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Middle Eastern Tribal Tattoos

Updated on September 19, 2016
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I took bellydance lessons and performed,then became interested in costume. The historical relationship of dance with culture is fascinating

Desert Tribe Markings

This is in the Moroccan Amazigh style
This is in the Moroccan Amazigh style

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

Photo by dweekly on Flickr
Photo by dweekly on Flickr

Tattoos have Meaning

berber women
berber women

Old Photo of Berber Woman

Old Photo of Berber Woman
Old Photo of Berber Woman

Tattoo Trivia

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.

Armenian Woman

Photo from the Armenian Genocide Museum. This woman was taken into captivity and tattooed. For some it was a mark of shame after they were liberated.
Photo from the Armenian Genocide Museum. This woman was taken into captivity and tattooed. For some it was a mark of shame after they were liberated.

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

Berber Carpets of Morocco: The Symbols Origin and Meaning View in google books.
Berber Carpets of Morocco: The Symbols Origin and Meaning View in google books. | Source

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.

This graphic was created using the information on tattoo symbols,
This graphic was created using the information on tattoo symbols, | Source

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.

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.

Bedouin Women

Wealth worn in necklaces, earrings, and bracelets, tattoo marking for "protection" and good luck.
Wealth worn in necklaces, earrings, and bracelets, tattoo marking for "protection" and good luck. | Source
Beauty and the East: A Book of Oriental Body Care
Beauty and the East: A Book of Oriental Body Care

Explore the beauty customs of the Middle East

Berber tattoo marks
Berber tattoo marks

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.[2]

For More Information On Henna Markings:

A blog about modern Henna tattoo Berber designs and Moroccan designs.


Because of Islamic prohibition of tattoos, many of today's tribal women of Morocco and other North african countries continue their practice with temporary tattoos of henna.

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.

Imazighen: The Vanishing Traditions of Berber Women
Imazighen: The Vanishing Traditions of Berber Women

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.


Berber Tattoos: in French

Tattoo this hub - leave your mark

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    • jlshernandez profile image

      jlshernandez 5 years ago

      I thoroughly enjoyed this lens. I love the intricate tattoo designs on the hands. Looks like the henna designs on hands of Indian brides.

    • almawad profile image

      almawad 5 years ago

      I see sometimes women wearing tattoos here in Qatar -but not the local ones -but some other nationalities ...I think that I saw some Sudanese women with the beard -like tattoo .

    • profile image

      pawpaw911 5 years ago

      I found this very interesting.

    • profile image

      starzraven 5 years ago

      Interesting! And the henna tattoos are so beautiful!

    • profile image

      Snehalata 5 years ago

      Great Info regardin tribal tattoo

    • pheonix76 profile image

      pheonix76 4 years ago from WNY

      An interesting lens -- thanks for sharing. It's a shame women have no equality in these societies, but the culture is still fascinating.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Can anyone please tell me the symbolism of 4 dots on the chin please?

    • Timewarp profile image

      Paul 4 years ago from Montreal

      Very artistic, I wonder if they will catch on in the west.

    • veronicatarantino profile image

      veronicatarantino 4 years ago

      This was very interesting..

      Thank you forthis lens

    • VictoriaKelley profile image

      VictoriaKelley 4 years ago

      Beautiful lens. I am very interested in Henna Tattoos. I bought some Henna Last year and have often painted my hands.

    • Spiderlily321 profile image

      Spiderlily321 4 years ago

      A ton of great information on henna here. Very interesting. I featured this lens on my own called "how to henna your hair" under the section about henna tattoos. Thanks for sharing this!

    • profile image

      applejacking 4 years ago

      I like every art include this body art though I haven't any tattoo in my body. Beautiful tattoo design here.

    • profile image

      lola 6 hours ago

      Hello, I would like to correct what has been said here above, even though northern african tatoos are said to be amazigh , it is not the case: every woman in north africa used to do tatoos (all our grand mothers did ), not only amazighen . And as you know it, the majority of northern african people are arabic speakers, amazigh people are only a few percentage. So it is wrong to say that it is amazigh tatoos, it is northern african tatoos.

      Even the word amazigh is a new word for algerian and marocan people, because this is not how berber used to call themselves: they would call theymselves, chaouias, kabyles , chleuh etc... but never amazigh: the name amazigh is a now given to berber speakers, for political reasons. (berber people want to have their own countries, they want to be independent) amazigh used to be the name of a tribe in lybia, Nothing to do with algerians and morocans. Stop spreding lies please and respect the memory and the culture of our ancestors. Thank you

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