A peculiar ornament among the Amazigh Tuareg People is the so-called Tuareg Cross, also known as Niger Cross. In no way related to Christianity or the Christian cross, the name stuck around in the European languages due to the lack of another term to describe the four-armed pendant. In the native Tamazight language of the Tuareg, however, there is no actual word for “cross”, instead using the word tanaghilt (wearable/attachable metal) or talhakim (decorative pendant) to describe these ornaments. These pendants are commonly made of copper or silver and worn around the neck.
The Tuareg Cross is known throughout Tuareg territory, and is even adopted by non-Amazigh people who share the same areas like the Fulani and Hausa. Nonetheless, the active use of these pendants is restricted to some Tuareg tribes, more specifically those living in Niger. These are the Kel Aïr who live in northern and central Niger and the Kel Gres, a tribal confederation of several clans in the south of the country. Because of their geographical distribution largely corresponding with the Nigerien borders, the Tuareg Cross is mostly associated with Niger.
There are a total of twenty-one different kinds of these pendants, each with a different pattern and form related to a certain clan or area. There’s the Abalak, related to the southern Nigerien town of Abalak, the Aïr, a reference to the above mentioned tribal confederation, the Abangaret, a subgroup of the Aïr, the Tagmert, a town in Mali near the Nigerien border and seventeen other different ornaments. These are used as a visual identity and tribal or regional affiliation. In a largely tribal and nomadic culture like the Tuareg’s, such symbols are an undeniably important part of society.
The by far most well-known and used pendant of these twenty-one crosses is the so-called Cross of Agadez. Agadez is the largest city in central Niger and the de facto capital of the Kel Aïr. An important sultanate in the 15th century, it was conquered by the Songhai Empire in the 16th century. Throughout its history, it was an important hub for the trans-Saharan caravan trade and a key passage for the trading between several West-African cities like Timbuktu and Kano. It was an important location during the Tuareg Rebellion of the 1990s in central and northern Niger.
The form of all these pendants is largely the same: four arms extended like a cross with the upper arm ending in a ring, through which a string can be entered to hold it around the neck. The most accepted explanation to interpret the symbolic usage of the pendant besides its use as a means of identification is its function as an apotropaic amulet. The four arms purportedly symbolize the four cardinal directions, protecting you wherever you go in the vast desert region. A local Tuareg legend, however, interprets the pendant in a more romantic way. According to the legend, a young girl wanted to secretly convey her message of love to a Tuareg warrior. She made him an ornament in the shape of the Tamazight word for love, t(i)r(i), written in the Tifinagh script as +O. This then became the template for future crosses. Whatever story is true, it’s certain that the meaning and origin of the Tuareg Cross is still shrouded in mystery.
The Tuareg Cross is mostly worn by women, combining the obvious decorative elements of the pendant with its symbolical use. Its form and its prevalence among the tribal womenfolk, however, might give us a clue on the Cross’ origin. A theory built on by scholars of the subject is tracing the earliest origin of the Cross to Tanit, a Punic mother goddess worshiped in Carthage and who I’ve written about in my piece on the khamsa hand. References to Tanit on steles, mosaics and ceramics were often accompanied by a human-like figure holding its both arms up to the sky, as in supplication or prayer.
This symbol, dubbed the Sign of Tanit, shows some intriguing similarities with the Tuareg Cross. Adding to that the fact that Tanit’s cult was adopted by the Berber people after the Punic demise, and a connection between the Tuareg Cross and the Sign of Tanit seems tangible enough to consider a historical link. The fact that the Phoenicians were known to dread the evil eye, a fear they warded of with symbols like possibly the Sign of Tanit, pushes us in the direction of interpreting the Tuareg Cross as an apotropaic amulet, at least originally.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.