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Ancient Islamic beads excavated in Mali

'Protective eye' beads

I’ve become quite fascinated by beads recently, particularly ancient beads as some of my African dealers have offered them to me. I love how much they have been a part of human cultures from as far back as the beginning of history.

They tell stories of trade, belief and magic.

Ancient eye beads were probably introduced during the spread of Islam, although they may date back to the days of the Roman traders.

A preference for blue beads, particularly blue eye beads appears to be of historical and cross cultural significance. The majority of ancient eye beads have a blue matrix with white, yellow or blue eyes. The history of eye beads reminds us that beads have always functioned in culture as more than adornment. Worn by people for over 5000 years, this class of beads reminds us, perhaps more than any other, that it reaches across a wide range of cultures and a great span of time.

According to the testimony of geographer Muhammad al Idrisi (1099-1165) strings of glass beads were a key commodity transported across the Sahara.

And it’s within the Islamic faith that belief in the evil eye and the wearing of protective eye bead amulets have the strongest representation, no one, rich or poor is safe from its wrathful stare.

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