Magic squares

the power of mathematics

Magic Squares

What is a magic square? A magic square is a well-known variety of the number amulets: a numerical arrangement that has magical meaning. Numbers are as meaningful as words in the symbolism of the Middle East, and so a magic square is considered a powerful amulet. They exist in many forms, and they also take the form of jewellery.

The buduh-square: the most widely used magic square

The most widely used square is the ‘buduh’-square: an arrangement of the numbers 1 through 9 with 5 in the middle, that reads 15 in all directions.  One example of this square is visible in the silver amulet featured below.

The number five in the centre of the basic magic square is significant: five is a number that carries a special meaning throughout the Middle East. The placement of the number five in the centre is also an indication of the universe, in symbolizing man in the middle of the four cardinal points.

Elaborating on this idea, the central number in any magic square is often considered to represent God in the centre of His creation. Some amulets leave this middle field blank out of respect for God, or simply write Allah or one of the 99 Names of God.

The magic square in this way becomes a symbol of God, holding the universe in order and controlling creation.

What is the history of magic squares?

The magic square has a very long history. The buduh-square is first encountered in a 9th or 10th century copy of the writings of Jabir ibn Hayyan, and is said to ease childbirth. [1] Its origins probably are much older and to be found in China, from where it traveled along the Silk Road to the Arab world. [2]

The square gets its name from the four letters on the corners of the square when noted down in the Abjad letter-numerals: b-d-w-h. Its powers were believed to be so strong that the name ‘buduh’ itself was enough to invoke that power. [3]

After the buduh-square, many other magical squares have been developed and worked into silver amulets. Their use is not limited to the Islamic world. A Christian version of a magical square can be found on the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, where the numbers read 33 in all directions. In this square however some numbers are repeatedly used, while it is preferred to use the same number only once in a magical square.

The composition of magic squares is also not limited to 3 x 3 rows, but can be expanded as well. The example below shows a magic square of 4 x 4 rows.

Magic squares as talisman and amulet

Magical squares are often used in jewellery, as amulet or talisman.

Pseudo-magic squares are also in use in jewellery. These are an imitation of a magic square, but then with symbols and numbers arranged without any specific order. The use of pseudo-magic squares is illustrative for the decline in meaning of a ‘true’ magic square: instead of the order of the universe, only the shape of the square is regarded as beneficial.

Elaborate, purpose-made magic squares are very personal and created for a specific goal, and often worn hidden from view. They are painted on garments or worn on a necklace. The magic square has been, and still is, in use throughout the Middle East in Islamic, Christian and Jewish tradition.

Where to find more on amulets and magic in jewellery?

Check out the e-course on Amulets and Magic in Jewellery!

Explore more articles on amulets, charms and jewelry from the Middle East here

…or download the free e-book on amulets from North Africa & the Middle East!

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


[1] Kriss, R. & H. Kriss-Heinrich, 1962. Volksglaube im Bereich des Islam. Band II. Amulette, Zauberformeln und Beschwörungen. Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, p. 84 relate that the square should be drawn on two linen bandages, that have to be shown to the pregnant woman after which they are placed underneath her feet.

[2] See Schuyler Cammann, Islamic and Indian Magic Squares Part I, in History of Religions Vol 8 No 3 (1969) pp 181-209 for more information about the Chinese origins of this square

[3] Savage-Smith, E. 1997. Amulets and related talismanic objects, in: Raby, J. (ed) 1997. The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art. Vol. XII. The Nour Foundation, New York p. 106

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.