Ethnic Jewels

An appreciation of ethnic jewellery and adornment

Arnauten belt from the Balkans as known in Egypt

An image that helps us in judging whether the belt shown was worn by both women and men. (Posted by Rick Scott on "ethnic jewels" in 2013). Caption: "The Palace Guard by Ludwig Deutsch (1900-02), oil on panel, Moorish warrior with battle standard, wearing a zirah (mail shirt), and Ottoman belt with carnelian stones with various Indo-Persian weapons tucked into the belt. Close up view." It is the belt, here, which people who know the Ethnic Jewellery and Adornment page on Facebook will recognise. (We show an example right at the top of the page.) The painting shows that Deutsch judged that, c. 1900, such a belt was worn by an Egyptian male; one armed at that. If he had believed that it was a female ornament he would not have been so perverse as to place it on a man, as that would have been disapproved of both in Cairo and in Paris, where he finished and sold his paintings. These so-called Arnauten belts from the Balkans were undoubtedly brought into Egypt by male body guards and soldiers (protecting the Ottoman) from the Balkans who, on behalf of the Ottoman, came to rule the roost in Egypt in the early 19th c and stayed on, exercising control. The Arnauten belts, worn by bodyguards for the Ottoman, were described by at least one highly competent and very leaned judge in Austria as such (i.e. as male wear) c. 1970. This person, Mais, was the leading Oriental Art expert in Austria at that time. He was a highly specialised and learned scholar. Much earlier, during the period 1910-16, another Austrian curator had already remarked that these belts were worn by the bodyguards for the King of Montenegro in the Balkans (1910-16): before and after those years Montenegro had no King, so this shows that the belts were definitely worn by the Montenegrin bodyguards in the early 20th c., while they were obviously also still worn by Arnauten who invaded Egypt, from the Balkans, in the early 19th c. I add that Austrian curators are usually very highly educated and responsible professonals - not amateurs as in many other places (such as the Metropolitan in some sections currently). They would not lightly commit themselves to a description.

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Comment by Alaa eddine SAGID on December 16, 2014 at 23:19


The pedigree of the spanish museum belt is not odd per se, and it could be explained with full validity by both theories

The female one with the presence of balkan ladies attested in Moroccan harems quite early (through the ottoman white slave trade) with many legacies especially in the embroidery styles found in FES

The male one with even earlier presence since late 16th century when Ottoman mercenaries were hired to defeat spanish and portuguese troops on one side and to conquer Tombouctou and the Songhai empire on the other side.

Comment by Joost Daalder on December 16, 2014 at 21:44

Yes, Jose - despite all our efforts, an awful lot continues to remain unknown about these belts, particularly if we really go back into the past. Descriptions and pictures about both female and male use that *can* be found all refer to comparatively recent use, given that one thing which those of us who have seen many of them do agree on is that several of these belts are centuries old. This perhaps the weirdest thing: that they have been around for so long, yet we don't have any actual knowledge who wore them around, say, 1700. Opinions tend to be very strong, but much of the needed evidence is sadly lacking.

Comment by Jose M. Pery on December 16, 2014 at 19:11

There is one of these belts on auction now in Ebay (321615669198). I am afraid that seller's description will not shed much light on its origin that will add to what has been discussed so far in this forum. By the way, there is one of this belts at the Museo Sorolla in Madrid. It seems that this famous Spanish painter found it in Fes in the late XIXth century.

Comment by Joost Daalder on December 11, 2014 at 4:37

Alaa, I do agree that this is a very difficult subject to research, which also means, I think, that any lead is to be examined. For example, it would be great if we had Egyptian paintings which were accurate portrayals rather than fantasy pieces. But the fact that much of what they portray is fantasy can not lead to the conclusion that *everything* on them must be considered as inevitably and invariably wrong: that simply does not follow. Many errors would go unnoticed or not bother anyone. However, if these belts were regarded, in France and/or Egypt, as women's wear only, then I would feel quite categorically that no commercially successful and exhibiting painter would put such a belt on a male, however many other things on the painting might be fantastical stuff. I shall grant you that the find of just one belt in an Egyptian museum does not mean much - but it is also the case that it would, if they were not known in Egypt, be unsurprising if there were no examples in any Egyptian museum! Still, this is a minor matter. But he fact that three established and exhibiting painters portrayed the belt on males does suggest to me that they must have regarded the pieces as worn by males. I don't really think there is an alternative interpretation.

