Excerpt B
"Tribal Tattoos
and Body Art of
I R A Q and the Middle East"

Ancient Tattooing in the Middle East

2003 Phoenix & Arabeth
(May Not be used without permission)


TATTOOING and other forms of body-marking, such as painting, scarification or branding, and cicatrization, and the use of henna and kohl have been observed and recorded in many regions of the world.

Here we shall include some comments and observations of a general character in order to set the stage for our detailed studies of these primitive customs in the Middle East and extending westward into North Africa and eastward into India.

Social Processes Painting, tattooing, and scarification in ancient times and among primitives of modern times seem to have been social processes tending toward unity and order. Such body-marks have indicated religious dedication as well as a wholesale bid for divine protection extending through this life into the exigencies of the life to come.

All three techniques of body-marking have been used to identify tribal affiliations as well as group loyalties. In this manner mankind has variously indicated community of interest, desire to achieve accord with one another, and pure gregariousness. Even distinctive markings such as the branding of criminals served in the establishment of order.

Frequently, body-markings have been used as weapons against the mischief caused by the various demons of disease. An interesting paradox is to be found in indications that the curative use of body-marking may eventually be the last survival of one of the oldest and most universal customs in the world.

Painting During the Palaeolithic period red ocher was used extensively. Not only was it a favorite pigment for cave wall paintings, but lumps of it have been found in the burials, beginning with the Neanderthal grave at La Chapelle-aux-Saints. This substance still adheres to the skeletons of the Aurignacian and later. Red-stained scapulae, perhaps used as palettes, and reindeer-bone paint containers -- in one of which are lumps of red ocher -- have been recovered from the earth of cave floors.

When the European explorers discovered various groups of primitive peoples, they found this same predilection for red ocher. For example, in South Africa the Bushmen painted the bodies of the deceased with this pigment. The Dieri tribe of Australia, used to send off large expeditions to procure the red ocher, to which they did not have convenient access. Explorers were told or observed that the red ocher was substituted for human blood in certain ceremonies.

Doubtless, prehistoric men had connected the inanimate state with the cessation of the flow of blood from a body. The use of red ocher in burials may have been, therefore, an attempt to renew life in the body so that it might function in a future existence.

Egyptian mummies, attributed to the 12th and 11th centuries B.C., were found with faces painted red. The faces of Inca mummies from the cemetery of Ancon (ca. A.D. 1lOO) had also been stained with red pigment.

The color red, from Palaeolithic times, seems thus to have symbolized life blood. The images of the ancient deities were usually painted with this color. The practice was general in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, Arabia, and among the ancient Germans and Slavs. Today Turkish and Arab children often wear pieces of red cloth, coral, or glass on their foreheads.

According to the teachings of the Talmud, the color red protects not only human beings and animals, but also trees. As a powerful protection against the Evil Eye it has been used almost universally throughout Europe in many ways and fashions.

In Syria, the houses are protected from the Evil Eye with painted red marks; among the Christians this is usually a red cross; among the Jews a red hand or a seven-branched candlestick; and among the Moslems a sacred palm or pentacle.

Other colors also have been considered useful in primitive man's struggle against malign influences. Arab children often have white strings and pieces of white porcelain hung in their hair. In Svria the people protect themselves by hanging white stones around their necks. The people of Sierra Leone paint their faces and bodies white to avert calamity.

While white arrests and diverts the Evil Eye, black neutralizes the malign power because it appears dirty and provokes no envy. For this reason, in ancient times people protected their children by smearing them with dirt or mud. A particularly attractive child in Serbia had its nose smeared with charcoal in more modern times. The Turks paint black spots on their foreheads. Pretty girls in Arabia protect themselves by disfiguring their cheeks with black spots. Black marks painted on white walls or single black stones incorporated into white buildings guard against the Evil Eye for the inhabitants of the Oasis of Siwa, in Tunis, and in other places in the Orient. Western peoples have long been familiar with the emotional significance of white and black.

Among the American Indians there was a great deal of body painting, and even today, in the ceremonial sand painting, color is as important as design, particularly sand painting of therapeutic intent.

It is most interesting to record that the Dakota Indians claimed the use of war paint had been taught to them by divine beings. This divine origin for body painting was also advanced by the Negritos of the Andaman Islands.

The custom of dyeing the hands of men and women is common throughout the Middle East and adjacent territories. It had its origin at least several thousand years before the dawn of the Christian Era. While the use of the pigment has been mainly concerned with personal embellishment, not infrequently the dye has been employed as a magical protection against the Evil Eye.

Kohl has been applied to enhance the beauty of women's eyes, or to make more piercing the eyes of men. However, belief in the magical and protective value of the pigment has been present in many regions.

It is interesting to note that the use of kohl and henna has a geographical distribution coinciding with the area in which the custom of tattooing has been recorded. Indeed, there appears to be some connection between the use of henna and kohl, tattooing, and tribal marks within this large area.

Tattooing Body-marking by puncture tattooing may have arisen from the desire to make painting on the skin permanent. On the other hand, the process may have developed by accident. If some cut or bruise seemed to assume a form of religious or magical significance, there would perhaps be an attempt to extend or duplicate it. This effort could have resulted in the evolution of the art of tattooing.

Still quite credible is the theory that puncture tattooing was a form of ceremonial blood-letting. In this connection it must be observed that the desire of modern Iraqi tattooers is to shed as little blood as possible during the process of tattooing.

There is archaeological evidence for puncture tattooing as early as the second millennium B.C. Puncture marks on mummy skins with duplicate signs painted on figurines have been found in Nubian burials of this age.

