THE SUN ON YOUR WRIST
“The Bracelet of the Twelve Points” from the Aït Atta tribe
© Taco Meeuwsen and Mohamed Saadouni
© photos: Taco Meeuwsen
The two authors work together on a series of publications entitled “From Weapon to Jewel”, about the aesthetic evolution of certain self-defence bracelets from North Africa and beyond. In addition to the professional literature, the authors have consulted a number of reliable oral sources. In general, little has been written about exhaustive research on the self-defense aspect of a number of well-known bracelet types. Anne Van Cutsem refers sparingly to Aït Atta bracelets and anklets, and bracelets from other Berber tribes as self-defence weapons in her book “A World of Bracelets” (p.21). The author, however, does not delve deeply into the subject itself. No self-defence bracelet from the Ouled Naïl from Algeria, for instance, is included in her book. Angela Fisher devotes a little more attention to the self-defence aspect of the “bracelets d’autodéfense et de combat” in her book “Africa Adorned”. Some other important authors, including Sarah Corbett, do likewise. But in general, the important cultural aspect of self-defence is little or no explored extensively. Here is a first article in the series, this one about a famous bracelet: “Le Bracelet à Douze Pointes” by the Aït Atta, one of the largest Berber tribes in Morocco.
It is spring 1932. Higher up in the southern parts of the Middle-Atlas Mountains are the summer meadows of the inhabitants of M’semrir, a Moroccan hamlet of the Aït Atta, a large Berber tribe in Morocco. We are in what is now called the Drâa-Tafilalet region, about three hundred and seventy kilometers east of Marrakech. The Atlas Mountains (“Adrar en Dren” in Tamaziɣt 1) is the undisputed kingdom of the Imazighen (Berbers).
When Aïsha, a young Aït Atta woman, looks to the southwest, she can just behold the top of the Jbel Saghro at an altitude of 2,712 meters in the eastern part of Atlas Mountains.
It is early May. The goats graze from the short stiff halfah grass. The Atlas cedar and the evergreen thuja make their way along the mountain sides, winding tree shapes like precious bonsai.
While the tents of the summer camp are being set up around her, the young Aït Atta woman Aïsha spins gray wool between her fingers on a traditional spinning wheel. She is wearing a heavy silver bracelet on both wrists that consists of three separate parts. The bracelet is notorious. It is called “le Bracelet à Douze Pointes” (“Abzg n iqurraïn” in the Tamaziɣt). The bracelet of the twelve points.
Around her neck she wears a number of smaller necklaces with semi-precious stones from the High Atlas; carnelian, agate, amazonite, rock crystal. Furthermore, a large, shiny black clove chain. And she wears a necklace with huge yellow gold beads of “Faux Ambre”, also called “false amber” or “Copal Ambre”. A phenol resin molded and worked into shape that has been laid to dry and processed into beads. Her dark hair is wrapped in a large red wool scarf with a warm yellow band. The belt is extra richly decorated with strands of colorful wool, shiny silver coins and silver chains with beads and tassels of combed, pleated wool. In her face Aïsha is tattooed in the traditional way of the Aït Atta. Visible on her chin is a blue stripe down to her lower lip with tattooed points on both sides. The same dark blue dots adorn the skin on the bridge between her eyebrows 2 .
On her warm woollen clothes, she wears, just under the chain with beads of “Faux Ambre”, two enormous silver fibulae that are interconnected with complex silver chains and silver weights that hold her clothes together. Aïsha is a rich, young woman.
The bracelet of the twelve points
Of all Moroccan jewellery made of a cast silver alloy, the most intriguing probably is the “bracelet à douze pointes” of the Aït Atta. The twelve-pointed sun (the middle part) is never actually worn alone. It consists of twelve large star-shaped protrusions of heavy silver with a slender sleeve on either side of the sun. On both sides this middle band is covered by two other heavy silver bracelets often decorated with wavy ribs sporting a chiselled and niello drawing. Leather sheets and thick sheep grease hold the three bracelets tightly together and prevent the skin of the woman’s arms from becoming trapped and damaged. The entire bracelet weighs as much as 1.35 kilos. Aïsha wears one on each wrist. Almost three kilos heavy, but she does not seem to notice. She wears them all day. A wealth of silver on both her wrists.
Few people know how this bracelet is actually used. It is part of the daily wear. It is worn when pasturing the cattle, milking the goats, spinning wool, preparing the meal, washing the clothes and dressing. It is, apart from what we call “wearable wealth”, an ordinary everyday object that serves as a self-defence weapon. It is the most pronounced form of a “bracelet d’auto-défense et de combat” of the Aït Atta in these regions of Morocco. A blow of this 1.35 kg bracelet and every attacker will suffer severe damage. The women in the Ait Atta habitat had ample reason to be on their guard. In earlier times of rivalry and tribal conflicts, and successive foreign invasions, women were a target, a prey for the enemy. They were attacked and even kidnapped as booty to be sold into slavery. Thus, for self-defense, the “bracelet à douze pointes” of the Aït Atta is of inestimable value.
