Guest Blogger: Noam Sienna, henna artist and scholar
Jerusalem, Israel and Boston, MA
North Africa, until recently, was home to many ancient and significant Jewish communities, stretching from the very edge of Western Morocco all the way across to Egypt. It is unclear when the first Jews arrived in North Africa, but it appears that already in the Roman period groups of Jewish merchants were settling in the Roman province of Mauretania—present-day Morocco— as well as the other Roman provinces of North Africa. These Jews, as they migrated southwards, settled among the Amazigh [Berber] tribes, working as silversmiths and jewelers. They developed their own dialect of Amazigh, called Judeo-Berber, and lived in the Atlas Mountains among the Amazigh tribes there. The Arab conquest in the 7th century brought more Jews, who settled in middle and western Morocco, speaking Judeo-Arabic. These Arab and Berber Jews were joined by Ladino-speaking Iberian Jews [Sephardim] who arrived after the expulsions from Spain in 1492, Sicily in 1493, and Portugal in 1497 and settled in the urban centers of northern Morocco. These communities spread and flourished in Morocco until the beginning of the 20th century, when emigration began towards the Land of Israel—then Ottoman Palestine. With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the vast majority of Jewish communities in the Diaspora, including the Jews of North Africa, were expelled, fled, or otherwise migrated to Israel in the following decades.
A Jewish Amazigh girl from Tinmal/Tin Mel in the High Atlas area.
North Africa (known then as “the Barbary States”) was a popular destination for travelers in the 18th and 19th centuries; there had been significant European presence in North Africa from the 18th century onwards, leading to the French military conquests of Algeria in 1830 and Tunisia in 1881, and the signing of Morocco as a French Protectorate in 1912. Colonial European travellers—both Jews and non-Jews—often mention henna use by Jewish communities in their writings, which provide us with our main knowledge of Jewish henna practices in this period. The mentions are generally short, without information about the techniques or patterns used, or the symbolism represented by the henna ceremony. This lack of detail has several causes. Firstly, these travellers were outsiders who generally did not speak the local language, and were often there only for a short time; their information came from their informants rather than what they observed directly. They were rarely ever present at actual henna ceremonies; they usually saw only the hennaed hands and feet. Secondly, these travellers were for the most part European men (although some were women), who were uninterested in, and sometimes even strongly repulsed by, foreign women’s standards of beauty, the practice of henna, in particular. Furthermore, as men, they were not privy to the world of the women in these traditionally conservative societies, and not particularly interested in it, either. In the rare cases when they did have opportunities to observe henna use and were interested enough to record it, they were hindered by their unfamiliarity with henna or the way it worked. For these reasons, these early descriptions that we have of Jewish henna use contain many gross misunderstandings and misinterpretations, along with a severe lack of relevant detail. Nonetheless, they represent a significant source in tracing the history and geography of Jewish henna traditions.
One such traveller’s account comes from the English physician William Lemprière, who visited Morocco between 1789 and 1790. He described the appearance and dress of the Jewish women, presumably from his own observation; he then briefly described their wedding ceremonies, but it is unclear whether he actually saw any, or whether he is merely reporting what he had heard about them; he also does not specify if he is speaking of a particular Jewish community or of a particular area. He writes:
Their [the Jews’] marriages are celebrated with much festivity for some time previous to the ceremony, and the intended bride, with all her female relations, go through the form of having their faces painted red and white, and their hands and feet stained yellow, with an herb named HENNA. A variety of figures are marked out on them with a needle, and then this herb, which is powdered and mixed with water into a paste, is worked into the holes made by the needle, and these marks continue on the hands and feet for a long space of time (Lemprière, 1793, pp. 204-205).
