shapes promise protection. The hand of Fatima, the daughter of the prophet Mohammed, (the hijab) occurs very often, sometimes with the extra decoration of a snake or an eye. Sometimes these hands have five fingers signifying the five pillars of Islam. Others are more stylised and have either 2 or 8 fingers, or have been reduced to small ovals or even diamond shaped trinkets.

Nizwa in the interior of Oman has long been famous for the work of its silver smiths. Both jewellery and the silver decorations for the scabbard of the famous curved khanjar dagger were made here. The latter is mostly decorated with geometrical and floral patterns, and ideally has 7 rings, of which 2 are meant as belt holders. The belt itself is also an intricate piece of work, made with silver thread. Nizwa is famous for its geometrical designs and for the heavy anklets (hajil) that are made here and in Rustaq.
Items from these areas rarely use set stones as decoration. This is done more often in places along the Batinah coast, and in Muscat and Muttrah. As stones both real and fake coral are used, also cornelian, turquoise and lapis lazuli as well as glass, and sometimes plastic or even bicycle light reflectors! Some jewellery uses seedpods, pieces of wood and bones, and other natural products as decorations. These pieces are generally considered to be more primitive.

Other towns also produced distinctive articles. Each had their different designs and patterns.
Rustaq is well known for its floral designs, while Muscat uses projecting knobs on its jewellery. In Sur a crescent shaped neckband is made, that bears close resemblance to necklaces worn by women of the hill tribes in Thailand and Hainan. The Arabs used to trade intensively with Hainan in the past, and one can only speculate which culture influenced the other. The crescent moon design is thought to have originated in the times when the Ottomans ruled the Middle East (1871-1913)
The Dhofar produced the "manjar", two sets of silver chains worn crosswise over both shoulders and hanging down to the hips. This design was similar to decorative chains worn by tribal women in Jordan. Its origin is likely to be very ancient, as similar designs were encountered in Byzantine and Greek archeology. Married women in the Dhofar wear caps (harm) decorated with coins and 10 cylindrical beads stitched on them. Unmarried girls can only have 6 of these beads. Dhofari anklets are wide bands of chain work decorated with bells.
Some of the jewellery combined both aesthetic beauty and practical use. Quite common were small containers for "kohl" the black pigment that was applied around the eyes to treat or prevent infections and to deflect the glare of the sun. These were often linked to small tweezers, which could be used to extract thorns from the skin.
In the Wahiba Sands tribal women had some very original pieces of jewellery. One was a necklace with a large silver disc, engraved on one side with a Quranic verse, and on the other side with a stylized figure of a djinn to ward of the evil eye. Another interesting piece was a finely woven leather helmet, shaped to the head of individual women, and adorned with silver coins. Also from the Wahiba sands hails the 'sumpf' or 'altah', a necklace of eight Maria Theresa thalers, separated by silver beads. The thalers were blackened with palm juice.
Ornaments with bells usually originate from the south (Najran) as do meshed collars (kirdan), which were inspired by the chain mail worn by the Crusaders.

Nowadays, few of the pieces that could be found in the suqs and antique shops of Oman are the genuine article. Much of the real antiques have already been scooped up by collectors. One such collection is held by the Tarek Rajab Museum in Kuwait.
But even the newly-made Omani silver pieces are wonderful. The Maria Theresa thalers that so often are used as decoration are freshly minted, with old dates, in the silver smithies in the interior of Oman. The silver used nowadays comes mainly from China.

Whether old or new, Omani silver jewellery is to be admired for the intricacy of the silver work and the originality of the designs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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