It is indeed annoying that so little can actually be deduced from what appears to be known about these pieces within the Balkans. Re female wear, there is more information than just the black and white photo. There is the good account in the British Museum, and I also remember a traveller narrating that on ceremonial, patriotic days the women would (c. 1900) put on their "oldfashioned", "stiff" belts. Some of those were probably of the Arnauten type, but there also seem to have been others which were "stiff", and I also recall reading that they were fairly soon abandoned, by several women, for softer and lighter belts. You are quite right to argue that the carnelians would have been important to women as a protection against bleeding, but the fact is that we really have no evidence of women wearing them before the 19th c - particularly the second half. Thus the possibility, at any rate, that men wore them well before women did is certainly wide open. Personally I also do set store by the testimony of what actually amount to three successive people associated with Kittsee who all described the belts as worn by males, although the one in the middle (Mais) had at one stage thought of them as intended for women, but changed his mind - and he was a very highly qualified and distinguished mind. Austria is, of course, a country with a very high standard of education and close to countries (there were many!) where these belts are known to have been worn.

In the final analysis one would like far more facts to go on that there are, for any definite conclusion as to just what happened. To my mind, there is adequate evidence to suggest that both men and women must have worn them in comparatively recent history - say around 1900. What is sadly lacking is evidence of what happened during, say, the 18th century. One interesting fact about the present reactions is that people often have a strong view of a very personal nature. For example, Linda is certain that they were worn by women only, whereas Truus has always believed that they were at least historically (i.e. from the beginning of their history) worn by men. Linda is not bothered by the shape as "unfeminine", whereas people like Truus, Pierre Loos (who has also seen an awful lot of ethnic jewellery), and myself, feel that inherently the shape and structure of these belts suggest construction for the male body, not the female one. That is, just to take my own view: I accept fully that women did wear these belts in the 19th c, but I feel very strongly that noone would have designed these belts originally for female use. While there are other heavy and big belts made for women, no other belts I know have so "masculine" a look!

Comment by Alaa eddine SAGID on December 10, 2014 at 23:45

I do fully understand your arguments Joost and i am keen on accepting them for you have collected and studied a lot more data on these belts than i personally have.

My methodology on this subject is restrained to the simple fact of pointing to anomalies and thus leading me to raise more questions than bringing firm and definite answers and conclusions.

And while the photograph of the women as well as travelers (witness) accounts are strongly in favor of the female theory, i must say that i am very annoyed with historical facts, which are obviously in a total mess in the painting: re the chain mail, the odd weapons arrangements...ect.

If as you said the painter saw the guard wearing such belt i am very doubtful that these very guard were wearing chainmail around the 1900's!!

There is a bias somewhere, and if the painter has staged the modelling of the guard, which is rather obvious regarding the chainmail, then i don't rule out the blet being also staged!

In both cases (the painter having traveled to egypt option or not having traveled) there is definetely a storytelling and artificial staging far from any reality.

For me the painting does not depict any truth and ought not to be used as a solid argument for any research bar maybe the fact that around 1900's these belts were known to the painter and available to him to be seen in full details.

The fact that ONE belt is to be found in an egyptian museum is still to be solved and by no means could be explained by the arnauten guards presence in egypt ALONE.....a lot more options could explain that occurence for objects do travel independently and totally disconnected from any cultural, social or historical aspect (i mean travel as souvenir, marchandise for anybody's leisure)

I feel that we shall not be diverted by the egyptian scenario any further, for the answer lies in the balkans.

One start could be to investigate further on the identity of the late female wearers in these very remote and few localities, i mean their religion could be a start (i don't remember noticing that details in the accounts) weither they are muslim or not in a possible link to an early mercenary corps devoted to the muslim ottoman conquerors...ect

I was pointing to the fact that carnelians were placed on the belt and thus straight on the belly, which IS why i made the conclusion on the connection with blood issues for women during partition and pregnancy...this is what made sense to me....of course carnelians as ring bezels or bazubands have a male tradition as well.


