YEMENI POTTERY: A Happy Marriage of Art, Craft and Functionality [Archives:2001/44/Culture]

October 22 2001

Karen Dabrowska
Yemen is a country of pots: water vessels, incense burners, coffee rosters, jugs and cups, smoking apparatuses, cooking pots, braziers and toys which all provide a penetrating flash of insight into Yemeni history, culture and social life.
Archaeologists have worked on sites in Yemen for several decades and research has been carried out on pottery dating back to the fourth and fifth centuries BC.
Incense burners (majmarah) are amongst the most brightly-decorated, artistic pots, as they are used for the conspicuous consumption of a precious commodity, which has been traded and used in South Arabia for about 3000 years. The legend of the Queen of Sheba reflects the power and wealth of the kingdoms in northern Yemen which engaged in the long-distance trade in incense between South Arabia and Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, India and even China.
The trade for which the region became famous ended in the fourth century AD, principally due to the spread of Christianity which replaced earlier religions characterized by rituals requiring the use of incense, the economic decline of Rome and warring between south Arabian states.
As in the past, incense is used in the home primarily during social gatherings and presented as a gift. The incense burner is often passed from guest to guest, each person receiving it with their right hand, drawing it closer to their face and waving the vapor to their nose with their left hand while praising the host. In some rural areas incense is burned as protection against the ‘evil-eye.’ It also has medicinal qualities.
Until recently, all water for use in the home had to be fetched daily by the women of the household, who transported it in pottery jars or gourds until plastic buckets or metal jerry cans were introduced. Some water jars were intended purely for decorative use. The largest storage jar (zir) holds up to 50 liters of water, the medium-sized jar (jahlah) up to 20 liters, and the small-sized jars (kuz and jarrah) up to one litre.
In many areas of Yemen food is often served in the vessels in which it is cooked. Traditional cooking pots are either of grey steatite stone or round-bottomed pots (burmah) of clay. Stone vessels retain heat more effectively and are less likely to break.
In Yemen as in other Middle Eastern countries, sharing the water-pipe is an important social activity which binds people together as the hose of the pipe is passed from guest to guest.
The water container is made of pottery which is particularly effective since the water is kept at a low temperature and cools the smoke more efficiently as it is drawn through.
The national drink in Yemen, qishir, is made from the husks (outer shells) of coffee-beans, combined with selected spices – cardamon, ginger or cinnamon – and sometimes sugar. Coffee (bunn) made from the bean (safi) is also drunk but less often.
Qishir is served in unglazed but often burnished pots with a tall neck and one or two handles called mamanah. The stalks are stuffed in the spout of the pot to hold back the coffee grounds.
Partially glazed, bowl-shaped coffee pots, with a simple spout, are called masabb and have a variety of other uses, including feeding babies.
There are few toys in Yemen, possibly because childhood is short and children are expected to take on adult responsibilities in the home at an early age. Traditionally clay toys consist mainly of miniature copies of water vessels and depictions of animals.
In traditional Yemeni society potters did not have a high social status as they engaged in an occupation which was regarded as demeaning. Historically, the farmers, merchants and educated elite who formed the majority of the Yemeni population would not intermarry with members of low-status groups who included petty market traders and anyone whose occupation brought them into contact with “polluting substances.” These attitudes reinforced the potters monopoly on their family-based professions as in the town of Tarim in Wadi Hadramaut, where a locally renowned “guild” of hereditary potters developed.
Despite the low social position of crafts people, potters were given special protection under tribal law, and anyone who harmed them was obliged to pay especially high penalties. The erosion of Yemen’s social hierarchy began with the proclamation of a republic in 1962 and today people from various social groups can mix more freely.
Potters are found working throughout Yemen. While in some villages several families earn their living from making and selling pots, most pottery is produced by a single potter or a pottery-making family in the village. Their production supplies local demand only. Most potters are men, but in a few rural areas women potters work alongside them (as in Qahzet near Ibb and Sarab near Bani Hoshaysh).
Children join in production at a young age: traditionally, the craft passes from generation to generation, a son learning from his father, or a nephew from an uncle. Workshops are always close to the potters’ homes or even inside the house with kilns nearby.
Potting is a full-time, year round profession but some potters also grow vegetables and fruit for domestic consumption.
Clay is easily obtainable from natural deposits and is not traded or transported over long distances. Modelling is the simplest method of manufacture. The clay is worked by hand from a solid lump. Toy animals are also made in this way. Coiled pots are made out of a series of rolled lengths or ‘sausages’ of clay . Pots are also made using a rudimentary foot-operated wheel.
An undecorated pot is the exception rather than the rule. Traditionally colors were made from natural pigments: black from a mixture of soot and oil and shades of red and yellow from earth ochres. Today bright designs are possible with chemical colors of imported Quink pen ink in yellow, purple, blue, green, red and black. On the island of Socotra “dragon’s blood,” a red-colored resin obtained from the Dracaena Cinnibari tree, is commonly used.
Unlike other Yemeni craft items which are sold by professional merchants, the potters themselves, or members of their family sell their wares directly from their kilns or at the hundreds of weekly markets held in villages.
For transportation, pots are strung together on a wood frame, packed in baskets or wrapped two or three together in matting bags and carried by donkey or camel.
With the exception of the more decorative items, Yemeni pots are cheap and easily broken, providing a steady market but low return for the potters. Rather than being a deliberately ‘built-in obsolescence,’ the fragility of the pots would seem to be a function of the resources the potter has on hand, particularly the scarcity and expense of fuel for the kilns which results in low-fired and vulnerable wares.
Many items of Yemeni domestic pottery have been replaced by mass-produced plastic, metal and cheap imported porcelain alternatives. To some extent these carry out the same functions as their predecessors, and are simply more durable substitutes. In some cases, however, they are higher-status objects for conspicuous use in the consumption of key commodities: smart thermos flasks have replaced pottery water storage vessels when serving water to guests during afternoon social gatherings, and ornate metal water-pipe bases have superseded pottery ones.
The decline in demand for certain traditional pottery wares also reflects recent social change in Yemen and the adoption of Western-style commodities and tastes.
Yemeni potters face an uncertain future. The older generation and the poor in rural areas still use a large number of pottery items in the home, but with growing modernization the demands for such wares may steadily decline. Fortunately, the tourist industry has given the centuries-old craft, which has been declining since the early 1960s, a new lease on life. “Craft” items, especially incense burners, are eagerly sought after. A smart Sana’a hotel, converted from a traditional multi-story house, has lamp bases made of pottery incense burners in its bedrooms and pots of all shapes and sizes are by tourists for their decorative and artistic qualities.
According to Sheila Weir, Senior Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Yemeni traditional crafts or adapted crafts, pots included, will survive for some time to come. Miniature bread baskets are being used as paper clip holders and carved stone name plaques are increasing to parallel the growth of government bureaucracy.
(*This article is based on information in the Catalogue of the Littlewood Collection of Yemeni Pottery by Sarah Posey published by the British Museum Press).