Jambiyya Rooted in Traditional & Cultural Heritage [Archives:2001/40/Culture]

October 1 2001

Saleh Abdulbaqi
Cultural Editor
Yemen Times
Yemen still preserves a great number of traditional practices which reflect its rich civilization throughout history.
The handicraft industry is witness to this rich history, as Yemenis have mastered the making of certain cultural items ages ago. Part of this industry is the jambiyya that dates back thousands of years. The great demand for this piece of art has made it very valuable.
Yemenis used to wear the jambiyya as a weapon for self-defense. Nowadays, it is no longer used as a weapon, it has rather become a part of a man’s adornment, just like hand accessories.
The name jambiyya is believed to derive from the word ‘janb’ (next to). It is said that this name was attached to it because it accompanies man wherever he goes.
Studies and research done on a number of ancient jambiyyas with ornamental engravings on them in the Dhafar museum in Ibb, show that the jambiyya first emerged in the third millennium BC. This result is supported by the discovery of ancient dead bodies in Hadhramaut, on which clear traces outlining the jambiyya were seen.
Other studies suggest that the jambiyya dates back to the seventh century BC. Such studies were based on a statue of Maad Kareb taking the shape of a jambiyya. The first jambiyyas were shaped like swords, and through time they developed into the present shape.
The jambiyya is made of the head or the handle, which the most expensive part of the jambiyya. In fact, the value of a jambiyya depends on this part which is made of animals’ horns, giraffes’ bones, camels’ nails, etc.
Jambiyyas are usually named for their type of handle. For example, there are the Seifani jambiyyas which are the most expensive kinds. They are also called the heart because they are made from the inside bone of rhinoceroses. Then come the Assadi jambiyyas. This name is derived from an ancient Yemeni king named Asad Al-Kamel. Horns of rhinoceroses are imported from Kenya, India and the Horn of Africa. Other horns are local and they are also expensive.
Usually, the older the jambiyya is, the more expensive it will be. It is first dark, then light, and finally the color turns transparent, just like glass. Jambiyyas of this kind are 400-1500 years old. Such jambiyyas are worth millions. At the same time, some kinds are very cheap, costing about 1000 riyals (US $6). Nowadays, the best kind of jambiyya is getting more and more expensive, especially after banning the hunting of rhinoceroses.
Handles are also adorned by two pieces of gold or silver on each side.
Blades are very carefully made. They are always sharp with hollow lines on each side that allow air to get into the wound when stabbing it at a body.
Blades are also of different kinds. Some of these kinds are the Hadhrami, Adani, Al-Mabrad, etc. These also play a role in determining the value of the jambiyya. The best of these blades are the Hadhrami which are made in Hadhramaut.
To protect the jambiyya and to give it a more decorative shape, Yemenis tend to make the “aseeb,” a sheath that is made of the best kind of wood.
The aseeb falls into two categories according to the kind of wood used in it. The first is called Hashidi, which is the most widespread in Yemen. The other one is Bakili, which is more like a sword’s sheath. This kind was worn by a specific group of high ranking people in Lahj, and Abyan.
The Belt
The belt is the last piece of art to complete the final shape of any jambiyya. It is very carefully adorned. And again, it is good workmanship, engravings, etc. that determine its value. Belts are also of different kinds.
Usually, golden threads are used to adorn the belts. First a drawing is made on a piece of cloth, then comes the embroidery. The best kinds of belts are called Al-Mufadhali.