Comment by Joost Daalder on December 10, 2014 at 21:44

(1) One belt found in Egypt, whichever way it came to the Coptic Museum, is nevertheless an Arnauten belt in Egypt, and without the presence of the Arnauten in Egypt it would have been far less likely to have been there. I see no reason why three different painters who normally worked in Paris but who knew Egypt, would have used Parisian examples to put these recklessly on the bodies of males in Egypt. The far likelier explanation was that they felt "safe" in doing so because they saw the belts worn by males in Egypt. Indeed, male guards were the most likely Egyptian wearers, just as in the Balkans: there is in all respects a logical connection. In other words, why go for a farfetched solution if there is a simple and logical one at hand? The risk factor, in particular, would have been great if you put a female ornament on a male without knowing what you were doing. It could, in both countries, have wrecked your career. So I reject "the Parisian option" as farfetched and unlikely, while "the Egyptian option" is far more probable, and would fit all historical facts quite readily.

(2) The situation in Kittsee is as follows. In the period 1910-16 the then curator there wrote that the belts were worn by the bodyguard of the Montenegrin King (who only ruled during those years). That is a very specific refererence indeed. In more recent years, when Mais - who was the leading Orientalist in Austria - was the curator, he must initially have thought that the belts were worn by women, and said so. Noone doubts, I think, that there were women in the 19th c who did wear these belts. That confuses the historical situation, given e.g. the early 20th c statement about the belt being worn by the Montenegrin bodyguard. Mais was obviously initially attracted to the idea that they had been made for women. However, he clearly bethought himself, and after much discussion and further work decided firmly that they were, in fact, originally Arnauten belts. Thus he came to describe them as such, although someone else firmly recorded "Arnauten belts" in the catalogue only in 2005. Mais would not have come to his conclusion lightly, as there was conflicting evidence. I think he would have concluded - and to my mind this fits all the evidence - that from the time they were first made they were worn by men, and that therefore they WERE "Arnauten" belts in ORIGIN, even though they later (when the Ottoman became less powerful in the Balkans) came to be worn by women. This would seem to me by far the most likely scenario. There is a very long period during which there is no evidence of EITHER women OR men wearing them. But, in the face of evidence that they were worn by both men and women, you need to ask for whom they were first made, and then early male wear must have seemed, to Mais, the likely scenario. It is the one with which I agree, and the 1910-16 description seems to me strongly to confirm it - it is quite specific, and not likely to be unreliable. I think men wore them throughout, even when, in the 19th c, women started wearing them too. The Arnauten in the early 19th c would have taken them to Egypt, and men there imitated the Arnauten - as wearers of these belts - by also wearing them. Mostly they seem to have been worn in Egypt by guards, as fits in with their being worn by guards in the Balkans.

(3) The earliest belts are indeed very early, and as you say, that is indeed not inconsistent with men wearing them. On the contrary, given their construction and appearance, men were the most likely early wearers by far. Indeed, if they were worn by women from the very beginning, almost certainly FAR more would have been made and survived.

(4) The use of carnelians to protect against blood loss, for women, is indeed a strong tradition. But that does not mean that carnelians were worn only by women. So it is perfectly to be expected that  men wore them first. NOTE: Turkey liked RED for "military" belts!

Comment by Alaa eddine SAGID on December 10, 2014 at 18:05

The only firm reference of these belts in Egypt should be the example kept in the coptic museum in cairo, only one example and if it found a way to the coptic museum then it should relate to the coptic / christian population in Egypt thus without evidence to a possible link to a palace guard who would have been muslim. I pretty much see it as a donation to the church?!

Re painters: The offense of portraying a male with a female belt would not even occur in the mind of the painter if he, at once, was not even aware of it being a female belt. The belt could have ended among the stash of oriental weaponry in some parisian shop and be mistakingly labelled as part of a warrior finery!

The Austrian curator labelling that belt as "the most controversial pieces of his collection" is indeed very to the point, for if it was not a mercenary belt then from the beginning it was assumed to be part of male militaria as it is the case up today and for all time span in between....and i must confess without a very serious  hint other than curators note....but it is indeed a very attractive idea!

I stand by the position that if ever it was worn by males of a certain guild then it was quite early which is NOT contradictory with the advanced age such belts show.

