Bahariya discs

connecting cultures

The Bahariya discs: Coptic magic in jewellery

The decoration on a piece of jewellery sometimes is puzzling. An example is the round disc worn by women in the Bahariya oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert until the 1960’s. Because the origin of this jewellery item has long been subject of discussion, it is a very illustrative case to discuss in more detail.

What do the disc pendants from Bahariya Oasis look like?

The image below shows a pendant from Bahariya Oasis. Like all its siblings, it is made of blank metal instead of silver. They are quite rare: in the last 25 years, I have come across an original Bahariya ornament only once. [1]

This probably is due to the fact that they were a ‘limited production’: they are known to have been made by two Coptic silversmiths, who lived in the oasis until one of them died. At that point, the other one decided to move out of the oasis and settled in Cairo. They were the only ones that created these discs: with their demise and relocation, no other discs were made.

From that moment onwards, the people of the oasis had to buy their jewellery from elsewhere; the two Copts were the last silversmiths in Bahariya. But what do the engravings on these discs represent?

Decoding the symbolism on the Bahariya discs

These discs have been interpreted as derivates of Egyptian zār-amulets, or as Nubian imitation coins, and their possible relation to the Siwa adrim has been investigated as well. But, none of these studies have been able to definitively conclude where the unique decoration on the amulets finds its source.

It has been suggested that the two silversmiths may not have been as well versed in both technique and decoration, since they were Copts and had little rapport with Islam. [2] It is however not uncommon for silversmiths to be of another social group or faith than the group the smith is catering to. Most of the silversmiths in the Middle East were Jews up until 1948, and they made jewellery for Muslim, Jewish and Christian clients. But the silversmiths may be the cental clue here….

Coptic magic: papyri and images

Let’s have a closer look at the representation on this disc shown above. In the middle, a standing figure is visible, hands raised, flanked by two amorph blobs. The head of the figure is detailed with wide open eyes, a broad nose, and curious horizontal strikes through the head.

On top of the head, a few vertical lines are visible. Imagine my surprise when I saw a page of a Coptic magical book, featuring a very similar setup, notably in the detailing of the head! [3]

The two ‘blobs’ in the magical book appear to be creatures with the head of birds, while the arrow through the head and the headgear itself are also recognizable in their watered-down rendering on the pendant.

Papyrus RMO inv. F 1964/4.14, 11th century

Another form often found on the Bahariya discs is that of a square with a human neck and head, flanked by two vegetal motifs. This representation as well features in Coptic magical papyri, such as visible in Pap. Heidelberg Kopt. 685. [4] Might the iconography of the Bahariya amulets be based on Coptic charms?

Coptic smiths, Coptic charms in traditional jewellery?

I feel that one fact has been overlooked in determining what the depiction on the Bahariya pendant could mean. It is the mere fact that the smiths were Copts that may prove to be the explanation for the iconography on the amulets.

Not because they were less skilled than Muslim smiths, nor because they had no interest in creating amulets for rituals outside their faith, but because they based their designs on the iconography that was well-known and used in their religion.

With this possible origin however, we still don’t know what these pendants meant to their wearers, who were largely Muslim. As both silversmiths have passed away, they can no longer share their story.

Did they use a magical papyrus as their sourcebook? Was there any other reason to decide for this type of decoration? In this particular case, it is too late to find out for sure.

What this example does illustrate however is the importance of regarding jewellery in its wider sociocultural context instead of only as adornment.

Where can I find more on the historical background of amulets in the Middle East?

Find out more about the social meaning of amulets in the e-course on Amulets and Magic in Jewellery!

Or start by downloading the free e-book explaining 6 ways amulets work here.

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This post is based on the chapter ‘The Evil Eye and Other Problems’ on magic and jewellery in my book Desert Silver.


[1] Weissenberger, M., 1998. Les bijoux des oasis égyptiennes, in: Bliss, F. 1998. Artisanat et artisanat d’art dans les oasis du desert occidental egyptien, Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, Köln p. 319, also mentions that these amulets have completely disappeared from the markets.

[2] Weissenberger 1998, p. 319

[3] Raven, M. 2012. Egyptian Magic. AUC Press, Cairo, p. 172

[4] Heidelberg Inv. Kopt. 685 (Meyer) Lage 5 Seite 12 and 9, digitally available on the website of the Papyrological Institute of Heidelberg university here

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.