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Roman-era Egyptian Finger Cymbals

“For belly dancers, our deepest and oldest connection to our performing ancestors is through our signature instruments, finger cymbals.” Dawn Devine ~ Davina

Finger Cymbals in the Egyptian Exhibit at the Bristol Museum, Bristol, UK
Photo by Alisha Westerfeld

Finger cymbals are an iconic element in our dance. They are a defining hallmark for performers of many different styles that fall under the umbrella term belly dance.

At events here in the western US, the distinctive sound of ringing finger cymbals proceeds the entrance of the dancer. Restaurant diners will raise their heads and turn in anticipation of the performer taking the stage. The classic “American Cabaret” style includes the sound of zills or sagat ringing off stage. Then the dancer bursts in with a flourishing entrance that leads to a 3, 5, or 7 part routine.

Finger Cymbals, Music on Ancient Dancer’s Fingertips

Before the era of recorded music, finger cymbals allowed dancers to perform alone, making their own rhythms as they danced. If a group of dancers works together they can make more complex music. Gathering a group of musicians to build a live band would further expand the entertainment options.

Screengrab from history slide-talk:  Roman-era Egyptian exhibit at the Louvre, Paris
Photos by Alisha Westerfeld and Dawn Devine ~ Davina

Ancient Cymbals from Roman-era Egypt

During my research, I’ve found that Roman-era Egypt has turned up the most ancient cymbals of any of the other locations around the Mediterranean. For nearly 700 years, the Roman Empire ruled Egypt from 30 BCE to about 640 CE.
There are three key factors that play into this high finger cymbal survival rate.  First is the unique arid environment preserving objects of Egyptian material culture. Next, the many technological advances in smelting and metalworking created more metal objects, and consequently, there were simply more to find. Finally, in Egypt under Roman rule, the ruling classes expanded as the population grew bigger, so there were more archeological sites to discover.

Roman Era – Egyptian Cymbals in the British Museum
Image Source Unknown – Cymbals Not on display

The invading Romans brought with them their own cultural practices and mores, and the two cultures blended. Both the Romans and Egyptians had used hand-held cymbals in various shapes, forms and sizes, before the cultures blended in the first century CE.

Ancient Cymbals in Modern Museums

Archeologists working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries found plenty of cymbals buried in the sands of Egypt. Museums around the world actively collected objects to build their holdings for the exhibit, study, and research on the lives and culture of ancient people.
Egypt was a prime destination for early archeologists, as the climate helped preserve the residue of this blended civilization.  Today, there’s a  vast amount of preserved finds in museums around the world. Many large and venerable institutions like the Louvre in Paris, The British Museum in London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City contain examples of Roman-era Egyptian finger cymbals.

Egyptian Exhibit at the National Archeology Museum, Athens Greece

But don’t overlook smaller museums like the generalist Bristol Museum or highly specialized collections like the Petrie Collection of Egyptian Archeology in London.  These smaller organizations may not be as large and are off the beaten track, but they have put their collections into searchable databases accessible via the web for researchers around the world.
Are you like me and love to hunt around through the vast archives available on the web? Click on some of these museum links to explore some fabulous collections of art and artifacts from ancient cultures.

Roman-Era Egyptian Bronze Cymbal – Image Credit: Petrie Museum London

There is still so much more left to uncover from the archives of museums, libraries, and educational institutions. I look forward to sharing with you my future finds.  I’m so excited to add to the body of knowledge about the history of belly dance.
Here’s to great research opportunities in 2021!
Dawn Devine ~ Davina
January 30, 2020
PS – Like this content?  Then you might enjoy my book “Zills: Music on Your Fingertips” available in print and digital forms on my “Studio Davina”  Etsy store.
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