Yemen’s jewellery tradition depicted in Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba

Friday 08/05/2015
Bracelets made by Ahmed Bahashwan

WASHINGTON - The Queen of Sheba — the name conjures the image of a majestic South Arabi­an woman of the Sabaean people, who travelled by camel caravan to Jerusalem bearing spices, jewels and gold, on a mis­sion to test King Solomon’s wisdom. Her people lived in an area the Ro­mans named “Arabia Felix” — “Happy Arabia” in Latin — so named for its riches. One of the old­est centres of civilisation in the Near East, the land today is known as Yemen.
Yemen is known for its ancient trade routes and tex­tiles but Yemeni crafts­men also produced some of the world’s most com­plex, carved silver jew­ellery. Recently, former US Foreign Service officer Marjorie Ransom invited guests to her Wash­ington home to discuss her book, Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba. Last summer, the Library of Congress hosted the book’s launch in its Middle East Reading Room.
Ransom lived and worked in the Middle East for more than three decades and spent many months in Yemen researching, collecting and documenting traditional jew­ellery making. Based on her survey of Yemen from north to south, Ran­som’s book describes the jewellery styles unique to each geographic area. The type of jewellery a woman wore typically depended on her sta­tus: unmarried, bride or married.
Thanks to guides and Yemeni friends, Ransom traversed the country, in­terviewing craftsmen and visit­ing with the women who wore their jewel­lery with pride. Sil­ver Treasures preserves this disappearing cultural tradition for the historical record.
Yemen’s rich history of silver craft is not widely known and Ransom’s book fills an important need by of­fering historical context, compre­hensive descriptions of the jewel­lery-making process. With more than 300 photographs, it is both definitive for the serious researcher and fascinating for the curious col­lector.
Jewellery designers and ethnog­raphers will find inspiration from the fantastically intricate designs and the weaving of mixed media, in­cluding silver, coins, cockles, leath­er and threads. Complementing the silver, designs often include Yemeni agates, carnelians (heated agates) and amber. Coral and red glass are also used as well as ceramic and col­oured plastic beads.
For centuries, countless compet­ing tribes, ruling elites and foreign powers held dominion over Yemen, whose people followed many differ­ent religions, including polytheist and Christian traditions. Beginning in the sixth century, a Himyarite king named Dhu Nuwas declared Judaism the state religion but was ultimately defeated by the Ethio­pians. Islam arrived in 630 AD and became the predominant faith, but Jewish and Muslim communities co-existed.
Over many years, the Jewish com­munity thrived and became known for its talent in silver craft. Jewellery from Yemen is similar in style to that of ancient Sumeria, including its cy­lindrical amulet cases for containing religious verses and magical incan­tations, the ornately crafted globe beads and the generous inclusion of silver coins.
Yemeni-Jewish craftsmen pro­duced beautiful silver pieces for Muslims and Jews. Gradually though, with the spread of Islam, the number of Jewish families in Yemen declined and in the 1940s most emigrated to Israel. A formal mass transfer organised by Israel in 1949-50 was fancifully called Opera­tion Magic Carpet; a few emigrated to the United States.