In 1985 a handsome necklace from the Oasis of Siwah in the Western Desert of Egypt was donated to The University Museum by Dora K. Plant in memory of her sister Eva K. Rosengarten, a longtime member of the Museum’s Women’s Committee.
In addition to its striking beauty, the necklace (Fig. 3) is important as a rare ethnographic document from an isolated and almost forgotten town. Nevertheless, an informed reader might wonder why this particular object has been chosen to represent the over 10,000 artifacts in the African collection of The University Museum. It is primarily a matter of balance. A study of the Siwan necklace provides a chance to demonstrate the cultural diversity and complexity that exists within the continent of Africa. Publication of this artifact from Northern Africa will complement the exhibit of West and Central African sculpture from our collection recently displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and now traveling within the United States (Wardwell 1986). Moreover, by adopting the perspective of material culture studies (as exemplified within the disciplines of folklore and anthropology) rather than the perspective of art history or aesthetics, it is also possible to demonstrate how a small artifact can be associated with complex cultural patterns. It is no longer controversial to view artifacts as embodiments of the cultural values and norms of their creators and users, as well as utilitarian items and historical documents. Artifacts thus become an intimate part of the symbol system of a culture, and their study reveals the meanings attached to them.
The oasis known today as Siwah was in ancient times an Egyptian cult center, and a cluster of monuments (including the Oracle Temple of Ammon) is still visible (Fakhry 1973; Belgrave 1923). It was known to the Romans as the Oasis of Ammonium, and to the early Arab geographers as Santariah. Though al Maqrizi, writing in the middle of the 15th century, refers to it by the latter name, he calls the people “Siwan” and their language “Siwi” (1895:696). The people living there today refer to themselves as the “people of Isiwan” (Itadim n Isiwan), as distinct from the lsargheinin, the Bedouin Arabs with whom they trade.
Siwah lies about 300 kilometers south of the Mediterranean coast and ca. 560 kilometers west of the valley of the Nile (Fig. 2). It forms a flat depression in the desert, slightly below sea level, about 75 kilometers long from east to west and in places as much as 25 kilometers broad. It is watered by several salty lakes with marshy borders, and a multitude of spring-fed pools. The nearest inhabited oases are Jaghabub, 140 kilometers to the northwest, and El Garah, 120 kilometers northeast. In the past, Siwah was to some extent isolated by the desert, but was regularly visited by camel caravans. Modern motor vehicles have made the region more accessible.
The economy of the Siwah Oasis depends on the cultivation of scattered areas within the depression. The people export some garden produce, mostly dates and olive oil. In the past, this led to significant profits from the caravans which came to trade or used this oasis as a station in the long journey between Egypt or the Sudan and North Africa. At the end of the 19th century, the number of these caravans was estimated as 245 annually, each caravan having 35 camels on an average (Fakhry 1950). Nowadays many changes have taken place. With motorized transportation, Siwah is less isolated and is much more integrated into the Egyptian national economy. As a result, many aspects of traditional culture have changed. This article is written in the “ethnographic present”—that is, it describes Siwan traditional culture as recorded by “modern” observers, but before significant modernization had occurred.
The population of the oasis in the early 1970s was estimated at 8000- 7000 people. Because of the caravan trade, it has been a meeting place for people of different cultures. At present Siwah is inhabited by a mixture of Berbers, Bedouin, and Sudanese. Most of the Sudanese (an ethnic designation used here in its original Arabic meaning, i.e., blacks or the darkest in skin among them) were brought as slaves from countries to the south of the desert. Among themselves, most Siwan speak a Berber language almost identical with that of Aujilah and similar to the dialect of Sokhnah and El Fokhah in Libya (Walker 1921). Arabic is increasingly important, with most men speaking it as a second or even first language.
Most inhabitants of Siwah are Muslim. Traditionally the people have been divided into two antagonistic factions that are localized in the eastern and western parts of the territory. Though very similar in language and customs, the groups had been intermittently in a state of civil war until the 1920s. As to the origin of this conflict, Siwan oral tradition gives varied accounts. Differences in religious affiliation accentuated the conflict. The westerners subscribe to the Sanusi religious order, while the easterners include both Sanusi and members of the Madaniyyah order (see box). Despite their differences, whenever these factions are at peace, marriages often take place between them (Cline 1936:12).