. The other side of the bag is labeled in Arabic.”]It is highly unlikely that the henna was rubbed into broken skin, as this would lead to a permanent tattoo, and Lemprière notes that the stain is long-lasting but not permanent. Furthermore, we have no record of henna being used for tattooing; in cultures that practiced both tattooing and henna (as in North Africa), the two art forms were separate traditions and were not linked in cultural practice. Rather, it is probable that Lemprière had been told that the henna was done with a needle, and he interpreted that to mean that it was tattooed. However, it was common in Morocco to use a needle, a khol stick, or a small twig as a tool to draw patterns on the skin; this technique continues to be used until the present day. Elsewhere, Lemprière describes the Moorish women of the sultan’s harem as having their hands and feet hennaed with patterns as well, clearly from his personal observations. The dark red, almost-black color on the palms would result from multiple, repeated applications of henna:
The inside of the hands, and the nails, are stained of a deep red, so deep indeed that in most lights it borders on black; and the back of the hands have several fancy marks of the same color. The feet are painted in a similar manner with the hands (ibid., pp. 397-398).
A French diplomat, Narcisse Cotte, also noted the use of henna at Jewish weddings. He describes the process of beautification and preparation for the wedding in the mellah [Jewish quarter] of Tangier:
Les cils sont noircis avec une poudre qu’elles appellent koheul, et cet artifice prète à des yeux naturellement grands et brillants un éclat singulier et des scintillements étranges. Les unes se contentent d’étaler du vermillion sur leurs joues; les autres les couvrent d’un fard blanc, et y dessinent, avec du cinabre, des triangles qui rappellent les barbares peintures en honneur parmi les sauvages du nouveau monde. Toutes ont les pieds et les mains teints d’une couleur résineuse d’un rouge sombre: elles l’obtiennent en pressant du henné, sorte de poix gluante, autour de la partie qu’elles prétendent ainsi embellir. Enfin, en passant sur leurs lèvres et leurs gencives une écorce colorante, elles obtiennent une autre teinture rougeâtre qui met le dernier sceau à tant de charmes (Cotte, 1860, pg. 148).
[The eyelashes are blackened with a powder that they call koheul, and this artifice gives their naturally large and shining eyes a unique sparkle and strange glittering. Some of the women please themselves by spreading vermillion on their cheeks; others cover them with white make-up and paint on them, with cinnabar, triangles that bring to mind the barbaric painting practiced among the savages of the New World. All of them have their feet and hands painted with a resinous color of a sombre red: they obtain it by pressing henna, a sort of sticky paste, around the parts that they desire to embellish in this way. Finally, in passing over their lips and gums a coloring bark, they obtain another reddish tint which puts the final stamp on their many charms.]
A Jewish bride from Rabat, from Jean Besancenot's Costumes de Maroc.
Similarly, a contemporary British traveller, James Richardson, described the use of henna and other cosmetics in a Jewish wedding in Mogador [present-day Essaouira, a city on the western coast of Morocco]. He did not see the henna ceremony itself, but only its after-effect.
Her [the Jewish bride’s] face was artistically painted; cheeks vermillion; lips browned, with an odoriferous composition; eye-lashes blackened with antimony; and on the forehead and tips of the chin little blue stars. The palms of the hands and nails were stained with henna, or brown-red, and her feet were naked, with the toe-nails and soles henna-stained (Richardson, 1860, pg. 189).
These descriptions of the Jewish bride’s appearance and decoration are consistent with drawings and photographs of Jewish brides from the late 19th and early 20th century, e.g. in Besancenot’s Costumes et types du Maroc (1942).
A British colonel recorded in his journal an interesting ritual use of henna by the Jewish community of Taza, in northern Morocco, to prepare for the holiday of Pesah [Passover]:
The Jews have been extremely busy the last few days, white-washing their houses, and making preparations for the celebration of the feast of the passover, which commences to-morrow… The Jewesses here not only dye their nails, but also their hands for this festival. Their manner of performing this operation is as follows: having made a paste of henna as thick as dough, they cover their hands with it to the thickness of a penny piece, they then have them bandaged up for the night; in the morning the paste being rubbed off, their hands are left a beautiful red; and so firmly does the dye take, that it remains on for eight or ten days, without any occasion for renewing the operation; at the expiration of the eight days, which time the feast lasts, they wash their hands and return to their usual occupations (Scott, 1842, pg. 81).
