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Middle Eastern Tribal Tattoos

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I took bellydance lessons and performed, then became interested in costume. The historical relationship of dance and culture is fascinating.

Moroccan Berber Amazigh Woman

Moroccan Berber Amazigh Woman

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.

Markings in the Moroccan Amazigh style.

Markings in the Moroccan Amazigh style.

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.

Algerian Woman With Blue Facial Tattoos

Algerian Woman With Blue Facial Tattoos

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 Amazigh women consider their tattoos to be a shameful reminder of a pagan practice."

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.

Old Photo of Berber Woman

Old Photo of Berber Woman

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.

"Beard-like" Tattoo

middle-eastern-tribal-tattoos

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.

This graphic was created using the information on tattoo symbols.

This graphic was created using the information on tattoo symbols.

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.

middle-eastern-tribal-tattoos
Berber tattoo marks

Berber tattoo marks

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.

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.

Bedouin woman with markings for protection and good luck.

Bedouin woman with markings for protection and good luck.

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.

Today

Because of Islamic prohibition of tattoos, many women of Morocco and other North African countries today continue the practice with temporary henna tattoos. 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.

Berber Tattoos (in French)

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.

Tattoo this article—leave your mark!

Adam on January 08, 2018:

Amnay is wrong. Nomadic Arabs (also known as Bedouins) in the Middle East had tattoos as well. They clearly didn't get them from Berbers since there is no known major Berber migration into the Middle East. This means they both have this facial tattoo as part of their culture as a result of Arabs teaching it to Berbers or more likely both groups share a common ancestor culture which would be prehistoric.

Ilona E (author) from Ohio on December 05, 2017:

There is no intention to falsify any history, whatsoever. This hub is an overview of designs as used by people who are part of and influenced by Middle Eastern culture.

Geographically. North Africa and the Middle East are distinct, with separate histories, as you say. But it is evident that Middle Eastern values and culture override the entire region, and have for centuries. The designs of the tattoos have significance that are common throughout the regions mentioned.

I appreciate the addition of information on tattoos which were found on the walls of Seti I tomb. It shows the ancient origins of this practice, which is only recently fading out.

Amnay on December 04, 2017:

Middle Eastern ? Berber people are not middle eastern people, we're north africans. North West Africa is not part of Middle East, even in our culture.

Everywhere in the world any different people had tattoos, and berber tattoos are very different than middle eastern or other culture tattoos.

One particularity is that in Berber culture, not only women but also men had tattoos. And the painting found in Egypt on Seti 1's tomb ancient libyans (ancestors of actual berbers) had tattoos, it shows us that this tradition of tattoo is very old and something typically libyc (berber) that other people like arabs, assyrians, etc. didn't used to do.

To Lola : it's totally false, people of North West Africa are in majority berbers, and from berber origin and culture. Stop falsificating the history.

Tanemmirt

Driss on September 24, 2017:

i am going to answer Lola , You don't know History !!! So please you can learn About Amazigh and Dhiya ... And what happens before savage arabic comes to our country ....... if u don't know history u don't have a right to comment ....

Mustapha El Asri on April 30, 2017:

Thank for sharing and writing about Amazigh culture, i want just to ansewer Lola; north Africa is not Arab, it is Amazigh lands, it is ancient culture, they are native peaple. So when few Arab comes to the north Africa, they found Amazigh, and they adopted their culture, so please try to read and research and ask, then write.

Thank you for your comments.

lola on March 27, 2017:

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

applejacking on December 23, 2012:

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

VictoriaKelley on November 16, 2012:

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

Paul from Montreal on October 31, 2012:

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

anonymous on June 29, 2012:

An excellent presentation of Middle Eastern Tribal tattoos and their meanings and a little history of the not so pleasant usage of them with captive people.

pheonix76 from WNY on May 15, 2012:

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

starzraven on October 20, 2011:

Interesting! And the henna tattoos are so beautiful!

almawad on September 28, 2011:

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 .

jlshernandez on September 15, 2011:

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