Tantour

Urban woman, Druze woman and peasant woman from Damascus. Photo by Sebah, 1873

A. J. P. Megkoronáz in his comment to the previous post was astonished at the sight of the headdress of the Druze woman. How peculiar, I was convinced that he as a British must have known it since his childhood, as Children’s Magazine published its picture and description for its little readers as early as 1834:


“«What a strange thing that woman has upon her head; why does she wear it, I wonder?»” Because, little reader, it is the custom of her country for the women to wear such head-dresses, and no doubt, they think them as handsome as we do shell-combs or rich lace caps; the tantour, as it is called, is made of silver, and is about as wide at the bottom as the palm of your hand, gradually narrowing off to a point at the top; over this they throw their white muslin veils, which they draw entirely over their faces when they walk out, and travellers say that these strange head-dresses make a very pretty and graceful appearance.”

Druze woman from the Shouf Mountains wearing a tantour. Photo by Félix Bonfils, ca. 1870

According to the page of the Levantine site Al Mashriq describing the traditional costumes of the Levante, this headdress was worn by the married women of the Druze villages in the Lebanon mountain, mainly around Deir el Qamar, who usually received it of their husbands on the day of their wedding. It could be even as high as one meter, up to the prestige and wealth of the family. The origin of this costume is uncertain. Some regard it as an offspring of the high Persian or Inner Asian hats, while others think it was spread by the Crusaders in Lebanon. This is contradicted by the fact that already the Greco-Roman reliefs of Kartaba in Lebanon display similar headdresses. According to the description of the Tareq Rajab Museum of Kuwait, the Crusaders imported it the opposite way, from Lebanon to France where it often figures in descriptions as hennin from the end of the 14th century, and on miniatures and paintings from the 1420s on.

Hans Holbein the Elder: Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 1500-1501, and Hugo van der Goes: Portinari-Altar, 1476-78, details

This characteristic costume was regularly reported in the travelogues of 19th-century travelers in the Holy Land.

“Nothing particular occurred during our return to Zahle, excepting that we passed some women on horseback wearing the tantour, that extraordinary ornament of the head worn by the Druse females; it is a horn of silver, or of copper silvered over, according to the wealth of the wearer, a foot and a half or two feet in length, springing from the top of the forehead, like the horn of a unicorn, and adorned with raised figures of stars, animals, and a variety of patterns. Over this hangs a drapery of white muslin, by means of which the wearer can conceal her features at pleasure. This horn is fixed upon a cushion fastened upon the head with such cumbrous machinery that it is sometimes not taken off for a month together – a most inconvenient nightcap, one would suppose, for any lady!” James W. Parker: Three weeks in Palestine and Lebanon, 1836

It seems that the illustration of Parker was the only contemporary European representation
of the tantour, also repeated in a number of other publications. Most probably
even Parker borrowed it from an earlier printed source.

“While waiting for the Emir, I went up to the village of Babdall, and on turning the angle of a house, came upon a half a dozen girls and women, flouncing down the rocks, towering with their Tantours, the height of which pronounced them to be of highest caste. The ponderous and clanking ornaments swept the ground; their white veils blowing out like flags, exposed blooming and laughing faces, and heads which were heaped cornucopias of gems and flowers; necks like the idols of Indian temples, yellow with sparkling gold, and robes of a brown-red, spangled all over with stars, and fringed with lace of the same metal. … What a wonderful custom this appendage, fixed on the head of the wedding day, remaining there till death, in sleep, in sickness, in labour of the household toil in the field, there it sits, knotted and secured, as a bowsprit to the bow of a ship. No superstition belongs to it, no tradition pretends to explain it, no religion consecrates it. It has lived through all faiths and changes, ascends beyond all historic things, and is still enthroned on the matron’s brow, despite the anathema of priest and the cajolery of fashion. … It was not easy to imagine for what earthly reason the clergy should have taken offence, till the Bishop of Beyrout enlightened me: gravely telling me that the Tantour was the idol which the Druzes worshipped! The Christians, he said, had only recently fallen into this Antichristian practice. … A small bronze figure, pre-eminently archaic, found in the neighbourhood of Saïda, and at present in my possession, represents a woman naked, except a slight covering round the middle, and wearing the Tantour. It was found in one of the primordial sarcophagi cut from or in the rock, which have so often filled me with awe as I have come unexpectedly upon them.” David Urquhart: The Lebanon (Mount Souria), 1860