Evolution of the twelve points
The “bracelet à douze pointes” of the Aït Atta is forged of the raw silver from the mines in the Atlas Mountains. These mines form a complex series of deep holes and tunnels of hazardous one-man shafts through the highest parts of the Atlas. Corridors that link corridors with each other in very extensive networks, in which life is dangerous. When processing the extracted silver ore, the “lost wax method” 3 is used. Many different variants of this type of fighting bracelets are known. Over time and with other Berber tribes, the twelve points of this bracelet become less pronounced. The northern neighbors of the Aït Atta, the Aït Todra and the Aït Morrhad, make variants of bracelets that resemble the “bracelet à douze pointes”. In the course of time, the bracelets are increasingly worn alone and lose their impressive function as a self-defence weapon. The need for a self-defence weapon in and of itself also decreases over time. The points of the star do not disappear however, and they remain twelve for a long time. But they evolve into a form that becomes more portable and represents a greater aesthetic value. The wave motif of the silver cast bracelets in the spherical style of the Aït Atta gradually becomes more swirling and elegant. Moreover, the chiseled niello engravings become more ornate and more precise. Ultimately, this type of Amazigh bracelet will reach its aesthetic highlight in the undulating, gold-silver, embossed and hammered bracelets we know under the name “Lune et Soleil” (“moon and sun”, in Berber: “Ayyur” and “Tafukt “) from places in northern Morocco such as Fes, Ouazzane, Tangier and Tétouan. Sometimes they are octahedrons, sometimes they are soft undulating ring shapes with richly worked edges, “Lune et Soleil” may most probably be rightly called the epiphany of jewellery in Morocco in this line of aesthetic evolution unto this day.
Above: Most probably the culmination of Amazigh jewellery in Morocco today. The 120 gram heavy bracelet that bears the name: “Lune et Soleil” (moon and sun). Cast, stamped, hammered and handmade spinning straps of alternating 18-carat gold and 925 Sterling silver, extensively marked with master marks. From Ouazzane, Morocco. Because this specific bracelet is by its master mark the work of the goldsmith Harmed from Ouezzane 4. He uses a traditional, hundreds of years old casting technique, which was transferred by the Jews, using earthen molds with olive oil. Harmed is one of the last two or three professionals who master this traditional process. He has at least two famous and unique models of “Lune et Soleil” to his name.
Word of thanks:
Of all oral sources that we have consulted in Morocco and beyond, one in particular must be named. It is Mohamed Bari from Marrakech, a learned Moroccan with invaluable knowledge of the ethnic jewels and the culture of North Africa. We have interviewed him several times, and he has been the one who gave us the most pronounced and detailed information about the true use and the actual composition of the “bracelet à douze pointes” as well as some other Moroccan and North African “bracelets d’auto-défense et de combat” which are mentioned so scarcely in the available literature. Mohamed Bari has in the past made an invaluable contribution to various publications on the ethnic jewelry of North Africa, Morocco in particular.
A second article in the series “From Weapon to Jewel” by Taco Meeuwsen et Mohamed Saadouni, is in the making. To be continued therefore.
1. Tamaziɣt is the language of the Imazighen (Berbers) in Morocco, that language is divided into three main dialects: Tamaziɣt (spoken in the Middle Atlas and Southeast), Tashelhiyt or Souss-Berbers, spoken in the High Atlas, the Anti-Atlas and southwest. Tariffiyt (or Riffian) spoken in the Rif area (the north and northeast of Morocco). You also have Taqbaylit as a language in Algeria, Tamasheq (Tuareg language) in southern Algeria, the Sahara and in countries such as Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Libya. Tifinagh is the ancient writing of the Berbers.
2. Islam has forbidden this traditional decoration for centuries, but in remote areas the women of the Berber tribes continue to apply the tattoos.
3. Also called ‘Cire perdue’ in French. A casting technique that uses a melting mold from paraffin or a soft clay wax. The silver shape thus obtained is then further processed and beautified by a silversmith.
4. In the book: Goldenberg, André. Rabaté, Marie-Rose. Bijoux du Maroc du Haut Atlas à la Méditerranée, depuis le temps des juifs jusqu’à la fin du XXe siècle, the goldsmith Harmed from Ouezzane is extensively described and depicted. His works are world famous and a dozen are purchased annually by the Royal House of Morocco as a promotional gift for important international guests.
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Information about the authors:
Taco Meeuwsen is art historian (MEd), publicist, consultant, author and photographer. He is a former teacher and lecturer at Artez School of the Arts in Arnhem, strategic management consultant for the government, and owner of ErgensinHolland. He owns House ErgensinHolland a collection of artifacts and cultural expressions from the larger Maghreb, the Sub-Sahara and beyond. Various publications appeared from his hand, on an array of subjects, including (modern) art and culture.
Mohamed Saadouni is a Berberologist & Arabist (Drs), works at the Leiden University Library, and conducts research into the Berber heritage (material and immaterial). He is a connoisseur of the culture of the Imazighen in Morocco and is himself Amazigh. From his hand various publications appeared on the linguistics and culture of the Imazighen in Morocco.
Both authors jointly publish articles and are currently working together on a series of publications on some unique expressions of Amazigh art and culture entitled “Homme de Bois, Terre de Fer, Peuple d”Or”. The expenditure will appear in 2019.