The Yemeni Agate

 image courtesy of Rahman Taha

image courtesy of Rahman Taha

Yemen has been known since ancient times for its agate and incense trade, as well as trade in other precious stones such as onyx and jade. However, agate has achieved broader fame as a leading precious stone amongst many other valuable gems, incense and spices, including coffee beans. Yemeni agate arrived in Europe early; mentions include in Aristotle’s writings (384 – 322 BC), which state that the finest agate and onyx were brought from Yemen. The Book of Crowns of the Kings of Ḥimyar, by Wahb ibn Munabbih (655–728 AD), states that Shaddad ibn Amr, from the people of Ād, built his palace from onyx stones. History books state that when al-Muzaffar al-Sulayhi became ruler of Yemen, he sent gifts to his Fatimid allies, including 70 swords with agate handles, 12 knives with onyx blades, 5 agate adorned garments and a large number of  precious stones. Abu al-Hassan al-Hamdani (893–945 AD) writes that the art of forming and using onyx for adorning and lining reached its peak during his time, and was used to make bottles, cases, sword handles and plates.

Yemen has known the art of engraving precious stones from very early in its history, and Yemenis were known as master engravers. Al-Hamdani also mentions that the garnets of agate in their variety, onyx in its colors, and jade with its distinctive beauty gained great fame during the Islamic golden age. In his book, The Detailed In The History of The Arabs Before Islam, the Iraqi historian Jawad Ali (1907–1987) refers to Yemeni expertise in extracting precious stones from the mountains:

“The people of Yemen still practice the art of polishing precious stones, which they extract from mountains using water and fine soil on sandstones, and later arrange them in different forms. They use them in making jewelry as they come in different colors: white, black, green, blue, yellow and red, and some include a blend of colors. Noqm mountain and Mount Ghiras – near Sana’a – are home to the most important extraction sites.”

Additionally, the author points to another site, and writes, “The stones of onyx and baqrani agate also exist in many places in Yemen. The white stones mainly come from Aden, and others from sites located between Saada and al-Hijaz and in Najran”. Onyx and jade are types of agate, as we explain below, and were favored over Indian agate among Persians and Romans.

Name and types of agate

The name of al-Aqeeq is derived from the term ‘Aq al-Nakheel’, which means ‘to cultivate the fruit of palm trees’. In fact, the color of agate resembles the color of the palm fruit, and many types are named after stages of palm fruit ripening, namely: al-Yanaa and al-Rumani, which are red agate; al-Rutbi (soft or ripe), which is yellowish red; and al-Tamri, which is dark brown. The historian Ibn al-Dubaee wrote a poem along these lines:

Look at the palm tree and how it stands …  its branches are as pearls and agate

Agate is called ‘carnis’ in Latin, which also means ‘flesh of plants’. The English term ‘carnelian’ was derived from Latin, and resembles the evolution of the Arabic name. The mineralist Ahmad ibn Yusuf al-Tifasi (1184–1253 AD) lists five types of agate: red, rutb (moist), yellowish red, blue, white and black.

Where agate is found

 image courtesy of Rahman Taha

image courtesy of Rahman Taha

Agate stones are scattered throughout volcanic areas. The main mining sites from the past and continuing up to today are Mount Elhan in Aness and Mals, west of Dhamar. These stones are also located in the vicinity of Sana’a: Khawlan, Jabal Noqom, Sawan and Aashar. Traces also appear in areas of al-Hoban and al-Rahida, in the province of Taiz. Some traces are also found in the volcanic areas around the cities of Aden and Mukalla.

Characteristics of agate

Agate is a semi-transparent rock; chemically it is composed of bands of chalcedony that contain iron compound impurities – up to 30–35 per cent in the agate found in Mals. As categories of semi-precious stones in Yemen, three types have a similar chemical makeup: agate, onyx and jade. Some think that agate also has medical benefits: teeth are rubbed with agate to whiten and purify; it is believed to have a calming effect during disputes; it is thought to help stop bleeding and to aid women with prolonged periods of menstruation; and it is also believed to strengthen the heart and eyesight.

Stages of agate extraction

The process of extracting agate from volcanic rocks occurs over several stages until it reaches its final pure state as a precious gem with diverse colors, lines and exquisite shapes. The stages of ground extraction are as follows.

To begin with, specialists in mining raw agate in the areas mentioned above dig through the rocks and follow the bands and traces of agate, and later extract pieces of rock in a variety of large and small sizes. This method of extraction is basic, and the minerals are traced to a depth of approximately 8 meters, using traditional means, including a chaser and hammer.

A two-step purifying process follows the process of extraction of raw agate.

1. Curing stage: The raw mineral rocks are buried in hot ash for a few days. This process of ‘ashing’, or warming, is intended to accentuate the dark and light agate colors. In his book, The Ancient Jewels, al-Hamdani writes that agate first appears dark, and its red and yellow tonalities appear after the curing process.

 image courtesy of Rahman Taha

image courtesy of Rahman Taha

2. Forming and polishing phase: At this stage the material is formed and refined. Polishing stones are used for this purpose and are known in the local market as al-majrabah, which is a standard rough stone, and al-tabshurah, which is a soft chalkstone. The polishing stone material is attached to a short rod with gum Arabic so that the jeweler can rub it on the stones easily. Agate experts confirm that this traditional method results in a higher quality compared with modern methods that use machines.

The second method uses the following steps.

1. Purification stage: This stage begins with placing raw agate in a ceramic or metal vessel called al-burma, and sealing the container with mud paste.

2. The vessel is placed inside an oven, at a low temperature, for example following a bread baking method. The process of purification using this method is more common than the previous method.

3. Trimming: This stage comes after the furnace stage or after the purification process, and involves pruning the stones to give them their initial shape. This is done using a small hammer. Stones are usually formed according to market demand. The unwanted parts are chipped away until the stone takes the form desired by the craftsperson.

4. Polishing: This stage has two steps.

(a) The polishing of the stone by an abrasive ‘electric sander’ is a new method. Another rougher stone called  a mashwabah, which is attached to a short rod with gum Arabic, is used to polish the agate stone.

(b) Final polish or glossing: The process of polishing here is done with a stone called the maqraba. This is similar to the mashwabah,  but it is more solid and soft. This process includes rubbing the soft chalkstone against the agate until it takes its final form.      

 image courtesy of Rahman Taha

image courtesy of Rahman Taha

Through these various processes and stages the stones take on a variety of forms and sizes required for their diverse uses. Agate is often used together with silver and gold as seals or necklaces, prayer beads, medals or as loose precious stones that people keep in their homes for various purposes; or they may later sell them at higher prices for adorning traditional daggers.

It is worth mentioning that Yemeni agate is not only sold in the local market but also has a market in the Arabian Peninsula, around the Gulf and other countries. For several years the agate market in Yemen has been suffering from paralysis due to the disruption of tourism and the deterioration of the commercial market, alongside a collapse of the economy in general, and the need to provide necessities under the current state of siege and war. For those involved in the Yemeni agate craft, the hope remains alive that days they once lived, welcoming tourists to all parts of the country, will return again saving the commercial market and the country as a whole.