The Museum’s Necklace
The Siwan necklace (Fig. 3) is a metal torque with a disc-shaped metal pendant. It is made of an alloy of silver and copper that takes on a silvery luster when polished. The torque weighs 364 grams, while the disc weighs an additional 119 grams. This is relatively light, since necklaces of this type are reported to weigh up to 2 kilograms (Bliss and Weissenberger 1984). The disc is 13.3 centimeters in diameter, and can be slipped on and off its torque. It was made from a metal sheet that was first cut to size, and then given a backing with a plastic substance such as tar or resin. Next the surface was worked with engravers’ tools, principally a fine chisel and punch. When completed, the engraved plate was cleaned with an organic solvent (usually an acid).
The Museum’s disc has a hollow protrusion or boss in the center, surrounded by simple geometric elements. Faint guide lines used by the metalworker to block out the design can still be seen. The design is made up primarily of alternating plain and decorated zones filled with geometric motifs, with isolated floral elements. Concentric bands of dots and hatching or cross-hatching form a border around the outer edge and the central boss. Extending from the boss is a cross whose arms are also filled with bands of hatching and cross-hatching. The zones between the arms of the cross are bordered by hatched semicircles and filled by an eight-pointed star or rosette. These decorative motifs are commonly found in North Africa, particularly on Berber jewelry. Some are typical of Islamic designs found elsewhere. The Siwan name for the torque is aghraw, while the disc is called adrim (or in Arabic, shebeka). This type of ornament is apparently unique to Siwah, and as far as I know has not been reported among other North African groups. The necklace shown in Figure 4 is similar to the one in The University Museum’s collection, and this type was traditionally the most common. Newer adrims have a central boss, but instead of a cross the rest of the central zone is covered by an eight-pointed star.
This type of necklace is an essential part of Siwan women’s costume. Depending on how it is worn, with or without the disc, the necklace connotes to the public whether the woman is virgin or not. Unmarried girls wear both disc and torque (Fig. 5). On the eve of her marriage, a girl takes off the disc (Fig. 6) and gives it to her family to be used by her sister or any other relative.
Female Costume in Siwah
The adrim and aghraw form but one element of the elaborate traditional costume of Siwan women. Both women and girls wear a great number of glass, coral, and shell beads, as well as silver earrings and rings (Figs. 5-7).
With the exception of the adrim, the silver ornaments are of a type worn by the Bedouin of Tripoli. Every rich woman or girl possesses a quantity of these silver ornaments, sometimes amounting to nearly 18 kilograms in weight. (The aghraw alone may weigh up to 1.2 kilos!) They adorn their heads, ears, necks, arms, and legs, and when they walk these objects jingle. A Siwan male admires the female who wears many ornaments and praises her highly. One observer states that if we compare such a woman “with the mare of a prince . . . we find that it is not wrong” (Fakhry 1950:11).
Until recently, most Siwan jewelry was produced in Siwah by well- known silversmiths. Nowadays many pieces of jewelry used in Siwah are produced in Alexandria and Cairo. Nevertheless, Siwan jewelry is still regarded as homogeneous and distinctive among other types of Egyptian ornaments. Older pieces show greater richness of form and better execution and finishing, and also have a higher percentage of silver. New pieces are made of base metal.
The traditional clothing worn by Siwan women is brightly colored. Their underwear, as described by Cline (1936:32-33), consists of a pair of white cotton drawers reaching down to a little above the ankles, where the narrow cuffs are decorated with embroidery in colored rectangular designs. Over these drawers they wear a dress of vertically striped cotton, usually black and dark blue. “The sleeves of this dress are so broad that when the wearer extends her arms, one sometimes catches a glimpse of her tawny waist” (Cline 1936:32). The neckpiece of the dress also bears colorful embroidered designs. Women’s shoes are made of fine red leather, pointed at the toe, and having a lozenge-shaped tongue shielding the instep.