Considerable data have been collected to show that there has long existed a belief in the effficacy of tattooing in establishing a rapport between human and divine. For example, that "god-intoxicated" man, King Akhnaton of Egypt, is represented in reliefs as bearing the name of the god Aton on his body. The symbol of the goddess Neith was apparently tattooed on the arms and legs of Libyan cap-tives figured on the tomb walls of Seti I. Even today in North Africa a certain tattoo mark called the "Triangle of Tanit" has been identified as the symbol of the Carthagenian goddess Tanit, who was probably none other than the Libyan goddess Ta-Neit taken over by the Carthagenians.

In Greece, the worshipers of Dionysus were stamped with that god's symbol, the ivy leaf. In Syria-Palestine, the worshipers of the moon goddess Mylitta were marked with her figure or symbol on their hands or the backs of their necks. Later, Christians and Mohammedans bore tattoos as evidence of having made pilgrimages to sacred places.

The connection between tattooing and religious beliefs reveals itself in many ways. For example, there have been stories of divine agents who taught the art of tattooing. The people of Samoa and the Ainu of Japan both claim that such instruction was given them by two sister goddesses.

It has been the belief of many primitive peoples that tattooed marks will serve as identification in a world to come. Not only will gods recognize the newcomer to the spirit world, but the dead will recognize each other. Tattooing as a method of identification has been used by tribal groups as well as by more modern social units. It is also current among criminals and gangs.

Scarification Tribal markings among dark-skinned people have been accomplished by cicatrization. The technique of this form of scarification consists of gashing, irritation by caustic juices, and sometimes the rubbing in of dark pigments for emphasis. Particularly in Africa have cicatrized tribal marks reached a high development.

Branding is another form of scarification. The therapeutic origin of cutting and branding may have antedated either their religious or practical use as means of identification, etc. Definitely both techniques have held a long and often much respected place in the history of medicine.


Possibly the earliest evidence of tattooing in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley was found at Ur of the Chaldees. Woolley describes figurines from Al-Ubaid Period I (before 4000 B.C.) in the following terms: "On the shoulders of all, both back and front, there are marks which in the painted figures are in black, the others rendered by small attached lumps of clay; these I take to be coarse tattooing, like the cicatrices of some modern tribes of savages."

There are no references to tattooing among the Assyro-Babylonians from the contemporary writings. However, references to the related practice of branding are abundant.

Since the early 19th century, travelers have testified to the general use of tattooing in Iraq, especially among the females. Porter wrote (1821) that the women of Baghdad stained their bosoms with figures of circles, half-moons, stars, in a bluish stamp. He also mentioned the "tattooed necks" of the Arab fellah mothers.

A few years later, Buckingham (1827) described the Baghdad women of "the middling and inferior orders, having brown skins, and nothing agreeable in their countenances, except a dark and expressive eye . . . sometimes so barbarously tattooed as to have the most forbidding appearance." Concerning the "blue stains so common among the Bedouins of the Desert," he wrote:

Besides the staining of the lips with that deadly hue, anklets are marked around the legs, with lines extend-ing upward from the ankle, at equal distances, to thc calf of the legs; a wreath of blue flowers is made to encircle each breast, with a chain of the same pattern hanging perpendicularly between them; and, among some of the most determined belles, a zone, or girdle, of the same singular composition, is made to encircle the smallest part of the waist, imprinted on the skin in such a manner as to be for ever after indelible.

Contrasted were the women dwelling near Kish (Tell el-Uhaimir). Buckingham writes, "their women, who are in general fair, ruddy, and handsome, neither disfigure themselves by blue stains, nor veil themselves, after the manner of the Arabs."

Concerning the tattooers of Baghdad, Buckingham further remarked:

There are artists in Baghdad, whose profession it is to decorate the forms of ladies with the newest patterns of wreaths, zones, and girdles, for the bosom or the waist; and as this operation must occupy a con-siderable time, and many "sittings," as an English portrait-painter would express it, they must possess abundant opportunities of studying, in perfection, the beauties of the female form, in a manner not less satisfactory, perhaps, than that which is pursued in the Royal Academies of Sculpture and Painting in Europe.

Keppel (1827) described the Arab women of Goomrak on the Tigris:

Some of the women had rings in their noses, others wore necklaces of silver coins, and the hair of several of the girls was divided into long plaits, and completely studded with coins; they were all more or less tattooed on the face, hands, and feet, and some were marked on the ankles with punctures resembling the clock of a silk stocking.

Peters (1897-98), one of the excavators of Nippur, recorded that he had encountered at Shatra women wearing nose rings and decorated with blue tattooed designs. Banks (1912), excavator at Bismaya, wrote of the El Budair women northeast of Shatra:

The fingernails are dyed red with henna; blue marks are tattooed between the eyes and on the chin, and a system of tattooed vines runs over the entire body, terminating with the feet.

Hajji Fulanain (1928) describes a Marsh Arab bride east of Amara in the follow-ing words:

She was a pretty girl, sturdily built, barely fifteen; a deep fringe of black hair hid her forehead, a silver ring set with blue stones was in her nose, and her skin was decorated with indigo tattooing.

As we pass to the consideration of the original data collected in Iraq by the writer and his colleagues, it will be significant to compare our observations with those of earlier travelers, whose paths we often followed.

2003 Phoenix & Arabeth
May Not be used without permission

Excerpt A

Excerpts from:

Tribal Tattoos
and Body Art of
I R A Q and the Middle East

(includes Henna, Kohl, Scarification & Branding)

Vol. 3 of Phoenix & Arabeth's
Tribal Bible series on
Ancient and Tribal Tattooing

200 pages; 8.5" x 11" page size
130 pages of text; 24 color & 7 b/w photos
plus hundreds of designs illustrated

Available ONLY from Phoenix & Arabeth

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