One last note regarding carnelians. Their use on a women's belt during wedding is quite matching with these stones being used as prophylactic material to deter in harm during pergnancy and in all blood related issues

Comment by Joost Daalder on December 10, 2014 at 0:38

I should perhaps add that I don't think it likely that the Montenegrin wearers, or other bodyguards, actually wore these expensive pieces in BATTLE: they would have been ceremonial (I think with swords attached). Only a selected minority would have been allowed to wear them. Otherwise there would be many more. If women wore them often, we would expect to see MANY more, so I think not many of them wore them either - and not, as far as I can see - until well into the 19th c.

Comment by Joost Daalder on December 10, 2014 at 0:33

Alaa, - Some of the painters, at least, actually visited Egypt, so it is not a matter of their sitting at home with all sorts of exotic objects used totally indiscriminately. I don't think, on the other hand, that they produced accurate, "realisitic" portraits. BUT - and that is the very big BUT - to portray an Egyptian (including Nubian) male with a female belt would certainly have been found offensive at the time, both in Egypt and Paris: that is my main point. It is a risk that commercial painters would not run. So, for all the oddities, the male/female distinction still remains very important. As to the matter in general: I find it impossible to ignore the Kittsee descriptions about the Montenegrin bodyguard and the Arnauten. One would have to find very good reasons for disregarding those, and I doubt there are any. I do, as you know, support the idea that women wore them in the second half of the 19th c: mainly because of just two important testimonies, as it seems to me: the description in the British Museum which seems careful, detailed and based on actual observation, and also the 1905 photo. But: there are centuries of wear to be accounted for prior to such female use, and during that period I think the Arnauten were the likely wearers. They also would have been the importers of the belts into Egypt, and according to the first Kittsee description they wore them as the bodyguard for the Montenegrin King. That's it, in a nutshell, as far as I am concerned.

Comment by Alaa eddine SAGID on December 9, 2014 at 20:01

I am a discreet amateur of orientalist objects of islamic arts, weapons, textiles (beside my main jewelry passion) and i must confess that the attire of this guard, obviouly of Nubian ascent is very complex and pretty much a built up of an amateur's "cabinet de curiosité"

It seems to me that such painters of the turn of 20th century were spolit by the sheer avaialability of orientalist objects in european capitals such as London or for that matter Paris, following the success of the universal expositions. I gather many european collections were set up at around that time especially for those who had the chance to travel to North Africa or Ottoman world just before, they would buy a lot after their return (beside what they brought with them), this is how some very famous private collections were constructed such as that of famous French explorer and writer Pierre LOTI.

Returning to our model it seems the painter has picked every exotic oriental available weapon around and choosed a most exotic model (a black one to refer to the oriental world) in total contradiction to the martial attire!!

It would make sense that mercenaries would be wearing this diversity of weapons from many parts of the islamic world, but for a palace guard in Egypt that would be awkward, especially that around 1900's, palace guard would not have such garment, but will be duly covered in the most scruptious ottoman embroidered velvet

One last detail would be the chainmail, which is totally out of place in regards of the late date of painting  1900!!

The guard is also showcased with a very odd element in his hands, because while anybody would be expecting some sort of a javeline, it is a procession shiaa emblem that we see!

I gather from this that our painter was very influenced by accounts of very early orientalists rather around 16th century of nubian guards or even earlier accounts of the crusades on wich he layered material objects found in industrial Europe following the hype of the universal exhibitions!

It is a similar problem i have personally encountered while studying early north african postcards which for a sheer number of them showcase total phatasies, often shot in closed studios with professional models or even prostitutes who would undoubtedly be wearing whatever the photographer is asking them to wear: genuine propaganda material to lure the western public into a world of exoticness and sensual desires.

NB: The last french account i have unearthed and posted with translation on the other thread is definetely making me shift almost into 100% for the female theory especially for after reading the description of the belt being more of a burden but cleverly used in a pragamatic way (storage space)

I would finally not discard an early male use (i mean quite early) but it seems that even for the albanian mercenaries in Egypt, there have been also imports of white slaves in egyptian harems from the balkans as well, so the presence of this belt in an egyptian museum is not an oddity.

As well as the montenegro flash monarchy would have used a regalia to impress, for the guards would have been mere objects of ostentation and not heirs of some martial traditions



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