Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba captures Yemen's complicated culture through its traditional jewelry
By Kate Durham
Rarely is a research book considered an interesting read outside its particular academic circle. But while author Marjorie Ransom repeatedly refers to Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba as a “study,” this book is much more than that. In her effort to document the dying art of Yemeni jewelry making, she created a tome that is part travel story, part coffee table book and all tribute to the author’s passion for a country she has grown to love.
During her 30-year career as a US diplomat, Ransom had multiple postings in the Middle East, including Cairo, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman. On her first trip to the region in 1960, as a graduate student, she visited a souq in Damascus and fell in love with a bracelet. It became the first item in what is now a 1,900-piece collection that has been exhibited across the United States.
It wasn’t until after Ransom’s retirement from the foreign service in 2001, with the encouragement of her long-time friend Abdulkarim al-Eryani, special adviser to Yemen’s president, that she embarked on the Silver Treasures project. In 2004 and 2007, she traveled across Yemen to interview the silversmiths and the women who wore the jewelry, collecting personal stories.
“[It] was often a challenge to be allowed to leave the male silversmiths and silver dealers to join the women in their living section of the house,” Ransom writes in her introduction. “The men assumed I could gather little useful information from women, and that they, the men, knew so much more. But they were wrong. Only women my age and older have firsthand knowledge of how the silver jewelry was used in family and community culture.”
The book features exhibition images that show the intricate detailwork marking a region’s or tribe’s distinct silversmithing style. Interspersed amid this documentation are pictures of Yemeni landscapes, architecture, traditional embroidered dress and, most interesting, the women elders showing off their beloved jewelry.
A recurring theme throughout the book is the shift in culture, with the younger generations valuing manufactured gold over handmade silver ornaments. In hard times, family heirlooms are sold off and melted down for silver ingots, destroying workmanship that cannot be replaced. “My hope is that this study will contribute to an appreciation of the economic and social importance of silver in Yemeni society before 1970,” Ransom writes, “and create increased demand for these exquisite pieces of traditional silver jewelry before the craft disappears entirely.” et
Suspicion in Dan
In the mountainous area near the Red Sea, Ransom and her driver arrived in Dan, the main village of the area, late in the evening with no place to stay. Strangely, the locals refused to let them camp on their land or provide suitable lodging. Instead, Ransom writes, she was summoned to meet the mudir (local administrator) of Dan. Taking her photos of jewelry with her, Ransom presented herself to the village elders.
“Before I had a chance to say anything, a man at the back of the room cried out in a loud voice that I had come to steal their ancient manuscripts!”
Ransom tried to reassure the men by showing her portfolio and explaining her project. “Then [the mudir] picked up the phone and called the governor of Dhamar to inform him that he had an American woman with him who wanted to research Yemeni silver jewelry. My heart was in my throat! But when he got off the phone, he announced to all assembled that the governor had said that what I was doing was wonderful and that it was good for Yemen. Furthermore, the governor had instructed him to give me all the assistance he could. He then offered us food and lodging.”
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