Gemstones today are perceived as possessing a variety of attributes that consumers consider desirable. They stand as symbols of the relationship between men and women, they are seen as lifestyle statements, as declaration of wealth or economic success, as storehouses of value and even (when viewed as birthstones) as substances that somehow enhance our very being because they said to represent nature’s forces and characteristics around the time of year that we were born.
In ancient Egypt, one of the oldest known civilisations, gemstones were highly valued too. Their beauty was treasured and no doubt they represented some of the attributes that consumers value today. But more than anything else, in ancient Egypt, gemstones were valued because they were thought to possess a host of supernatural powers.
The ancient Egyptians were fascinated by gemstones because of their unique colours, which stood out against the yellow backdrop of the desert, and their brilliance and lustre, intensified by the sun that shone strongly for most of the year.
The Egyptians believed that colour was an integral part of human nature, just as a man's shadow was part of his personality. Colours and materials often had symbolic meanings, primarily related to health, order, chaos, rebirth and renewal.
Scarabs, which were based on the form of the dung beetle, were the most common form of amulet in ancient Egypt. They personified hope for renewed growth, but their effectiveness was further enhanced by the addition of inscriptions and symbols etched on their bases.
A wide variety of materials were used in their production: precious gemstones and metals, glazed steatite, faience and glass. The gems were considered by the Egyptians to be among the most precious, although today they are considered “semi-precious.” Certain stones (such as carnelian, jasper, or lapis-lazuli) were believed to hold magical significance.
Here are some of the attributes of specific gemstones that ancient Egyptians valued highly:
Lapis Lazuli — The colour blue symbolised the sky as well as water, referring both to the primordial flood and the flooding of the Nile. Blue also symbolised life, rebirth, or fertility, and was associated with the cult of the god Osiris. The stone’s colours, dark blue with gold flecks, resembled the starry night sky and recalled the ancient river of the underworld, from which the sun was reborn everyday anew, sometimes called "the child of lapis lazuli.”
Lapis-lazuli is not found in Egypt and was considered a rare material, typically appearing immediately after gold and silver in ancient lists of expensive materials. The stones were imported mostly from what is today Afghanistan.
Agate — Black, the colour of the fertile alluvial soil located on the banks of the Nile, became the symbol of fertility and life. Black is also associated with the underworld, as its regenerative properties enable the rebirth of the sun at the end of every night.
Amethyst — Because of its purple colour, amethyst was associated, like other warm coloured stones, with the renewal of the sun and solar aspects of the monarchy.
Carnelian and Red Jasper — The colour red carried both positive and negative connotations. It was linked to fire and blood and therefore seen as a symbol of life and rebirth. It was also associated with the colour of the rising and setting sun, and hence was connected to the solar cycle and renewal. Red was also associated with the hostile desert, known as red land, and to Seth, the ill-tempered desert god. This dichotomy is reflected in the ancient Egyptian term for describing the red jasper stone derived from the verb “to delight.” On the other hand, carnelian was considered to be an unlucky stone, and its name, meant “sadness.” In script, the colour red denoted evil and misfortune, and was used to write the names of characters considered to be negative.
Jasper —Yellow, the colour of the sun, regarded as divine, symbolised eternity and immortality. Also, its proximity to the colour of gold contributed to its being seen as a colour representative of the gods. Green symbolised all things that grow and life itself, health, vitality and rebirth.
Rock Crystal — Colour was not the only meaningful factor for the ancient Egyptians. Luminosity and brilliance were also important. Faience and glass were valued for their light-reflecting and shiny surfaces. The Egyptian word for faience meant “dazzling,” which linked it to the brilliance of the sun. The reflective and luminous nature of an object’s surface was associated with the bright light of the sun and other celestial bodies.
All these stones were used in the fabrication of jewellery by the ancient Egyptians. Primarily, they were fashioned into amulets before being incorporated into the jewellery. The scarab was the most ubiquitous amulet in ancient Egypt, and was also adopted by neighbouring cultures that the Egyptians invaded.
In modern times, as foreign powers invaded Egypt, they too were conquered by the charm of the scarabs, which continue to intrigue our imagination to this day. Even if we disregard their spiritual aspects, we still continue to admire the gemstones and the artistry employed in their creation, as well as the fascinating historical narratives connected to them.
The Harry Oppenheimer Diamond Museum in the Israel Diamond complex is opening an exhibition on November 23, 2015 entitled Protective Force: Egyptian Scarabs from Gemstones, which explores the role of gemstones in ancient Egyptian culture as well as the fascination with scarabs throughout history. The scarabs featured in the exhibition, from the collections of the Israel Museum, have not yet been displayed. They include scarabs and amulets made from various gemstones, some bearing special inscriptions. In addition, the exhibition features Victorian jewellery set with ancient scarabs, which shows the fascination in these amulets even in modern cultures.