Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Bless Me, Mother, That I May Apply the Dye: Henna Traditions in the Balkans

Hi henna blog readers! I know it’s been a while — the beginning of my PhD program has meant that I’ve been even more busy than usual… I’m super excited to be teaching about henna at HennaCon this coming weekend! I’ll be giving three lectures: the history of henna, the use of henna in ritual, and a special “Mythbusters: Henna Edition.”

But in the meantime I got a great question on my tumblr recently about henna in the Balkans, and you know what that means — new blogpost!

So let’s start with defining where we’re talking about: a large peninsula in southeast Europe, from the Black Sea on the east to the Adriatic on the west, including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and even parts of Slovenia and Romania.

Etruscan funerary casket, 2nd century BCE.
Some of the earliest records of henna in the ancient world suggest that it was known in this area, at least to the Greeks: descriptions of henna appear in the writings of Greek scholars and botanists including Theophrastus (ca. 371—287 BCE) and Dioscorides (ca. 40—90 CE). 

While the best henna was grown in Egypt and the Levant, the Roman historian Pliny (ca. 23—79 CE) notes that it was also grown in Cyprus, the island with which it shares its name in Greek (kupros)… Artistic depictions of women with red hair support the theory that it was known as a hair dye on the mainland of southeastern Europe.

But after the classical age, it seems that henna fell out of use... As far as I can tell, henna was not used in the region during the Byzantine empire, which would mean that the use of henna in the Balkans was reintroduced with the Ottomans, who began expanding their empire from Turkey into southeastern Europe in the 14th century. The Ottomans, of course, had already developed some of the finest henna traditions of the Islamic world. Depicted in miniature manuscripts, and mentioned in Ottoman poetry, henna (known as kina in Turkish) was not only an important cosmetic for the hammam, and a part of pre-wedding ceremonies, but also a major economic export for various communities around the Mediterranean basin.