Middle Eastern Tribal Tattoos
Desert Tribe Markings
Tribal Tattoos among Berber and Bedouin Women
The tribes of the Berbers and Bedouins have been, perhaps, the most well known examples of tattooing, but the practice goes back to,at least, ancient Egyptian times.
American tribal bellydance groups have popularized this look with (mostly temporary) costuming tattoos.
For those interested in replicating these for performance, or just to discover more information on the cultural practices... a look at 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?
Answered in this page
Find out about the tradition, the history, and the symbolism of the tribal tattoos, and the related henna temporary skin decorations.
Moroccan Berber Amazigh Woman
The Berber Amazigh
‘Jedwel’ is the Berber word for tattoos and can be translated "talisman" . Girls who traditionally were tattooed when through a sequence which marked phases of their lives.
The first phase are the chin markings. "Siyala", as they are called, were often from the lip to the chin in a form that represented a palm tree and seeds.
The second was between the brows and later would extend up the forehead. It had the idea of being a "lucky charm".
Then the markings were continued down the throat to the abdomen.
Algerian Woman with Blue Facial Tattoos
Tattoos have Meaning
Old Photo of Berber Woman
The way the traditional Middle Eastern tattoos were done was 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 amulet to ward off evil or incur blessings.Similar motifs may be found in both carpet designs and the tattoo designs.
Facial tattooing,especially, has gone out of favor in modern times. Usually the older women are the ones with tattoos still seen on 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 Amazigh women consider their tattoos to be a shameful reminder of a pagan practice."
A verticle line marked along the chin signifies an engagement.
A marking on the nose signifies marriage. Or it can signify that a previous child had died, and the mark was to protect this one.
The marks in the illustration above are indicative of bearing children.
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,
"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 of the symbols are for the purpose of "warding off the evil eye", a concept which was taken seriously in this part of the world.
Protection And Attraction
The traditional tattoos have varied meaning, some are tribal affiliations, some are "magical" in connotation to ward off evil, etc., and some are beautification.
For women, they might be applied at 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.
Tattoo and Carpet Symbols, Related
A Sampling Of Symbols
Olive tree : Strength because of its Berber name azemmur, diverted 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).
Amazigh Music and Some Face Tattoos
Diamond : Femininity, womanhood, and fertility. 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. Women in a number of Middle East countries, but men are sometimes tattooed, too. Marsh Arabs of Iraq are one group that tattooed, including the men. When there was a mark on the tip of the nose it may have been that previous children had died and this was to protect the life of that child (in their estimation).
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, the use of 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 the harm that is feared.
According to one source, "Arab tattooing is always blue in color, and the designs are geometrical" and photographs would seem to bear that out.
- Amel Tafsout - Articles & Resources
Born in Algeria, Amel Tafsout is a Language Senior Lecturer, a dance anthropologist, a story teller, a 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.
Explore the beauty customs of the Middle East
Ideas of beauty have always fascinated anthropologists and the "run of the mill" curious individual. While there are meanings, and belief that the tattoos provide protection, they are also marks of beauty.
The Middle East has always held Western fascination with their indulgent 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.
Aside from Belly dancers who dress in a tribal style, I have seen few of the types of tattooing featured on this page. Perhaps it is most alive and passed down in the temporary adornments of henna decorations which are quite common in Indian and surrounding cultures.
Temporary Henna Tattoos
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 2200BC. 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.
For More Information On Henna Markings:
A blog about modern Henna tattoo Berber designs and Moroccan designs.
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.
Look into the lives of these tattooed women of the nomadic tribes of Morocco. Their challenges, their crafts, and their traditions captured by Photographer Courtney-Clarke.
- 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
Article about the history of tattoos in Tattooing in North Africa, The Middle East and Balkans by tattoo expert Lars Krutak, Cultural Anthropologist and Technical Advisor to the Vanishing Tattoo