A collection of nineteenth-century protective amulets for the possessed is brought to light.
Until recently, a specific type of jewellery – unattractive to the average tourist and uninteresting to the majority of Egyptians – could still be bought in the silver shops of Khan al-Khalili: zar-amulets. These had been sold to shopkeepers for their weight in silver by owners who apparently wished to abandon them. What is the story behind these naïve and rather inconspicuous objects?
Those who have read the novel Aisha by Ahdaf Soueif may remember the final chapter in which Aisha finds herself in a tent, somewhere between the Moqattam and Misr al-Qadima, where a zar ceremony takes place. Such rituals, in which women dance themselves into a trance, can take place as part of a mulid, as in the book, but are more commonly held in private homes. Nowadays, however, these rituals have become increasingly rare, since many consider them to be un-Islamic. Consequently, the silver jewellery, traditionally worn during these gatherings, has been finding its way to the dealers of Khan al-Khalili, or has been melted down.
But what is a zar exactly? It is a ritual enacted to pacify a spirit or spirits living within a person, usually a woman. It is not an exorcism, in which an evil spirit is forced to leave the possessed; and the spirits involved are not necessarily evil. If a woman has physical or mental problems caused by a supernatural entity within her, she can be called melammesa (touched) or ma’zura (excused – because her demon is responsible for her abnormal behaviour, not her). The demon or spirit within can be a jinn – beings that are part of the reality created by God, which can be good or evil, Muslim or Christian, male or female – or an afrit (evil spirit). Whichever type, they are all called assyad (masters), and it is the task of the sheikha or kudya – the woman who leads the ritual – to either pacify or drive out the spirit; in doing so, she restores the balance within the possessed and begins to rebuild her relationship with her social environment.
This happens in the course of a session led by a group of women and (male or female) musicians, who, by singing and dancing, bring the possessed into a trance. During the jinn pacification ritual, a chicken or other animal must also be sacrificed to the spirit. It is the task of the kudya to identify the demon and to find out what it wants from the participants in order to be appeased. In cases when the jinn is a nasrani or Christian, this might even involve the participants drinking whisky. A spirit can even be Jewish! The spirits have names and identities, and in order to control them, they are depicted on small circular amulets bearing their image on one side and a verse from the Qur’an on the reverse. These amulets are usually adorned with little bells, just like the other jewellery worn (bracelets, necklaces), which, by jingling, complement the sound of the rhythmical music and dance.
None of this sounds traditionally Islamic, and in fact it is not. The zar was brought from Abyssinia in the 1870s, and was at first popular among middle class and upper middle class women. Gradually, it spread to the lower classes and remained popular there until quite recently. It is of course remarkable that this phenomenon is, to a large extent, dominated and organised by women; only the musicians can be male. An explanation, provided by anthropologists and sociologists, is that the zar functions as a therapy for the psychosomatic and psycho-pathological complaints that result from the stress experienced by Egyptian women in their daily lives.
AL-SA’IEDEYYA (THE WOMAN FROM UPPER EGYPT)
Identified by the ballas (water jug) on her head, the traditional Upper Egyptian scarf, and the talle dress (an Assiut dress, adorned with silver threads – or wicker if the woman is poor – in a pyramid-shaped pattern). Although the woman here is flanked by a fish on the left and another anthropomorphic figure on the right, which could identify them as Bahrawiya and Sultan al-Bahr (Masters of the Sea), the water jug most probably indicates that she is the Sa’iedeyya. To appease the Sa’iedeyya, the possessed woman must wear a similar Assiut dress and complete the same outfit as her mistress, balancing the water jug on her head as she bobs it to the beat of the zar music ritual.
ABU DAMFA (THE MALE SA’IDI / UPPER EGYPTIAN)
Identified by his Egyptian gallabeyya, his labda (hard scull cap), his triangular-shaped, wide sleeves, and by the naboot (wooden stick) he holds up. To appease the Sa’idi, at her zar session, the possessed woman must wear his outfit – a traditional Egyptian Sa’idi gallabeyya, that must be dark in colour (usually brown) – and dance with a naboot in what is typically a male dance.
