Yemen’s silversmiths long for shiny past [Archives:2004/712/Culture]

February 16 2004
A mahweeti necklace made of silver and decorated with gems. YT photo
A mahweeti necklace made of silver and decorated with gems. YT photo
Long before money made the world go round, Yemeni silver reigned supreme as a sign of wealth and power in ancient times.
Today, Yemen's few silversmiths are trying desperately to eke out a living in this poor Arab state, which is suffering from a shortage of foreign tourists because of its reputation as a hotbed for al Qaeda militants.
“Silver is one of Yemen's most renowned treasures,” said Mohammed Saygal, who hails from one of Sanaa's oldest silversmith families. “For centuries, we were the leading source of silver handicrafts and jewellery to the Middle East and Asia, but today, silver making is a dying art.”
When Europe was struggling through the Iron Age nearly 2,000 years ago, Yemen, with its prime location on the ancient Silk Route, was exporting silver, frankincense and precious stones to the world.
In modern Yemen, only 20 families still work in silver and Sanaa's ancient quarter has only a handful of stores offering silver-coated daggers, chunky necklaces and inlaid trunks to a trickle of buyers.
Most Yemenis are too poor to buy luxuries such as jewellery, so tourists are the prime market for the silversmiths.
But Yemen's tourism industry has taken a beating in recent years.
In 1998, four Western tourists were killed after being taken hostage by a group linked to al Qaeda. In 2000, the US Navy destroyer USS Cole was attacked by al Qaeda affiliates in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17.
The US State Department currently advises its citizens to avoid nonessential travel to Yemen.
The country's crackdown on Islamic militants after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States has done little to ally foreigners' fears.
Assyrian texts from the seventh century BC extol the virtues of Yemeni silver, while Roman descriptions of the country mention an abundance of the metal.
Each region in this diverse land had its own silver-making tradition, ranging from the box-like, jewel-inlaid necklaces of the southeastern province of Hadramout to the more delicate, flirtatious designs of the capital.
Silver was traditionally a source of power for Yemenis, especially women who regarded it as insurance against calamit y.
In a society where women have always dressed modestly, silver jewellery was a way to attract male attention. Men gave their wives silver dowries and a woman's worth was indicated by the amount of silver she possessed.
The decline of Yemen's silver market began in the last century with the exodus of the country's Jewish artisans who accounted for 80 per cent of the silversmiths. About 3,000 Jews left to settle in Israel in the 1950s, depriving Yemen of one of its most renowned traditions.
Modern silversmiths such as Ahmed Lotf, who works at Sanaa's famous Ghamdan Palace, bemoan their departure, saying their fine filigree work was far superior to their modern Muslim counterparts.
“The Jews were the best and their work fetches a lot of money. Today's artisans are not as interested as they hardly get enough money for their work,” he said.
Most of the wares now on display in Sanaa's market come from tribesmen who sell the family silver to make ends meet. Others are modern replicas lacking the finesse of ancient handicrafts.
“Many silversmiths have moved into clothing retail because it makes more money. If only we had more buyers, then the industry would boom again,” said Ibrahim Aslaan, who runs the family store in Sanaa.
Yemen's top tourism official agrees.
“All of Yemen's artisans are suffering due to the slump in tourism,” said Mutahar Taqi, chairman of the General Authority for Tourism Development. “We can only hope that things start to look up so we can keep our heritage and culture alive.” Reuters