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Tattoos: Between the Tribal and the Universal

to ward off evil spirits, embellish themselves, and enhance their fertility.

Sometimes even the men tattooed themselves. Although this practice is

slowly disappearing, it can still be observed amongst the elderly women of

these groups.


In his essay “Tetrabiblon”, 6


century CE Byzantine physician Aetius

describes the tattooing method; and even provides recipes to prepare

pigments and ways to remove tattoos, for instance in the case of released

salves with facial tattoos.


When Christianity spread into the Mediterranean Basin, missionaries

began to work in ancient pagan communities with tattooing practices.


This led to an ambivalent stance towards tattooing in Christianity. During

the 8


century CE, Christian monks began tattooing Coptic symbols

on their bodies, probably under the influence of their Ethiopian Coptic

neighbors, who tattooed their face and arms.

Pilgrimage tattoos is a manifestation of devotion and religious

affiliation. Furthermore, these tattoos most likely expressed a symbolic

identification with the


. The pilgrimage tattoo is a phenomenon

that is particular to Eretz Israel and its method is also unique. The tattoo

was transferred to the skin through beautifully designed wooden stencil

blocks with complex images of Christian iconography. Stencil blocks from

this period teach us which images were most favored amongst the pilgrims

(the traditional tattooing images still exist today, even after manual work

was replaced with the modern electronic tattooing machine).

The earliest documentation of a Jerusalem Cross tattoo dates back to



During his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, German knight, Friedrich-

Carl Rabe von Pappenheim was tattooed on his arm by an Arab from Jaffa

in exchange for “one


”. The Dragomans (guides and translators),

who lived in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem, usually also worked, especially

during Easter, as tattoo artists for pilgrims. The Jerusalem tattoo became

famous already in the 17


century, and it appears in the travel literature to

Eretz Israel. Historic documentation dwindled down in the 18



however testimonies from the second half of the 19


century, are again rife

with descriptions of missionaries, pilgrims, and travelers who witnessed