Collection of Wolfgang and Sibylle Mayer

Silberschmuck aus Nubien

Silver jewellery from Nubia is a category of jewellery that has not received all that much attention throughout the years, and so a new book on this beautiful heritage is very welcome! Silberschmuck aus Nubien is devoted to the private collection of Sibylle and Wolfgang Mayer.

This collection was built up over decades by Wolfgang and Sibylle Mayer, a German couple living and working on the island of Elephantine in the south of Egypt, opposite the town of Aswan, and elsewhere in Egypt. The book opens with the ‘how’ of collecting: I’m always interested in what triggered collectors to fall in love with a certain type of jewellery, and here it is living in, and falling in love with, a culture. Having been in Aswan myself many times, both for work and for holiday sojourns, reading this book brought back so many memories.

I very much appreciated that it looks beyond jewellery itself to its people: the first chapters introduce life in Nubia briefly, and describe the fundamental changes in both the countryside itself and their impact on its inhabitants as a result of the Aswan Dam. Much of Nubia was flooded permanently and people were forced to relocate, which had an impact on lifestyle and thus on jewellery. Understanding that background is important to appreciating jewellery that belongs in it. Speaking of cultural background, I loved how the book also shows the decoration on not just jewellery, but on houses and utensils, too: jewellery is as much part of material culture as anything else.

The book itself is beautifully designed. Each chapter opens with a large black and white photograph of jewellery being worn, and then goes on to show a variety of silver jewellery that you will not find easily anywhere else. Bracelets, pendants, coin jewellery, anklets, earrings, nose rings, finger rings….in many forms and designs, as well as beautifully designed silver kohl needles. There are some truly remarkable pieces to be admired in this book: the imitation coin jewellery is very rare, as are several of the amulets shown.

Much of the collection was purchased in Aswan and in Cairo. That explains why there is a large body of jewellery in the book that is Egyptian, but not necessarily Nubian: zār jewellery. [1] The author explicitly states that he believes the majority of his collection may actually be from Middle and Lower Egypt (notably Cairo) [p. 75], and looking at the photos I agree that that is probably the case. The photographs of a zār included in this section are the same as featured in the book on zār by dr. el-Hadidi, or here on this website – which makes sense, as this is a most private event that is rarely photographed. The many examples of zār jewellery in this book are sometimes misidentified, but that does not diminish the value of the photographs: these pages will give you a great overview of the variety in zār pendants with spirit images!

The chapter on zār jewellery links more to Middle and Lower Egypt than to Nubia, but also within the earlier chapters there is a regional variety within Nubia itself that is not addressed. Nubia encompasses quite a large area, and the rings shown on pages 66-67 for example reflect that: there are rings present as worn by the coastal Rashayda tribes, but also from the Nile Valley villages. These regional varieties in jewellery remain unaddressed throughout the book. The bibliography does not mention the work of Griselda Tayib [2] (but frankly, that is really hard to obtain) or Imogen Thurbon [3]: both focus on Sudan, which also includes parts of Nubia. But, as the author writes, collecting with a scholarly goal was never the plan [p. 106] – this is a collection built from the heart, and that passion shines through in every page.

The collection also shows the cultural influences that you’d expect in a trade city as well connected as Aswan: for centuries, trade routes converged here. The schematic drawing of the rosette, which is a staple of Nubian jewellery, as shown on page 27 is actually drawn after a pendant from Oman – but one that ended up in Nubia and fit right in. One of the bracelets on page 45 is from Yemen, and several rings shown are worn on either side of the Red Sea: there is so much that ended up in the souks of Aswan (and also Cairo, of course) that bears testimony to this long history of trade and connection!

And what I found the most wonderful thing to read are the future plans for this collection! When you have been following this blog for a while, you know my greatest concern is not what is happening to jewellery today, but what will become of it in the future. (and if you’re new to this blog: there is more about that here). What will happen to collected jewellery when its collectors are no longer there? How will it continue to speak for the people who created it? For this collection, there is a clear plan in place: the couple have promised large parts of their collection to a yet to be realized museum on the history of Nubia in Wadi Halfa. Seeing this heritage return home eventually, where it will be integrated in the many stories of living and working in this part of the world, is simply inspiring.

Silberschmuck aus Nubien is a great visual reference book for anyone interested in jewellery from southern Egypt and northern Sudan! The beautiful photography allows you to zoom in on details, and the collection is just stunning. This book does much to spark the enthousiasm for Nubian silver jewellery and to keep it visible and admired: particularly with a relatively unknown category of traditional jewellery, that is no small feat. And if you do not read German, I know you will love it for its photographs and the wide variety of jewellery alone!

Silberschmuck aus Nubien. Ein fast verlorenes Kulturgut. By Wolfgang Mayer, 2021.

Full colour, 111 pages, in German. Published by Edition esefeld & traub, Stuttgart.

Available with the publisher and via Amazon.

The book was purchased in the museum shop of the Schmuckmuseum in Pforzheim.

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[1] Full disclaimer: I’m close to finishing my PhD-research into zār jewellery and as such have seen more of them and read more about these than can be reasonably expected of anyone else who wants to keep their sanity. When it’s published, hopefully in the near future, this link will refer to it: the collection shown in Silberschmuck aus Nubien is absolutely wonderful and informative regardless!

[2] Griselda Tayib, Regional Costumes of Sudan: see more here

[3] Imogen Thurbon runs the informative website Women’s Literacy Sudan: see this post for example on hair braiding in Sudan

Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. She considers jewellery heritage and a historic source. She has authored several books on jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, and on archaeological jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the Society of Jewellery Historians, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, among many others. She curates exhibitions and teaches online courses on jewellery from North Africa & Southwest Asia.