Jewellery and Amulets

How to get started?

Jewellery and Amulets originally entered collections mostly for their visual qualities and sometimes because of the valuable materials used, like gold and gemstones. Jewellery and Amulets at first sight might seem two very different categories. Jewelry is defined by being visually attractive and worn as a decoration. An amulet can be anything, and extends beyond the scope of things that can be worn (some amulets for example are intended to protect a house and are placed in the house rather than worn). However, in practice the two categories became closely related. Even if an amulet were a piece of paper with a Quranic verse, in practice those that could afford it, might have a little silver case designed to carry the paper around with them as a necklace, etc. Amulets made of precious materials had a larger chance to survive history than those made of everyday materials, so we have to be careful in our evaluation of what an amulet is. So there are close ties between the categories, but we readily acknowledge that not all Jewellery serves as an amulet and certainly not all amulets are jewellery. In the past jewellery was typically treated under Islamic Art, and it still often is.

Amulets and Jewelry can be found in the (online) catalogs of Museum Collections. Because Jewellery is often valuable, universities are not typical collectors of Jewellery. We do find amulets on paper and papyrus ‘hidden’ in university (library) collections.

A good place to start learning about amulets and magic is : Savage-Smith, Emily.  Magic and Divination in Early Islam. Aldershot [etc.]: Ashgate Variorum, 2004.

A starting place for (old) jewellery could be: Hasson, Rachel (ed.). Early Islamic Jewellery. Jerusalem: L.A. Mayer Memorial Institute for Islamic Art, 1987. For jewellery more in general see: Brosh, Naʾama (ed.). Jewelry and Goldsmithing in the Islamic World. Papers presented at an international symposium held at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 1987. Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1991.

Databases and collections

Coptic Magical Papyri – A database with Coptic papyri mostly from the Late Antique world, but with some additions stemming from the Islamic period

The Metropolitan Museum – The Metropolitan Museum holds a fairly large collection of amulets

The British Museum – The British museum holds a large collection of Amulets and seals, that were diligently described by Venetia Porter in her book Arabic and Persian Seals and Amulets in the British Museum

Digital Library of the Middle East – This is a database that allows you to search simultaneously in a variety of museum databases with large Middle Eastern collections

The Birzeit Museum – The collection housed in the Birzeit museum is the one that was collected by Tawfiq Canaan. Unique about this collection is that it holds a lot of everyday objects that can only be identified as an amulet because of the diligent collecting work of Tawfik Canaan, who added descriptions to all the pieces and published about them extensively as well.

Textile Research Centre catalogue – In this collection a large variety of jewellery can be consulted and what makes this collection quite unique is that – because it is a research collection and not a museum collection- many pieces are not particularly valuable, but are ‘everyday items’. So in collection we do not just find valuable jewellery or amulets that are particularly old for example like in museum collections, here we also find bracelets with plastic beads and other items that can tell us about everyday life. Also for textile research the TRC is a good place to start.

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