In a book titled The Wars of Justinian by Procopius of Caesarea written sometime between 525 and 550 CE (Book II, Chapter 16) he writes:
“The people called Coptites, who inhabit Egypt, use tattooing in marking their bodies, and especially their hands. They puncture the skin with needles and then trace over the spot certain designs, using a dye or pigment made from the juice of plants. Among the women of the Coptites, it is a common practice to have a cross tattooed on the inner side of the right wrist, as a sign of their religious devotion.”
Unfortunately there are no images to accompany this first mention of Coptic tattoos. However, in a long line that traces its origins to those early observations, there is an account of Coptic tattooing in Jerusalem.
“In the old City of Jerusalem one afternoon in 1956 I discovered a collection of woodblocks which struck me as unique in character.” So begins John Carswell’s compellingly simple account of his discovery of the remnants of a centuries old tradition of tattooing in the Holy Land.
In the tattoo/coffin-making shop of tattooer/coffin-maker Jacob Razzouk, Carswell recorded the designs of 168 wood blocks that were carved with various, mostly Coptic Christian, tattoo designs.
The blocks and the trade had been in Razzouk’s family for generations. Customers looked at the blocks and picked their design. The tattooer would then use the block to stamp an ink impression on their skin, using it as a guide for tattooing.
A cross of equal lengths on the inside of the right wrist or on the back of the hand, between the base of the thumb and the index finger, was not an uncommon way for pilgrims to commemorate their journey to Jerusalem.
In this more elaborate example, the cross of the equal lengths has a similar cross in each of its quarters, a symbol known as the Jerusalem Cross. Above it are three crowns and a star with its lowest point extending downward. Below are two branches joined by a bow.
This tattoo was probably used to commemorate a pilgrimage to Bethlehem with the three crowns standing in for the three wise men, plus the star of Bethlehem at the top.
These tattoo blocks, passed down through generations, retain the unaffected, straightforward, and distilled designs that even today manage to exert their charm. But tattooing and coffin-making? Pilgrimage tattooing peaked at Easter and the rest of the year Razzouk had to make a living somehow–no association between the two occupations apparently.