Yemen’s Famous Sword: The Jambiya
By: Menal Elmaliki / Arab America Contributing Writer
In the capital city of Sanaa, Yemen, men saunter around the square dressed head to toe in traditional fashion and garb. Traditional garb is composed of mashada, lungi, and jambiya.
It is usually worn on special occasions but many Yemeni men prefer to wear it daily. The more expensive and embellished jambiyas are worn on special occasions like on weddings and Eid (an Islamic Holiday).
Adorning the hips of Yemeni men is the jambiya. The jambiya is the jewel of Yemen, a living relic of its rich and preserved history and virility. It is a curved, double edged blade or dagger, also referred to as a twisted dagger. “Jamb,” in Arabic means “side”. The jambiya is worn on a belt and placed on the side hip or front. The jambiya is the pride and joy of Yemenis because it symbolizes independence and strength while also conveying the quintessence of Yemeni culture and tradition.
Jambiya in Modern Yemen
This sword is a social symbol for men in Yemen; it is worn by every social class, from judges to merchants and the quality of the jambiya reflects the status of an individual.
The man who carries the dagger is carrying a tradition built on honor, dignity, and strength. It is a remnant and a living evidence of Yemen’s strong tribalism that is still evident in today’s modern society. Many Yemeni men would rather die than leave behind their jambiya, considering it just as valuable as gold.
Teenage boys are given this sword as a coming of age into adulthood and manhood. In some parts of Yemen, boys are given this sword during their circumcision ceremony. Some boys are given the jambiya as a child so they can participate in festivities at a young age. Jambiya is so deeply in rooted in Yemeni culture that it is incorporated in Yemeni poetry and traditional Yemeni dance.
History of the Twisted Dagger
The jambiya is as old as Yemen itself, dating back to the Sheban times, in the Himiarite kingdom. The sword was found on the statue of the Sheba King, 500 B.C. It was originally used for hunting, defending tribes, and sword fighting. The blade is thick and sharp enough to inflict pain and if deep enough, can through muscle and bone in order to wound an enemy. The jambiya was also used to protect merchandise and caravans from highway bandits who would rob traveling caravans along the trade route. The jambiya is worn as a preventative measure, to warn anyone lurking with bad intentions that the individual was armed and ready to defend himself when the time was needed.
The jambiya’s main role was arbitrator, promoting Adl, justice, and Alfara’a, reconciliation. It carried power because of its social meaning, it was more than refined metal but an oath of loyalty to not only tribes but tribal norms. The influence of the jambiya travelled to other parts of the world like India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and they adapted their own versions of it. After 1962, in the modern era of the gun, this ancient sword was no longer needed for self-defense and is now worn for show. Once a weapon of war, it is now worn as a fashion accessory.
The Beauty of Design
The intricate design of the jambiya is like the architecture of traditional Yemeni houses. The outer design is what first meets the eye and thus the sheath of hilt of the jambiya is designed to grab attention before it reveals the blade. The craftsmanship of the dagger was just as important as the values of swordsmanship and honor. The jambiya is made up of not only a blade but a sheath, hilt, and belt.
The belt that is worn with the jambiya, is made out of leather or thick cloth. The belt is engraved with beautiful embroidery designs that usually match the hilt of the jambiya, though the design may not always match the hilt. The blade is slipped in the hilt (handle) and is used to protect the blade while also protecting the carrier from self-inflicted wounds. Its heavy blade makes it more of a dagger than a knife. The cut of the blade must be fine, sharp, and polished, while the hilt is intricately designed.
In the past, the blade was made out of materials like stone, rock, and metal but now it is made out of ivory. The daggers of the wealthy and bourgeoisie was traditionally made of rhino horns which were typically worth 1,500 per kilo. The most famous jambiya is the one made with an ivory handle, called “saifani.” It is unique in color, it has a “dim yellowish lustre,” and is worn by those of a higher social class.
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