“19th-century Lebanese princess”. Recreated costume, from here

The recent Christian ban on the tantour  was also reported by the 1861 edition of London Review, with the explanation that “as a Maronite lady was receiving the sacrament from a bishop, she unfortunately gave her head a sudden toss, by which her tantour came in contact with the cup, and spilt its contents on the ground: the priests have denounced its use in consequence.” This is of course most probably only a pious anecdote, and the real reason must have been the wish of symbolical demarcation from the Muslim sect of the Druzes. Nevertheless, several travelers report its being widespread among the Maronite Christians of Lebanon, while others endeavored to discover in it a survival of an Old Testament custome:

“I also saw an extraordinary procession, and was told it was a Druse wedding. There were several women on camels; and one was on horseback, whom Abdallah said was the bride. She wore on her forehead what is called the tantour, being a tin tube of considerable length, projecting about 15 inches in a semi-horizontal position, “like the horn of a unicorn,” and was covered with a light veil. Several other women in the procession also had on the tantour. … Some of these tubes are made of silver, and studded with jewels; and some which I saw were perhaps 20 in. long. What the fancy for wearing them sprang from, I cannot say; but there can be no doubt they have been worn by the people of this district from time immemorial, and that the value of the tubes, or horns, is made the criterion of the wealth of the wearer; just as gold chains and rings used to be looked upon as a mark of respectability in England. Every particle of dress, which was worn 3,000 years ago, with its every shade of colour, from the badger’s skin, or sandal, (Ezek. xvi. 10,) to the diadem, or turban, is still in use. The women, I believe, rarely take off the tantour, but, I am told, wear it even at night. One thing connected with the tantour is particularly worthy of notice; wiz., that while some wear it obliquely from the forehead, as I have described, others wear it on the crown of the head, and others almost perpendicularly. The former denotes a married woman, the second a single or young woman, and the latter a married woman who has children. So it was with Hannah, as recorded 1Sam. ii. 1, 10. When Samuel was born, she said, “My heart rejoiceth in the Lord; my horn is exalted – not merely on my head, though that is a mark of honor among women, (as it shows that God has blessed me with a child), but – in the Lord, and that is a great deal better.” The same figure is used in Ps. xcii. 10; cxii. 9; and elsewhere. The engraving opposite, though not exactly like the procession I saw, will still give a tolerable idea of it, and of the tantour.” John Gadsby: My wanderings: being travels in the East in 1846-47, 1850-51, 1852-53, 1855


The idea that the Druze headdress is the representative of a tradition surviving since Biblical times completely fascinated the imagination of 19th-century Orientalists. The descriptions of the tantour included increasingly more Biblical quotations on horns, and the tantour also entered into exegeses, Biblical dictionaries and even commentaries of the Holy Script.

The Biblical explanation of the tantour and its well known illustration in the entry “PLAITING of the hair” of People’s Dictionary of the Bible, 1850.


Verse 10 of Psalm 92 – “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn” – was explained by The comprehensive commentary on the Holy Bible, Brattleboro 1837 like this, illustrated with the well known picture: “Street. The cut, supposed to show a trace of a very ancient custom, is of the tantour or tantoura, worn by the Druse women of Lebanon. It resembles the description of the horn of the unicorn, note, Num. 23.22. Munro says, ‘these “tantoura’s or horns” are of gold, silver or wood. Generally, the young, the rich, and the vain, wear it of great length, straight, from the top of the forehead; whereas the humble, the poor, the aged, place it on the side of the head, much shorter, and spreading at the end, like a trumpet; (cut, Job 16:15) thus, the exalted horn still remains a mark of power and confidence.’ Ramble in Syria, 1833.”

This explanation, however ingenious and attractive, was completely unfounded. The Biblical verses on horns, as Két Sheng has gone through them in the Hebrew, all concern the horns of bulls and are an ancient idiomatic expression that was never taken over by the Quran and the Muslim tradition. And it would be pointless to search for the survival of Old Testament Jewish traditions in an ethnically Arabic Muslim community of 11th century Persian origin. With the development of Biblical archeology, as the researchers arriving to the Holy Land gradually ceased to lead back every experience to an immediate Biblical source, the tantour also disappeared from the exegesis.

The first image of this post also attests how much the Orientalists stuck to their own traditions. Indeed, in the real life this sight, a tantour without a veil, would have been unimaginable. This photo, however, was taken on the 1873 world exposition of Vienna where the most important consideration was to show to the public the very headdress, not covered by any veil, of which they had read in the travelogues for a century. This never existed sight was then canonized by the page presenting Syrian costumes in the multivolume album of Braun and Schneider, Geschichte der Kostüme (c. 1861-1880), obviously copied from the photo of Vienna.


