You might know agate under its other names, ʿaqeeq or sulemani. Although we generally associate agate with reddish brown hues, it is a rock that comes in all kinds of translucent colors. Its color patterns emanate a warmth reminiscent of its origins, as agate is primarily formed within volcanic and metamorphic rocks. Agate’s main components are chalcedony and quartz.
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The Yemeni Legacy
A well-known kind of agate is Yemeni agate, praised for its quality and beauty. Yemeni agate has been used in rings, pendants, bracelets, prayer beads, handles of swords and daggers, and even for the inlay of crowns.
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The name agate comes from the Ancient Greek Achates, the name of a river in southwestern Sicily where the material was found. The stone was given its name by Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher and naturalist, who discovered the stone along its shore line sometime between the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE.
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Agate is sourced all around the world, from India to Scotland, Namibia, Madagascar, Mexico, and the United States. Iran has long had a reputation as a source of quality agate, principally derived from extensive volcanic deposits throughout the country. Today, Brazil functions as the main source for this stone.
The oldest pierced, beaded necklaces of polished agate that archeologists have found date back to the 3rd millennium BCE, from the Indus Valley Civilization. In Ancient Greece, this much-loved stone was used in jewels and seal stones of warriors. Pins, brooches, cabochons, paper knives, inkstands, marbles, seals… Agate lends itself for the production of a variety of objects, both decorative and useful.
A hard and damage-resistant rock, agate is favored for its industrial use as well. It has been applied to make mortars and pestles to crush and mix chemicals, for leather-burnishing tools, and to produce knife-edge bearings for laboratory balances and precision pendulums.
THE ISLAMIC TRADITION
It is narrated on the authority of Anas ibn Malik that our beloved Prophet wore a signet ring on his right hand that consisted of silver, and its stone was Abyssinian. He would wear it with the stone faced inwards, next to His palm, and use it to seal official correspondence to the dignitaries of His time. Some scholars have speculated that this stone was either agate or onyx, as these were both extracted in the mines in Abyssinia, but which stone it was exactly has not been authenticated.
The Messenger was known to direct His full body and attention to the person He was in dialogue with. It is said that one day He was distracted by His ring from His companions as they were speaking, and looked at it a few times during the conversation. Disappointed with Himself, He took off the ring and cast it aside. The subsequent Caliphs Abu Bakr, ʿUmar, and ʿUthman used it for their correspondence after the blessed Prophet’s passing. Unfortunately ʿUthman accidentally dropped it in the well of Aris in Madina, and it was never seen again. It was considered an omen of ill-fortune to come.
In his masterpiece Treatises on How To Recognise Gems, the great 11th-century scientist al-Biruni mentions the stone khamaahan, which is held by some to be agate. He describes how bookbinders used it to polish gold. “As if mulberries, layer upon layer, and meseems there are dots of the dragon’s blood upon iron,” he quotes a Syrian poet, comparing the agate’s deep reds to the fruit. al-Biruni further refers to a work that describes agate mines in Cairo’s Mukattam hills, which are historically viewed as sacred.