Created using delicate production techniques, the intricate beauty of Fatimid jewellery has long influenced jewellery production in Egypt, right through to the present day.
The Fatimid Caliphate survived for 262 years, living in extravagance for much of this time; renowned as connoisseurs of jewellery, their treasures were famous throughout the orient and their palaces were loaded with precious objects, gemstones and masterpieces. They were revered not only for their aesthetic value, but also as royal possessions. The Fatimids were also involved in jewellery production and goldsmithing, while the rulers of foreign states even gave them gifts of jewellery, enriching their collections. At first, Fatimid jewellery art reﬂected styles common in neighbouring cultures, such as the Sasanian and the Byzantine. Because they were not thoroughly versed in the decorative traditions of either culture, they created a synthesis of techniques, which ultimately led to a unique and distinctive style. With all this history, one begins to wonder how the Fatimid treasures were identified in modern times. What makes Fatimid jewellery specifically Fatimid? Was there any popular iconography? What about the applied techniques of jewellery production during this period? And, last but not least, was Fatimid jewellery of such high quality as to inﬂuence jewellery production in other periods of history?
FEATURES OF FATIMID JEWELLERY
Over the years, Fatimid jewellery has come to light through many archaeological excavations, in particular at Tarabia in Tunisia, Tiberias, Ashkelon, Caesarea and Fustat. It has also been uncovered in Spain, Samsat near Urfa in eastern Turkey, Hama in Syria, Aleppo and Raqqa. Despite the fact that old jewellery is often melted down to produce new pieces more in sync with the taste of the time, or in order to recycle it for its currency value, the beauty of Fatimid jewellery has enabled it to survive to the present day. Due to the survival of many intact pieces, it is relatively easy to identify or distinguish a Fatimid piece of jewellery from pieces of other periods. There are many distinctive elements to Fatimid jewellery, including: box-like constructions (double-faced pieces); openwork surfaces (filigree work); strip supports from the back; gold loops around a piece’s periphery; S-curve decoration; twisted wire ornamentation; crescent jewellery shapes; hemispheres crowned by a granule fused to a circle of twisted wires; and the use of arabesque motifs. Other elements, found in almost all pieces of Fatimid jewellery also include: the symmetrical composition or arrangement of decorative elements; a levelling effect or textured surface, rendered through the use of filigree (thin, twisted wires ) and granulation (small gold granules or balls); and the use of figure-eight motifs.
POPULAR FATIMID ICONOGRAPHY
The Fatimid vocabulary of iconographical motifs in jewellery is rather wide, highly detailed, and usually of small scale. Some decorative elements were derived from preceding periods, such as the Abbasid and the Tulunid, evidenced by the use of palmettes and half-palmettes. Other common themes are ﬂoral motifs, rosettes, stylized scrolls, foliate patterns and heart-shaped palmettes, which are considered trademarks of Fatimid art. In the middle of the 11th century, figurative elements appeared on both Fatimid jewellery and in art in general; human figures, however, were rarely represented. Zoomorphic motifs, geometric patterns and epigraphy are also found.
FATIMID JEWELLERY TECHNIQUES
The two most commonly found techniques for adorning jewellery under the Fatimids were filigree and granulation. With filigree, the piece’s surface was decorated with small, thin, twisted wires, soldered together to form an openwork. This technique is called mushabbak (latticework), and is considered the primary method for decorating a piece; it is usually accompanied by a secondary decorative technique, such as granulation, cloisonné and niello. The second most popular technique is granulation, where the surface of a piece is decorated with small gold spheres, whether granules, balls or grains, applied on a gold sheet. The Fatimid use of filigree and granulation techniques produced masterpieces of artwork. The magnificence of this art required the coexistence of two crucial features: first, unparalleled skill in applying the decorative art of filigree and granulation, and secondly, a high sense of artistic style, in which the intricacy of the detailed ornamentation was never sacrificed to the beauty of the overall design and vice versa – the detailed ornamentation was never an end in itself. Both the overall composition and the intensely patterned surface were always on an equal footing.
ECHOES FROM THE PAST
The intricate beauty of Fatimid jewellery marks a turning point in the history of Islamic jewellery as a whole. Indeed, afterwards, during the Mameluke Period and under Spain’s Nasrid Dynasty, many jewellery pieces echoed Fatimid inﬂuences, with both cultures adopting Fatimid methods of jewellery-making (double-faced pieces), techniques (filigree and granulation) and some decorative elements, such as loops. In much the same manner, though less subtle in design, Fatimid jewellery inﬂuenced 19th- and 20th-century Egyptian jewellery, as well as North African jewellery in general.
Though the general trend during the 19th century turned towards Western tastes in Egypt, some glimpses of the Fatimid style can still be seen amongst the jewellery worn by Egyptian women of the middle and lower classes. This new trend started as early as the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517, which marked the beginning of the decline in quality of many local handicrafts, including that of the goldsmith. At the same time, skilled jewellers abandoned their craft to move into more profitable jobs, thus contributing to the decline of traditional jewellery-making in Egypt. Fortunately for the survival of traditional jewellery production, during this period, some artisans and craftsmen continued to use traditional techniques and tools. By taking old jewellery designs out of their original contexts and wrapping them in new fashions, they ensured that they would appeal to the lower and middle classes. Most of this jewellery is now displayed in the Ethnography Museum in Cairo.
The kirdan necklace, produced in the 19th and 20th centuries and traditionally worn by Egyptian women, is a modern example of Egyptian jewellery inspired by Fatimid prototypes. Though the general shape of the necklace is completely unlike the Fatimid style, many of the elements echo Fatimid features. The shiftishi work (open filigree work without a background) of the large crescent, for example, is formed by interlacing designs made of S-curves adorned with granulation, all of which are characteristics of Fatimid jewellery.
Fatimid filigree work is certainly more subtle and more elaborate than that of the 19th- and 20th-century pieces; however, the latter are still considered fine adaptations. The so-called shiftishi work is the new adaptation of the Fatimid filigree technique, and as such, promulgates a traditional style that has existed for centuries. These adaptations may not replicate the past, but they are certainly an ‘echo’ of it in the present.
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Dina Tolba holds an MA in Islamic art and architecture and a BA in journalism and mass communication both from the American University in Cairo. She has worked as a marketing and PR specialist for the Department of Performing and Visual Arts at AUC, and currently works as a Radio Presenter at the European Service of Radio Cairo. She will be soon publishing her thesis on Fatimid Jewellery.