Sunday, July 04, 2010

Hand of Fatima - a buyer's guide

In Morocco, you can see the hand of Fatima just about everywhere. It’s a decorative element found as hinges or knockers on the massive cedarwood doors of important houses as well as in jewellery. It’s thought that this open hand, or khamsa (meaning five), is a good luck charm that wards off the ‘evil eye’.

detail of a riad door with a Hand of Fatima hinge on the right

The khamsa became widely used as a decorative element with the spread of Islam, but it had nevertheless been used as a charm even in pre-Islamic times, by the Babylonians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and the ancient Indians.

The khamsa makes one of the most popular souvenirs of Morocco. It can be worn as a necklace, a pendant, earrings, rings or in a larger composite piece of jewellery. Within the piece, other elements can sometimes be found such as an eye, a dagger, a flower, or even a Star of David.

old khamsat (left and right); the middle one is a copy of an old design

Most khamsat (the plural form in Arabic) are made of silver and are chiselled with designs or set with semi-precious stones, or sometimes enameled.

this khamsa is around 80 years old

Fatima was the youngest daughter of the Prophet Mohamed. In the Muslim hierarchy in heaven, she is one of the first four women (the others being the Prophet’s wife Khadija, the Virgin Mary and Asiye – Moses’ stepmother). Fatima was married to Ali, her cousin and childhood friend. From their children are descended all the Muslims who claim to be cherif, or direct descendants of the Prophet (King Mohamed VI being one of them).

Every shop and market stall in the Fez medina (and elsewhere in Morocco) seems to have khamsat for sale – in rings, pendants, earrings and doorknockers. Where to start? Well, first of all, the doorknockers are usually made of brass and can be full sculptures of hands, or flat stylised hands. When it comes to jewellery, the choice is between cheap, massed-produced metal or old (and even antique) silver pieces.

In good quality jewellery shops there’s usually a fairly wide range of old or antique pendants as well as copies of old designs. You can tell the difference by the brightness of the silver. Even when polished, an old khamsa will still be duller than a new one. The best come from the Tiznit region of Morocco.

the shiny middle khamsa is new, flanked by two old ones

A new khamsa that’s a copy will cost around Dh400-600, depending on the work involved and the size. An old piece will be more expensive, starting at around Dh600 and reaching about Dh1500 for an antique. Old ones will usually be weighed to determine their price, and the current rate for old Berber silver is Dh50 per gram.

antique khamsa

The View from Fez thanks Abdou Bouzidi-Idrissi for his help in this article. The khamsat featured above can be found at his shop on Tala'a Kebira (ph 0535 636 946).

No comments: