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April 6, 2010

Not Just a Necklace

Turathuna Center Exhibit Explores Society Through Jewelry

JewelryTraditional Palestinian jewelry is not simply an aesthetic artifact. Instead, it is a window into marriage traditions, community symbols, minority affairs, economic fluctuations and women’s independence, among others. So while jewelry may seem like a fairly frivolous pursuit, a new exhibit at the Bethlehem University Turathuna Center explores the meaning in a necklace.

As in many cultures, Palestinian jewelry was most strongly associated with marriage and bride-wealth. The jewelry a bride received from her groom was another part of the marriage contract negotiated between families, and it represented both the wealth of the groom and the regard his family had for his bride. “By wearing the jewelry,” the Turathuna exhibit explains, “a woman was making a public statement not only about her husband but also about herself, for it shows that she must be highly regarded and appreciated to receive so much.”

JewelryInterestingly, this statement of regard was also the bride’s exclusive property, to be used as she saw fit. So while the process of bride-wealth may not sound very empowering for women, the traditional jewelry system gave women at least a small measure of financial control. In many cases, women were quite literally wearing the family finances. Some women also invested in their jewelry collections with earnings they received from small enterprises like produce sales and preserved their own kind of nest egg should their families need additional income during hard times.

The jewelry items themselves were often a physical symbol of protection. Some beads, similar to popular tourist trinkets today, were meant to ward off the “evil eye” — jealous glances that could harm the object of envy — while others were worn to promote health or prevent certain diseases.

Jewelry makers themselves were a mix of local craftsmen and foreign artisans, who came to Palestinian areas either escaping financial downturns at home or capitalizing Palestinian prosperity. Many of these artisans represented also minority religious communities and passed down their unique artistic signatures within families.

Gradually, of course, the markets and meanings of Palestinian jewelry changed — replaced by different materials, meanings and centers of production — but these traditional forms remain an important part of Palestinian cultural heritage. Jewelry from the Bethlehem University collection is currently on display in Turathuna Center, open Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m.

JewelryInformation on the history of Palestinian jewelry was drawn from: Palestinian Costume, Jehan S. Rajab, London, Kegan Paul International, c.1989 and Palestinian Costume, Shelagh Weir, London, British Museum Publications, Ltd. C. 1989.

The Turathuna Palestinian Heritage Center exists to preserve and promote Palestinian cultural heritage.  Its collection began in 1990, when support from the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Pontifical Mission to Palestine made it possible to dedicate a section of the Bethlehem University Library to Palestinian heritage items. The Turathuna of today was built in 2000 as an addition to the existing library through the generosity of Ireland aid.

Turathuna holdings—including computerized oral histories, historic newspapers on microfilm and a rare book collection—are available as a resource for the entire community. Visitors to the University may be particularly interested in the Turathuna display cases, which house a series of permanent and rotating exhibitions dedicated to Palestinian history and culture. Exhibit items, including the jewelry currently on display, were made possible through the generosity of individual private donors.


Bethlehem University Foundation
Phone: +1-240-241-4381
Fax: +1-240-553-7691
Beltsville, MD USA
Bethlehem University in the Holy Land
Phone: +972-2-274-1241
Fax: +972-2-274-4440
Bethlehem, Palestine