An unmarried girl can walk in the streets and play with her mates until she reaches a certain age. As a rule, unmarried girls do not put anything over their heads, though some girls from rich families put on colored woolen shawls imported from the Nile Valley. Once she is of marriageable age, like any good Muslim the Siwan woman covers her hair. A colored handkerchief is sometimes worn on the head, but the most important outer garment is a square of blue-gray striped cotton with a wide blue border that covers the head and is wrapped around the body down to the ankles (Fig. 6a). This square is used like the traditional veil, for when the wearer approaches strange men, she pulls it closely over her face as a sign of being a respectable woman. The cloth was especially woven for Siwan women in the village of Kerdasa in Giza province, Egypt.
Parents normally let the hair of a girl grow till she reaches the age of nine or ten, and then it is tressed or braided. When the hair is tressed in a certain way it means that those who think of asking her hand can talk to the parents (Fakhry 1950:12). For married women, the prevailing traditional hairdo consists of:
a row of bangs hanging nearly to the eyebrows, a braided club of hair on each side, and braids crossed behind and over the top of the head in various ways. Sometimes in place of the bangs, braids cross over the forehead. In the back of the coiffure are frequently set a pair of silver discs. Heavy rings of lead or silver or large cylinders of amber, hanging from the sides of the head, give the effect of ear-pendants when the head is covered. (Cline 1936:32)
Costume as Symbol
From the description of the Siwan woman’s dress we can easily infer that it represents a complex symbolic system. Such a system has developed out of the prevailing social, moral, and religious values and beliefs of Siwan society. It is a relatively conservative society, in which chastity is cherished and virginity is highly valued. In such a society, where women are separated from men, a code of dress and ornamentation plays a significant role in communication between the two sexes. Elements of costume make it easy to distinguish the virgin from the non-virgin, and the married from the unmarried woman. Hairstyle, pieces of clothing, and a mode of behavior in the street all help to distinguish a girl or woman who has never married from one who is divorced.
It is important to note that in a society like Siwan where premarital sex is discouraged, the status of being a “never-married” woman necessarily means being a virgin. The adrim or virginity disc is vital in marking this distinction. Wearing the disc on the torque means that the girl is qualified for marriage and encourages eligible men to go and ask for “her hands” from the parents. What makes the adrim even more interesting is the symbolic value attached to it, in marking the passage to womanhood. This transition to womanhood and married life is marked by a special ritual, performed at the edge of the spring of Tamusa, which forms an important part of the wedding ceremony.
Marriage in Siwah
Marriage among the Siwan is not restricted by kinship or by religions and social factions. Like neighboring groups, they encourage marriage to a first cousin, especially one related through the father. Traditionally, marriage is arranged by parents who consult a fiqih —a religious and magical specialist—who informs them whether the names of the couple form a lucky or unlucky combination. This consultation presumably takes place after a young man has indicated his choice of a bride. This process is described by Abdallah:
. . if a man wants to marry a girl, he sends his nearest woman relative with a dollar or a suit of clothing to the house of the girt. This announces the fact to the girl’s mother, who, after obtaining the opinion of her husband, accepts the gift if she finds the suitor a desirable person. On the other hand, they refuse the gift if he is ineligible. (1917:8)
From the time this gift is accepted, the man is considered to be the girl’s future husband. Nothing further happens at this time except that they agree upon the dowry, a sum of money. In accordance with Muslim Iaw in Egypt, the dowry is not paid in full when the marriage contract is made. A portion of it (a third) is held in reserve, and must be paid to the wife if she is divorced without her consent, or upon the death of her husband.
The description of the wedding ceremony that follows has been summarized from several sources (Abdallah 1917; Cline 1936; Fakhry 1950; Maugham 1950; St. John 1849; Stanley 1911, 1912). It applies only to the girl’s first marriage. Marriage with a divorced woman or a widow is performed by the simple form of contract prescribed by Muslim law, preceded by a gift of money, presents of clothing and ornaments, and a little feast.
Three days before the wedding, female friends gather at the house of the bride to prepare food for the feast. The celebrations open with a large meal at the house of the bridegroom’s father, beginning in early morning. At this time, relatives and friends usually contribute some money to the general expenses. The bridegroom himself ordinarily does not appear. During the three days of the ceremony, he would feel deeply “ashamed” to see or speak to his father, father-in-law, or uncle.