He seems to suggest that since the henna lasts for the duration of the festival, there was some connection between the presence of the henna and the special time of the holiday; the henna seems to have been a way of marking a particular time as ‘celebration time’.
The European Jewish historian Nahum Slouschz spent many months travelling through Morocco; he made seven trips between 1906 and 1916, including a trip in 1913 through the High Atlas recording life among the Amazigh Jews – one of the few contemporaneous records we have of Jewish life in this region. He notes that in Teluet [today in the province of Ouarzazate, south-central Morocco], the Jewish women would dye their hair, eyebrows, and fingers with henna once a week in honor of the Sabbath (Slouschz, 1927, pg. 467).
A close-up of the bride's hands from the top photo. Note the hennaed fingers.
Through travellers’ accounts, we see descriptions of Jewish henna use in communities in North Africa, the Middle East, Yemen and India. Travellers record Jewish communities using henna regularly to dye hands, feet, nails, and hair, and there are records of henna ceremonies for holidays and celebrations (e.g. Passover). However, it is the pre-wedding ceremony that dominates—the hennaed hands and feet of Jewish brides were remarked upon by numerous travellers, and were often singled out for mention, along with her kohled eyes. Unfortunately, it is only the after-effects that are most commonly seen, and the henna ceremony itself is rarely described from actual experience. While some travellers seem to indicate that henna was applied in patterns others make no mention of patterns, even in discussing the same geographical area. It would appear that there were different conventions for Jewish henna, depending on circumstance and social standing.
These travellers’ accounts, while valuable records of Jewish henna use, must be critically examined as documents written through European, modernizing, colonial lenses. As mentioned above, many factors hinder accurate representations of Jewish henna in colonial travel accounts, if represented at all. Many travelogues describing the communities mentioned above made no mention of henna practices; either the authors did not see any, or they saw them but did not know what henna was, or they did not think henna was significant enough to warrant inclusion in their narrative. The inconsistent record of henna use—being described in one account of a particular community but not in another—demonstrates that the inclusion of henna use in a travelogue was highly arbitrary. Therefore, if henna use in a particular community is not recorded it cannot be assumed that they did not use henna, especially if we have sources from a later period that indicate traditional henna use.
In these narratives, the travellers’ unfamiliarity with henna is apparent; they are unclear as to the mechanisms of creating henna body art—is it the leaves? the roots? the juice? Is henna a paint? a dye?—and they frequently confuse henna with related body adornments, such as tattoos and kohl. These travellers rarely made any attempt to understand how the ‘natives’ felt about henna or why they were doing it. Nonetheless, these sources remain important historical documents. While the pre-wedding henna ceremony is not formally required for any halakhic [Jewish legal] purpose, the cultural purpose it serves is indispensable, and this begins to be seen through the numerous descriptions of henna as one of the most prominent characteristics of Jewish marriages as seen by European travellers in the 18th – 20th centuries.
Besancenot, Jean. Costumes et types du Maroc. Paris: Horizons de France, 1942.
Cotte, Narcisse. Le Maroc Contemporain. Paris: Charpentier, 1860.
Lemprière, William. A Tour from Gibraltar to Tangier, Sallee, Mogadore, Santa Cruz, Tarudant; and Thence Over Mount Atlas, to Morocco: Including a Particular Account of the Royal Harem, &c. London: J. Walter, Charing-Cross, 1793.
Richardson, James. Travels in Morocco, by the late James Richardson, Author of “A Mission of Central Africa”, “Travels in the Desert of Sahara”, &c. Edited by his Widow. London: J. Skeet, Charing-Cross. 1860.
Scott, Colonel. A journal of a residence in the Esmailla of Abd-el-Kader and of travels in Morocco and Algiers. London: Whittaker and Co., 1842.
Slouschz, Nahum. Travels in North Africa. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1927.