SIT SAFINA (THE MERMAID)
Here, depicted with her brother Sultan al-Bahr, Sitt Safina (safina meaning ‘ship’) is always identified by the fish. To appease her, the possessed woman must bring a tub filled with water and some swimming fish. Occasionally, a goose is placed in the tub to swim around as well. At her zar session, the woman’s head is immersed in the tub with the fish and goose. This keeps Sitt Safina happy.
The original Sitt and Sayyed, standing beside a tree or large lotus flower. To appease them, the woman must wear a belt and diadem with pellet bells, as well as hold a stick with ornaments that jingle as she dances in her zar session.
The playboy aristocrat, Yawra is identified by his fancy tarboush (fez), sash, and regalia. Yawra bey is said to only possess good looking women and even ‘satisfies’ them sexually in their sleep. He likes to drink, party, and lives a life of complete and utter debauchery. At her zar, in order to appease Yawra, the possessed must offer a feast of good food and (though the more religious bring soft drinks), she must be sure to bring along some beer and whiskey. That’s how Yawra likes to party, and he must be kept happy. Beer is typically spilled on the head of the possessed. With everybody eating and drinking, this zar session becomes a kind of party.
The playful little girl, Rakkousha is the wide-eyed child frolicking in the garden. She is also the daughter of Yawra, as we learn through her song. To please Rakkousha, the possessed must dress entirely in pink, tie ribbons in her hair, and eat chocolates and candy at her zar session. She should also wear little rings and childish jewellery to please the coquettish Rakkousha.
Identified by his formal uniform and tarboush. To appease the Officer, the possessed must attend her zar session dressed in his uniform, especially the tarboush. As she assumes his personality and wears his clothes, the officer becomes pleased and is quelled. One of the officers here appears with a sitt who is yet to be identified.
KHEDIVE (ABBAS HILMI?)
The only amulet in the collection bearing a depiction of an actual person, represented as a “Sayyid”. What is even more curious is that the amulet was probably made during the Khedive’s lifetime (1874–1944). One possible explanation for this is the immense popularity of Abbas Hilmi, who was exiled by colonial powers for resisting them and supporting local patriotic figures. The Khedive acquired a messianic status, resulting in the creation of a popular chant that was repeated in Egyptian streets and is still remembered by many to this day, ‘Allah hayy, Abbas gayy!’ meaning Allah is alive, Abbas will return.
SAYED AND SITT VARIATIONS
Many depictions of Sayyed and Sitt as a couple are difficult to identify. One here looks like an officer, the woman with him seems to be in some sort of uniform as well but it is unclear what character she represents, while the others look like Egyptians dressed in traditional urban garb.
THE REVERSE SIDE
As these are protective amulets, they must contain the name of God and words from the Qur’an. Indeed, all of the amulets are inscribed with the ‘verse of the Throne’, which is considered the holiest and most blessed verse in the Qur’an. To this day, words from this verse are etched in pendants and given as gifts to children for protection. Reciting, or in this case, wearing, the verse of the Throne is believed to ward off any evil from the person.
THE STAR OF SOLOMON
The Hebraic king occupies an important position in Islamic tradition as a powerful magician. The so-called seal of Solomon, the 6-pointed star that he wore on his signet-ring, can therefore be used on all kinds of apotropaic amulets, such as this one. The name of Allah, etched within the star, ensures that only good magic can be performed with
The possessed not only wore protective amulets, but bracelets, diadems, and khul-khaals (ankle bracelets) too. Here we see a khul-khaal and a small silver diadem, probably made for a girl. The decoration consists of bells and a small fish on the front. The hooks fix the diadem to the hair.
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Karel Innemée studied art history, archaeology and Egyptology at Leiden University (The Netherlands) and wrote his PhD thesis on the history of ecclesiastical dress in the Near East. He is a researcher at the Faculty of Archaeology of Leiden University and is the field-director of three research projects in Wadi al-Natrun: the excavation of the monastery of Deir al-Baramus, the survey of the Abu Maqar area, and the research and conservation of the mural paintings and doors of the church of Deir al-Surian.
Yasmine El Dorghamy holds an MA in international education policy from Stockholm University and manages an educational foundation in addition to teaching visual culture at the American University in Cairo. She also publishes RAWI - Egypt’s Heritage Review, a bilingual (Eng/Ar) publication dedicated to Egyptian history and heritage.