Meanwhile, on the eve of the wedding day, in the late afternoon, a small group of girls and women take the bride, dressed in her richest clothes, to the large and beautiful spring Tid Tamusa (Arabic Ayn Tamusa) for her wedding bath. Tid Tamusa, along with a second spring called Bir Ahmed, is highly regarded at Siwah. Their waters are not employed for household uses, but only for rituals. For example, women sprinkle themselves with water from these sources to improve their looks or to obtain husbands.
The ceremony at the spring has been described by Belgrave:
As the young bride and her attendants walk through the palm groves they chant a curious tune, a plaintive melody that sounds more like a dirge than a wedding song: “As from infinitely distant land / Come airs, and floating echos, that convey / A melancholy into all our day.”
The scene at the spring is very picturesque; the girls and women stand grouped round the water, their dark robes and silver ornaments reflected in its blue depths. Very solemnly the bride removes the large, round, silver disc that hangs on a solid silver ring from her neck. . .; she then bathes, puts on different clothes and has her hair plaited and scented by one of her friends.
The procession then returns homewards. On the way they are met by another party of women, the relations of the bridegroom, who bring presents of money for the bride, each according to her means. An old women collects the coins in a silk scarf, carefully noting the amount given by each individual, and the two parties return together, singing, through the palm-bordered paths to the town. (1923:215-216)
In other accounts, the bride and her friends stop at the tomb of Sidi Suliman, Siwah’s patron saint, and recite the opening surah of the Quran:
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,
The Beneficent, the Merciful. Owner of the Day of Judgment, Thee (alone) we worship; Thee (alone) we ask for help.
Show us the straight path,
The path of those whom Thou has favoured; Not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.
This surah is customarily recited at important events in the lives of Muslims, for example when making a contract.
Late in the same evening the female relatives of the bridegroom go to the house of the bride. The way is led by small boys who carry candles in their hands. Candles or other lights are often part of North African marriages, probably having purificatory significance (Westermarck 1914:187-292). When the crowd reaches the house of the bride, the boys with the candles make a circle around the bride, who sits in the center of the room with one woman to comb her hair and dress it with scented oil. Meanwhile, the other women sing to the bride.
The bride is then given a supper consisting wholly of eggs, after which she is allowed to sleep. Eggs figure prominently in North African weddings, probably as fertility charms (Westermarck 1914:144). The stated reason for eating nothing but eggs, however, is that the bride should have no gas in her intestines when the bridegroom visits her. During the same evening the festivities for the groom continue, and a supper is given to friends and relatives in the house of his family.
The next morning the female relatives of the bridegroom come again to the house of the bride. They wish to carry the bride away at once. Her family tries to keep her for awhile. A quarrel then arises between the female relatives of the bride and those of the bridegroom, and the two groups curse and beat each other. The origin of such sham fights is definitely obscure, but they could be a ceremonial expression of the bride’s reluctance to leave her family, or derived from the antagonism of different social groups. Eventually, one of the male relatives of the bride intervenes, and an assigned woman—in some cases a slave girl or an ex-slave woman—usually lifts the bride to her shoulders and hurries down the street towards the bridegroom’s house, preceded by boys carrying lanterns to show her the way. She is followed by the bridegroom’s people, who cheer and brandish their sticks, and by some of the bride’s family who beg her not to take away their girl so fast. The final destination is the bridegroom’s house; there the bride is carried to her room by the same woman, who will not leave until the husband comes and puts his right toe on her right toe. The woman then says to him: “I will sell you this girl; how much will you give for her?” He replies, “I will pay you gold equal to her weight.” The woman then expresses satisfaction and leaves them alone (no sum having actually been paid). Although the wedding rituals and festivities last for days to come, taking the wife to the husband’s house marks the transition to married status and the beginning of a new life.
In conclusion, adrim discs, like other ornaments, could function as embellishments of the wearers, protection against bad fortune, or as a form of investment. For a Siwan woman, however, the adrim plays a more important role in the transition from unmarried to married life, or the transition from a virgin to a fully grown responsible woman. It marks symbolically the most important event in her life: the passage to womanhood.
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