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