For millennia, Egypt's traditional symbols have survived and adapted, serving to unite the country's population. But despite their importance, these symbols and their meanings are vanishing in the modern age.
It is an undeniable fact that since the dawn of time, human adornments were created to appease the gods, safeguard their wearers from natural disasters, avert illness, and provide protection from the envy of others. They were also believed to provide a means of impacting and modifying one’s environment, and, as such, were not only expressions of fear, but were empowering tools, judicially used by the enlightened, the shrewd and the ambitious.
Two important characteristics distinguish Egyptian jewellery: the first is the survival, across millennia, of symbols that can be traced back to prehistoric times, but which have been reinterpreted in ways that differ greatly from their ancestral prototypes. This is well illustrated by the strings of plastic ‘teeth’ – imitations that survived in peasant and oases jewellery up until the end of the 20th century; it is certain that, in this case, the original talismanic connotation, and its implied human supremacy over dangerous predators, was gradually lost due to changes in the environment; what endured was its association with auspicious omens, though this too was eventually forgotten, thus reducing symbols to decorative patterns. The second particular aspect is the level of syncretism revealed by Egyptian ornaments.
Egypt is a country at the crossroads of East and West, where, from antiquity onwards, religions were born, diverse ethnicities met, and civilizations succeeded each other, that symbols specific to each succeeding culture would linger and overlap for a while, before being replaced by another set of icons, illustrating change. What is surprising in Egypt is, on the one hand, the long-lasting perpetuation of symbols from earlier times, and on the other, the anachronistic fusion into one context of emblems expressing both old and new beliefs.
To the first group belongs the ‘breast’ representation on Nubian bracelets, and the repetition throughout the country of astral symbols, such as the crescent and star; the latter was used much later as a Judaic religious symbol, while the former came to be identified with Islam. The idrim, a large silver disc worn by Siwan women up to the end of the 20th century, can certainly be associated with the worship of the sun god Amun Re – quite an anachronism in the strictly Muslim society of Siwa. In this category, we can also place the perpetuation of artefacts once used as talismanic boxes, but devoid of openings for placing talismans within them!
To the second group belongs the eye of Horus, which, for both Muslims and Christians, had become the best antidote against envious malevolence; the weaving of coloured beads into Pharaonic period patterns to safeguard against all evil; the ‘ex votos’ that in Egypt were offered to Christian saints irrespective of the religion of the donors; the engraving of crosses on the silver adornments of Muslim women; and – to fend off djinns with pagan, Christian and Muslim names – the use of verses and expressions from holy books in magical ceremonials perpetuating heathen cults.
The contradiction between the perpetuation of past symbols and their anachronistic amalgamation reﬂects a duality deeply rooted in ancient Egyptian beliefs whereby the coexistence of opposite concepts was regarded as essential to cosmic harmony. Thus, the ideal state of order represented by the goddess Maat could only exist if balanced by chaos, and for the sake of equilibrium, Osiris and Seth had to be brothers and their eternal conﬂict between good and evil had to continue, even beyond death.
This dichotomy was further confirmed by Egypt’s geophysical conditions. On the one hand, a regular, predictable climate – so constant that up to this day, peasants throughout Egypt still plant according to the Pharaonic calendar – fashioned a conservative society attached to the perpetuation of traditions, summing-up and expressing the experiences and opinions of their forefathers. While on the other hand, these traditionalist tendencies were mitigated by the optimistic nature of a people born to a land of bounty, blessed by the Nile and grateful to the odds that had favoured them. Their gratitude, as well as their trust in their own capacity to control their gentle environment, was expressed by a kind disposition towards newcomers, and – without excluding their inherited archetypes – an interest in different power symbols and the advantages they might offer. This was translated, well before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by an obvious acceptance of ‘the other’; it meant not simply lip service and ‘tolerance’ (this terrible word implying the sullen, polite disapproval of something one can hardly cope with, so different from the Arabic samahah, a word denoting empathy and benevolence), but a willingness to accept fresh contributions to the existing social context and a de facto integration of the other’s symbols, values and beliefs. Thus, until the end of the 20th century, the young son of a Muslim sheikh, without any hesitation, would bow respectfully to kiss the hand of ‘our father’, abounah, the priest of the neighbouring church.
This double phenomena of perpetuating legacies and assimilating new norms helped to even out tensions and, as a result, welded indigenous population and recent settlers into one nation, united by common symbols. From the Mediterranean coast to villages along the Nile, from Western Desert oases to the mountains of the Sinai and the sandy shores of the Red Sea, across time and ethnic differences, this nation believed in the same acupuncture points, and used similar representations to protect its children, ensure fertility in their women, and good health and longevity for their loved ones. Century after century, this duality moulded the spirit of the Egyptian people, allowing for an unparalleled, extraordinary continuity: the negative confession of the Pharaohs became the Ten Commandments of Moses; Isis suckling Horus transfigured into the Virgin and Child; and the silver amulets of 20th-century Muslim peasants and oases dwellers perpetuated the styles worn by 18th-dynasty princesses, women of whom they had never heard.
Unfortunately, this multifaceted cultural legacy is unavoidably doomed to oblivion. Threatened by absolutism, it has been eroded from within by homegrown bigotry disguised behind western paradigms, and from the outside by a globalized world we fear, admire, and strive to emulate. Today, we aspire to belong to the new order and seek to be part of a uniformly calibrated world – a world of wealth-related symbols, brand-name accessories and designer jewellery, monitored by lawyers ready to drag to court anyone who attempts fusion and integration. A monolithic world that has no place for cross-cultural affinities, where belief in the supernatural has been replaced by the power of bank accounts, and where regretfully, talismans and the conviviality and empathy they created between people, the hope they conveyed to the needy, the courage and strength they imparted to visionaries, are looked upon as redundant relics of an underdeveloped past.
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Shahira Mehrez holds an MA degree in Islamic art and architecture from the American University in Cairo and has conducted post graduate research at Oxford University while teaching at the faculty of Tourism of Helwan University. Her concern for endangered traditional Egyptian heritage led her to change her career and for the past forty years she has been researching and collecting Egypt’s unparalleled but hitherto little-documented costumes and jewellery. She is currently working on publishing her collections.