Magical squares in jewelry from the Middle East

Jewelry in the Middle East is not only used as personal adornment, but often carries a deeper meaning as well. Certain jewelry items feature often as amulet or talisman. (1) The colours and/or materials used attribute the jewelry item with special powers. In addition, certain types of jewelry were constructed with the sole purpose to protect the wearer and are therefore to be regarded as an amulet proper. One of the most intriguing categories consists of magical squares. These are a type of number amulets, in which the numbers are carefully arranged in order for each row, column and full diagonal to produce the same sum. Ideally, the square contains each number only once, but in some cases a repetition of the same number occurs. (2) In the Islamic world, these squares are known as waqf or aqwaf in the plural.


Magical square jewelry from the Middle East


History of magical squares
The earliest and most well-known version of the magical square is one in which the numbers 1 through 9 are arranged in a square of three rows and thee columns. The middle of the square holds the number five. The numbers in the square were originally noted down in the abjad writing system, in which letters also contain a numerical value. In this system, the 6, 2, 4 and 8 at the corners correspond to the letters b, u, d and h from which the square derives its name. (3) The earliest reference to a magical square is found in the work of Jabir ibn Hayyan, known in Europe as Geber, around 900 AD. Here, the well-known buduh-square is introduced as an amulet to ease childbirth and claimed to have been described by Apollonius of Tyana, who lived in the first century A.D. However, it is now generally assumed that the origins of this square stem from China. (4) Around 989 A.D. the first Islamic magical squares appear in the Rasa’il-encyclopedia, composed in Basra by the Brothers of Purity. (5) In addition to the buduh-square, which consists of three rows and columns, here also squares of five rows and even six rows were constructed. The six-row square consists of nine sub-squares of four numbers, each producing the same outcome. In the 13th century, the construction of magical squares took a flight. In North Africa, especially Egypt, and in Persia numbers were arranged in elegantly ciphered bordered squares, squares with sophisticated reverse sequences, squares with internal divisions and much more. From this period on, the use of magical squares also spread to Europe where both mathematicians and wizards tried to compose even more intricate and meaningful squares.

Function of magical squares
The number five in the centre of the basic magical square is significant: five is a number that carries a special meaning throughout the Middle East. It is not only the five daily prayers, or the five pillars of Islam, or the five fingers on the hand of Fatima, but also an indication of the universe in symbolizing man in the middle of the four cardinal points. Elaborating on this idea, the central number in any magical square is often considered to represent God in the centre of His creation. Some amulets leave this middle field blank out of respect for God, or simply write Allah or one of the 99 Names of God. The amulet becomes a symbol of God, holding the universe in order and controlling creation. In order to place even more emphasis on this function of the magical square-amulet as representation of the universe in God’s order, the top of the square sometimes shows letters instead of numbers. These are again abjad-signs with a numerical value as well, used to write one of the 99 Names of God. The Islamic scholar al-Buni presents several varieties of these squares in his book Shams al-Ma’arif. (6)

Were the traditional magical squares still a way to express respect and veneration for the universe and its maker, almost a prayer to have this order and stability present in human lives, in later times the squares became more and more in use as pure amulets. As such, they were combined with other elements that were thought to protect man and to influence the future. One of these elements are the seven known planets: sun and moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These seven planets were also connected to the seven days of the week, and slowly the magical squares lost their philosophical aspect, gradually becoming instruments in fortune-telling.

Carriers for magical squares
Most often, the magical square is written on a piece of parchment or paper, if necessary accompanied by other spells or texts. The carrier is then rolled up tight and sewn into a leather container. More elaborate amulets are inserted into silver containers (7). In a larger context, magical squares can form part of talismanic charts or even garments. (8) The squares are also used on mirrors and mirror-cases (9), and in medicinal bowls. (10)

From here, it is a small step to magical squares directly engraved on an amulet. Silver pendants or rings are often decorated with a magical square. Pseudo-magical squares are also in use in jewelry: an imitation of a magical square, but then with symbols and numbers arranged without any specific order. The use of pseudo-magical squares is illustrative for the decline in meaning of a true magical square: instead of the order of the universe, only the shape of the square is regarded as beneficial.

  1. Van Roode, S.M. 2010, Desert Silver, chapter on Jewelry as Protection
  2. See for example the magical square on the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, where the number 10 has been repeated. Example:
  3. See for illustrations
  4. See Schuyler Cammann, Islamic and Indian Magic Squares Part I, in History of Religions Vol 8 No 3 (1969) pp 181-209 for more information about the Chinese origins of this square
  5. See Schuyler Cammann 1969, p. 189
  6. See Schuyler Cammann 1969, p. 204
  7. See for examples
  8. See F. Maddison & E. Savage-Smith 2006, Science, Tools & Magic, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art Vol XII part I, pp. 106-130 for examples
  9. Idem, pp 130-135
  10. Idem, see pp. 90-105


COPYRIGHT 2011 Sigrid van Roode, All rights reserved.
No portion of this article nor the accompanying illustrations can or may be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.

  • 18-2-2011

Comments (0)

New comments are currently disabled.

Was it of interest?  Why not share it with others!