Middle Eastern Tribal Tattoos
Tribal Tattoos Among Berber and Bedouin Women
The tribes of the Berbers and Bedouins have given us, perhaps, the most well known examples of tattooing, but the practice goes back to ancient Egyptian times, at least. American tribal bellydance groups have popularized this look with (mostly temporary) costuming tattoos.
For those interested in replicating these designs for performance, or just discovering more information on the cultural practices, here's a look at North African and Middle Eastern tattoos.
Questions About This Custom
- Why did these women tattoo their faces and bodies?
- How old is the practice?
- What do the markings mean?
- Do they tattoo themselves today?
Find out about the tradition, history, and symbolism of these tribal tattoos, and the related temporary henna skin decorations.
The Berber Amazigh
"Jedwel" is the Berber word for a tattoo and can be translated as "talisman." Girls were traditionally tattooed to mark the phases of their lives.
The first phase can be seen in the chin markings. "Siyala," as they are called, were often inked from the lip to the chin in a form that represented a palm tree and seeds.
The second phase was marked between the brows to later extend up the forehead. It was a lucky charm. Then the markings were continued down the throat to the abdomen.
Middle Eastern Tattoos: Then and Now
Traditional Middle Eastern tattoos were done via a rudimentary method of pricking the skin and then rubbing in a mixture of smoke black or indigo. Mother's milk was used in the mixture, oftentimes, to give an esoteric benefit. Designs were a combination of tribal identification and amulets to ward off evil or incur blessings. Similar motifs may be found in carpet designs.
- A vertical line marked along the chin signifies an engagement.
- When there was a mark on the tip of the nose, it may have signified either marriage or that a child had died and this was their way of protecting the spirit of that child.
Facial tattooing, especially, has gone out of favor in modern times. Usually only older women are seen with tattoos on their chin and forehead. The reason? One source says, "body art markings, called lousham in Arabic or ahetjam in Tamazight, are no longer considered to be a pious Muslim practice and as a result very few younger women will carry these tattoos. At one point, these tattoos were tribal markings of status and beauty, symbols that were borrowed from the complicated designs in the rugs; now most consider their tattoos to be a shameful reminder of a pagan practice." Amazigh women
In past times in Iran, the upper class women would be tattooed with a beard-like pattern. This practice has passed away as well, but it is reported that "the demand for tattoos among Iranian and other middle eastern women has exploded. Iranians who are tattooed, however, must keep them under wraps due to the authorities."
Despite the traditions of tattoos for certain tribal groups of Middle Eastern women, their religion, Islam, forbids tattooing. Non-permanent skin decoration in the Arab world in the form of henna decorations is very popular.
Not all stories of the tattooed women are benign. The sad history of the decimation and captivity of Armenians under their Muslim captors holds the story of stolen Armenian girls tattooed by their captors a story told in history and photos in the Genocide Museum.
Warding Off Evil
Many the symbols are for the purpose of "warding off the evil eye," a practice that was taken seriously in this part of the world.
Protection and Attraction
The traditional tattoos have varied meanings. Some are tribal affiliations, some are "magical" in connotation (to ward off evil, etc.), and some are for beautification.
For women, they might be applied at the onset of puberty or to communicate marital status and other social information.
These are simple stylized designs, often applied to hands, face, and/or ankles, have been theorized to derive from ancient European civilizations.
A Sampling of Middle Eastern Tattoo Symbols
Olive tree: Signifies strength, because of its Berber name azemmur, derived from the term tazmat (strength).
Tree: Related to an easy life, happiness, and fertility. It symbolizes the center of the world surrounded by Beings, objects, and spirits. It also means life (because of the roots) and knowledge (because of the leaves).
Diamond: Femininity, womanhood, and fertility is represented. It is associated with the snake and represents the union of opposites.
Tattoos as Protection or Good Luck
Western observers reported that "the women of Baghdad stained their bosoms with figures of circles, half-moons, stars, in a bluish stamp." The "tattooed necks" of the Arab "fellah" (a peasant in Arab countries) mothers were remarked upon, as well. Men are sometimes tattooed, too, as in the Marsh Arabs of Iraq.
Although it has become increasingly rare, many Arabic cultures retained old beliefs in "magical" results from specific tattoos given under certain circumstances. These might range from hopes for fertility to protection of a child's life, sometimes as a hopeful means to provide a cure. In Iraq, tattooing might be for the purpose of relieving pain from rheumatism, wounds, bruises, or sprains.
Throughout the region is the concern about the malevolence contained in the gaze of the "evil eye." Many designs of the tattoos used by those in North Africa and the Middle East are meant to divert that harm.
According to one source, "Arab tattooing is always blue in color, and the designs are geometrical," and historical photographic evidence seem to bear that out.
Tattoo and Carpet Symbols, Related
Tracing the Tattoo Through History
"An Egyptian mummy known as 'Amunet' was discovered in Thebes in 1891. Amunet (The Goddess of Love) was later to be found to be the remains of The Priestess of Hathor, her time dates back to approximately 2200 BC. Decorated with diamond shaped and elliptical dot patterns, groups of linear markings decorating her arms and thighs and a fairly large pattern with a mixture of dots and smaller lines resting below her navel area, this High Priestess and as well "dancer" may have been an inspiration to other dancers and performers of her area. Many other mummies were discovered to have basic renditions of the Goddess Amunet, tattooed upon their own bodies, along with similar linear and circular markings."
Small bronze implements identified as tattooing tools were discovered at the town site of Gurob in northern Egypt and dated to c. 1450 B.C. according to Smithsonian's Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History.
For more information on henna markings, read this blog about modern Henna tattoo Berber and Moroccan designs.
Moroccan Henna Hands
Marks of Beauty
Ideas of beauty have fascinated both anthropologists and curious individuals. Culturally, they are meaningful. Inked designs meant to provide protection, while also considered marks of beauty, for the tattooed Middle Eastern women.
The Middle East has always held Western fascination with their practices and ideals of feminine beauty. Kohl-lined eyes are a fixture in our society, now, along with other types of body care and decoration.
I have seen few of the types of tattooing featured on this page. Perhaps the tradition is most alive and passed down in the temporary adornments of henna decorations which are quite common in Indian and surrounding cultures.
- Amel Tafsout - Articles & Resources
Born in Algeria, Amel Tafsout is a Language Senior Lecturer, dance anthropologist, storyteller, singer, and an accomplished, well-respected dancer and choreographer of North African Maghreb Dance.
A Fading Fashion
It is more rare for the younger women to be tattooed, so it is a dying custom in the Middle East region.
Because of Islamic prohibition of tattoos, many women of Morocco and other North African countries today continue the practice with . This is different from the ceremonial and beautification of other cultures (notably India) which uses different designs and restricts them mainly to hands and feet. temporary henna tattoos
- Algeria: Behind the Aures Women's Tattoos | Pulitzer Center
A generation of women in the Aures Mountains of Algeria are marked by tattoos on their faces...the tattoos have survived because the women themselves have survived, with their faces to tell their tales.
- Tattooing in North Africa, The Middle East, and Balkans, by Lars Krutak
The history of tattoos in North Africa, the Middle East, and Balkans by tattoo expert Lars Krutak, cultural anthropologist and technical advisor.