What is Bedouin jewellery
Bedouin jewellery: an introduction
‘Bedouin jewellery’ and ‘Bedouin silver’ are among the search terms most used for traditional jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia. That is even where this blog gets its name from! But what is Bedouin jewellery, exactly?
Who are the Bedouin?
Before we can look into Bedouin jewellery, we’ll need to get a grasp of who the Bedouin are. The word Bedouin comes from the Arabic Badawi, which means ‘of the desert’. That is a referral to their nomadic origins, and distinguishes them from sedentary people who lived near water and greenery. Those nomadic origins are reflected in the wide area the Bedouin live in today. You might think of the Arab Peninsula first, and you would be right, but Bedouin tribes live from Morocco to Iraq.
The backbone of Bedouin society is their tribal structure. That is not just an organizational structure, but also one with geographical reach. A tribe consists of many clans, made up by families, and levels of kinship are important. The space in which a tribe lives, is also recognized as their land: its borders are known and follow natural boundaries such as wadis, rivers or mountain ranges. 
That regional aspect of Bedouin life clashes regularly with modern state authorities. The map shown below for example is from 1908 and shows the Bedouin tribes living in Southwest Asia. You see how the dwelling area of tribes can be quite large and extends across borders as we know them today.
What is Bedouin jewellery?
Unsurprisingly, Bedouin jewellery is the jewellery worn by Bedouin tribes. That might seem like a total no-brainer, but today you will find many pieces of jewellery described as ‘Bedouin’ which really are not! The word ‘Bedouin’ has become almost a synonym for jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia in general, and as such is at the verge of losing all meaning itself.
So, in order to recognize Bedouin jewellery, looking at the people that used these items is important. In other words: the answer to what Bedouin jewellery is, depends very much on which Bedouin you’re talking about. The jewellery of Omani Bedouin looks very different from that of Palestinian Bedouin, which in turn has nothing in common with Maghrebi Bedouin. But: they all share designs, motifs and workmanship with the other cultures of the geographical area they live in. And that reflects their history.
Bedouin jewellery: history
The history of those many Bedouin tribes is visible in their jewellery. Jewellery and adornment show who they were in contact with. The coins on Palestinian and Egyptian Bedouin face veils present a beautiful economic overview of the people and societies they traded with. An example is shown in the gallery above: click on the image to enlarge it. Veils will have old Ottoman coins, Palestinian Mandate period coins, Russian coins and later on Israeli shekels: the changes of the political landscape the Bedouin live in, is recorded in their adornment.
The heavy face veils of the Rashayda Bedouin in Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea are reminiscent of those of the Rashayda tribe in Saudi Arabia: the Rashayda migrated from the Arab Peninsula about a century ago. Because of the close proximity of the Arab Peninsula, across the Red Sea, Rashayda jewellery still show similarities on both sides. An example is shown in the gallery above: click on the image to enlarge it.
A much earlier migration is that of the Maghrebi Bedouin tribes, who moved into North Africa in the Middle Ages, with the Arab expansion. The best-known Bedouin tribe living in the Maghreb are the Banu Hilal, but, for example, also the Ouled Nail and the Awlad Ali are descendants of Bedouin tribes from the Arab Peninsula. Their jewellery shows much more similarity to that of their Amazigh neighbours (although that relationship has often been a difficult one) than that of the Arab Peninsula. An example is shown in the gallery below.
Bedouin jewellery: a kaleidoscope of styles
This short exploration into Bedouin tribes across the Middle East and North Africa has shown how wide and varied this world is. There is no single style of ‘Bedouin jewellery’, and the term certainly does not apply to any and all traditional jewellery from the Middle East. It is not exclusive to jewellery from the Arab Peninsula, either: Bedouin tribes live in a very large region. I will be adding details in the Cultures & People-section of this blog gradually, so do check back regularly or subscribe to the Jewellery List to receive updates in your inbox!
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 Weir, S. 2007. A Tribal Order. Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen. British Museum, p. 92-93.
 Westheimer, R. & G. Sedan 2009. Shifting Sands. Bedouin Women at the Crossroads. Lantern Books, New York describes the consequences for Bedouin women in Israel.
Sigrid van Roode
Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. Her main field of expertise is jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, as well as archaeological and archaeological revival jewellery. She has authored several books on jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Turquoise Mountain Jordan, and many others. She provides consultancy and research on jewellery collections for both museums and private collections, teaches courses and curates exhibitions. She is not involved in the business of buying and selling jewellery, and focuses on research, knowledge production, and education only.