Sterling silver hamsa as pendant. Photo credit: Kashgar
The Hamsa, also known as the Khamsa, the Humes hand, the Hand of Fatima and the Hand of Miriam, is a popular symbol found throughout the Middle East and northern Africa, particularly within the Islamic and Jewish faiths. It is one of the national symbols of Algeria and appears in its emblem.
The Hamsa appears in two forms: stylized with two symmetrical thumbs and asymmetrical, with a clearly defined thumb and pinkie finger. Either form may be displayed with the fingers pointing up or down. The centre of the hand often contains further symbols, especially that of an eye, however different cultures may fill the hand with images relevant to them.
The first known use of the symbol can be traced to the civilization of Phoenicia that spread across the Mediterranean between 1550 – 330 BCE. The Phoenicians used an image of the hand to represent Tanit, patron goddess of their capital city Carthage and controller of the lunar cycle. With time, her hand became a protective amulet in its own right and was used to ward off the evil eye, one of the oldest manifestations of human fear. The symbol was adopted by the ancient Sephardic Jewish community of the Iberian Peninsular, who named it the Hand of Miriam after the sister of the biblical Moses and Aaron and associated it with the number five (hamesh in Hebrew) to represent the five books of the Torah. It also symbolizes the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, "Het", which represents one of God's holy names, and further reminds Jews to use their five senses when praising God.
The hand, the eye, and the number five figure significantly in Arabic and Berber tradition and also relate to warding off the evil eye. Here, the Hamsa is called the Hand of Fatima after Fatima Zahra, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. The five fingers of the hand are further associated with the Five Pillars of Islam. While Qu'ran law prohibits the wearing of charms and amulets, the Hamsa symbol is often depicted in and associated with Islamic cultures.
The Hamsa today is popular as a protective charm in both Middle Eastern and Western cultures, and can be found incorporated into jewelry, wall hangings, key chains and other decorative household elements. But more importantly, the Hamsa is in the process of transcending its origins to become a symbol of peace in war-torn Middle East, and many Jews and Arabs wear the Hamsa to demonstrate the common ground shared by them and the common source from which their religions spring. No longer just a talisman, the Hamsa has instead become a symbol of hope and peace in the modern world.
Silver alloy decorated with floral motifs, imitation stones and enamel decoration. Note that the middle and two outer hands have six fingers instead of five. Massa, circa 1940-50. Photo credit: Tropenmuseum, National Museum of World Cultures
A simple sterling silver Hamsa incorporating the evil eye for a double dose of protective power. Photo credit: Kashgar
Linda has a Honours degree in Marine Biology and a PhD in Ecology from the University of NSW, Australia. She has travelled extensively and is a passionate writer on subjects as diverse as the role played by women throughout history, tribal communities and their customs, symbology and ethnology, talismans and their history. Occasionally she also writes about her travel experiences, her new life on a 25 acres in the Northern Rivers region of northern Australia and her black miniature poodle Phoenix. She is currently writing her first book on talismans.
In 1989 my father Bernard packed in his house painting business and set off for two years on a backpacking trek to the remotest corners of the world. When he finally arrived in the oasis city of Kashgar, China, he was so impressed with its history that he decided to start a new life collecting and selling exotic goods from all over the world. For 2000 years the legendary city of Kashgar was a melting pot of ideas and a key trading post on the historic Silk Road. It was this unique combination of philosophy and trade that my father wanted to recreate at home.
Starting in markets in 1991, he opened his first store in the Sydney suburb of Newtown in 1994. I gave up my own career as a government scientist to join him in 2000 and soon convinced my partner Ian to join us in what was to become the Family Business.
Today our version of Kashgar stocks a hugely diverse range of furniture, rugs, textiles, antiques, handicrafts and jewellery sourced from over twenty different countries including India, Nepal, Tibet, China, Thailand, Burma, Laos, the Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, Peru, Turkey, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Our collection includes contemporary and tribal silver and gold jewellery, a unique range of headhunting curios, antique Buddhist relics and a collection of one-off necklaces, earrings and bracelets that I design and create myself using the beads and jewellery making techniques of ethnic minorities from around the globe.
Kashgar is a philosophy as well as a store. We are committed to supporting traditional artisans and small village communities by selling authentic handcrafted goods which are personally collected by us. By supporting traditional methods of design and production we hope to encourage local cottage industries which have a low impact on the environment and help ethnic minorities maintain their self-sufficiency into the 21st Century. We are particularly committed to assisting women around the world and to this end have worked with several organisations including the Hua Bin Women's Union of Vietnam, the East Timorese Women's Association and Tikondane in Zambia. Time honoured means of craftsmanship and traditional ways of life are disappearing as people all over the world give up their identity in favour of jeans and T-shirts. We see our trade as a means of staving off the inevitable encroachment of the 21st century, assisting communities to decide for themselves which parts of the western world they wish to incorporate (medicine, education) and which they wish to reject (prostitution, drug production, begging and servitude to warlords). We encourage our customers to think of the handicrafts and artifacts they buy from us as an investment: a piece of history and a way of life that may soon be gone forever.
Kashgar has recently closed its retail outlet and gone completely online.
In the past our pieces appeared in many movies including The Hobbit, Mission Impossible 2, Queen of the Damned, Scooby Doo, Moulin Rouge and Wolverine, and in many televisions series, as well as in plays, commercials and exhibitions. We've found special pieces for individual customers as well as for film sets, event management companies, hotels, businesses, consulates and embassies. The uniqueness of our stock means that we are also very appealing to interior and fashion designers with a taste for the exotic.
There is something for everyone at Kashgar - collectors, the curious, those looking for a special present or for something unique to adorn the home. Most of our items are one-off specialties; other pieces we only stock in small quantities so as to continuously offer a wide and ever-changing range of interesting products. We are also packed with ideas for decorating home and work premises that will challenge your established concepts of design and storage.
Please enjoy - Linda Heaphy
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