As obscure as the origin of the headdress is that of its name – obviously, the two problems are connected with each other. Classical Arabic has no such word. Két Sheng has only found it in the dictionary of Levantine Arabic (J. Elihay: The Olive Tree Dictionary. A Transliterated Dictionary of Conversational Eastern Arabic (Palestinian), s.a.):

ṭanṭūr(a) = 1) tall hat 2) hood (of a jacket etc.).

This word – in Arabic طنطورۃ – is suspicious, because it contains four consonants instead of the obligatory three: ṭnṭr. This usually occurs in composite words or words of foreign origins. Here probably the latter is the case.

Druze woman, 1870s: perhaps a photo by Félix Bonfils, from here

We know three more occurrences of this word. The first is the ecumenical Christian – Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, Catholic – Tantur Institute between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, whose name, according to its web site, means “hilltop” in Arabic. In fact, the institute stands on the top of a beautiful hill, with an excellent view on the Israeli-Palestinian checkpoint number 300, popularly called “Tantur Checkpoint”.

A view on Bethlehem from the Tantur Institute, and on the world from the Palestinian side of the Tantur Checkpoint.


The second is the name of the former Arabic seashore village Tantura – الطنطورة‎ – which was destroyed in 1948 together with three hundred more Palestinian villages by the Israeli army. Now the kibbutzes Dor and Nahsholim stand near to its ruins; the former and modern states of the place are illustrated here, here and here. According to the English Wikipedia the name means “hilltop” in local Arabic, and the Hebrew Wikipedia also adds that this hill was the local Tel Dor.


The third occurrence of this name is found in Jerusalem, in the Kedron Valley. Here stands the monolithic funeral monument traditionally called “Absalom’s tomb” whose ritual stoning used to be a ceremonial program not only for Jews, but also to medieval Christian pilgrims. In the reality the monument was carved only in the 1st century A.D., and according to its Greek inscription recently decyphered by Joe Zias and published in Haaretz, the first Christians revered in it the tomb of Zacharias, father of Saint John the Baptist. This is called in Arabic – obviously inspired by its form – “Tantour Pharoun”, that is, “the hat of the pharaoh/king”. Or, to be more accurate, his tantour.


8 comentarios:

Minnesotastan dijo...

I am in awe of the scholarly research done for this post. My highest compliments - outstanding!!

Megkoronáz dijo...

I could never sleep with one of those tied tied to my head; not for one night, let alone many. Rich women would need an a 30" (750mm) extension to their beds. Maybe it was telescopic?

I love Absalom's tomb, I didn't know about it. It looks like a trumpet; it should have an angel cantilevered off to one side.

Studiolum dijo...

Well, in the mountains of Lebanon, rich in cedar wood, to order a bed longer by 30" should cause no problem.

Yes, in fact, a trumpet. And perhaps it is. You know that according to the Jewish tradition at the general resurrection all people will gather right there, in the Kedron Valley. Perhaps this is the trumpet already prepared for the angels to convoke that last assembly.

In the meantime Minnesotastan has also composed a gorgeous essay on the lifted sandals of the first woman on the picture. Now we only need to write something about the dress of the peasant woman too, in order not to seem partial.

Megkoronáz dijo...

Thanks, Minnesotastan. I was wondering about those. The poor woman on the right has a mournful expression, like the city woman took her sandals away from her. I like her stars & stripes dress. Not sure about the dome on the turban, though it might work if she'd look a little happier.

Araz dijo...

Thanks for an interesting post. Tantour immediately reminds me traditional wedding head-dress of Kazakh women called "saukele" (also some other Central Asian nations e.g. "şökülo" of Kyrgiz).

Studiolum dijo...

How beautiful they are. The main source on Levantine costumes, Al Mashriq, also refers to them, but it is a quite different thing to see them. In fact, they are very similar to tantour. And as the religion of the Druzes is a sort of Ismaelitism, originating from the northeast of Persia, there might be some historical connections as well.

Anónimo dijo...

This is a wonderful and very revealing entry! I was looking for information on these headdresses because I have a framed engraving of the women photographed by Sebah that you depict here. I bought it in Ankara in an antique shop and have wondered forever where the headdress came from, since it isn't Anatolian. The engraving is from an Orientalist French volume called Turquie d'Asie.

Studiolum dijo...

I have recently bought a large album of Sebah’s photos in Istanbul, and it reveals that this picture with the three women from Lebanon was made during the world exhibition of Vienna of 1873, where Sebah was one of the official photographers.

Could you not make a scan of your engraving so that it could be included here in the post together with the photo?