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Heritage

Goddess of the sea
Persians and pearls


Ramona Shashaani
April 27, 2006
iranian.com

Since time immemorial, people have been enchanted by pearls and shells of the mollusks which produce them. As the oldest known organic gem in human history, the story of the pearl is replete with rich symbolism, mythical and alchemical significance as well as love. For thousands of years, pearls have been a cherished symbol of love, purity, beauty, nobility, wisdom, and wealth. Pearls and Persians have enjoyed a timeless tied history together. Indeed, archeological discoveries of ancient sculptures and coins suggest that the Persian Gulf contained the world's oldest, largest and rarest pearl beds ever known. No place else did pearl oysters grow more pearls with such high quality and radiance.

Nowhere else was it possible for pearl divers to dive more places than in the relatively warm shallow waters of the Persian Gulf, sprinkled with its many fresh water springs.  In fact, this unique mixture of sweet and saltwater surrounding what is now Bahrain, is one of the secrets behind the special luster and brilliance of the Gulf pearls. With the coming together of the opposites literally, the most beautiful natural glowing pearl is born.

Here, the discovery of natural pearls was the quest of courageous seekers who were unafraid of the known dangers of holding their breaths and taking the leap into the unknown uncharted depths of mother-nature. Equipped only with primitive knives, pearl divers tirelessly dove countless times a day into the jagged reefs in search of oysters. Many drowned or were torn to shreds by the reefs. Some fell victim to sharks and venomous jelly fish. Others suffered from joint and lung disease, and perished young. Those who survived the ravages of the open waters, managed to harvest the pearl of great price. For this creation of the Goddess of the sea was highly cherished by the people of the region, as a symbol of the moon and dew drops from heaven with magical powers to impregnate oysters and give birth to the treasure hard to attain.

Archaeological evidence indicates that six thousand years ago, some Persians were buried with a pearl. The most ancient surviving pearl jewelry was discovered in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess who died in about 520 B.C. On display in the Persian gallery of the Museum of Louvre in Paris for over 100 years, this most ancient of pearl jewels is known as "the Susa necklace" and boasts of three rows of 72 pearls each. A black and white photograph of this necklace may be viewed in "The Book of the Pearl" (item 9, opposite page 399).

Despite its rich heritage, the pearl fisheries of the Persian Gulf abruptly halted operation in the early 1930's. Breath-hold divers who once dove for the discovery of natural pearls were now replaced by others who sought economic prosperity ushered in by the discovery of large oil deposits. As a consequence of unfortunate oil spills and indiscriminate over-fishing, the once pristine pearl beds of the Persian Gulf were dramatically depleted and polluted. Even so, in order to preserve the natural heritage of the Gulf pearl, cultured pearls are banned from pearl markets in Bahrain, which still remains one of the foremost trading centers for high quality pearls.

The GIA (Gemological Institute of America) literature cites the Persian Gulf fisheries as the most valuable waters in the world. Many gemologists value the Persian Gulf's mother of pearl as much as South Africa's diamond. This holds especially true since long before gem-cutting skills were developed, pearls bejeweled us, visited our dreams and mystified our visions and fantasies. Generally, pearls were only worn in the late Ptolemic era. It was only in later millennia, when Persia was invaded by Alexander the Great and struggled against Roman conquests, hat pearls were brought to the West as one of the many rich curiosities from the 0rient. 

Pearls have always possessed rich symbolic qualities in Persian history, art, myth, poetry and mysticism. In Persian folklore, the famous twelfth century poet Sa'di, describes the process of the pearl's creation in his famous poetry collection (Boustan), from a shell who rises to the surface of the sea and opens herself up to receive a drop of rain, the divine semen which then grows into a pearl. In Eskandar-nAmeh, the Persian poet Nezami (Nizami), analogizes the birth of Alexander the Great to the growth of a royal pearl in a shell fertilized by the spring rain.

To many Persian poets, artists and writers, pearls have offered the perfect image of tears, silent grief, surrender and self-sacrifice. Paradoxically, however, strands of pearls (and other precious round stones) have also been used in prayer and meditation, instilling hope, peace and serenity. Persian myth associates pearls with primeval manifestation. In its shell, the pearl is like the genie trapped in darkness. Releasing the genie is the Great alchemical Work of freeing the spirit imprisoned in matter, leading to the creation of consciousness and living in a harmonious relationship with one's higher Self.

According to the cosmogony of some Persians known as "Followers of Truth (Ahl-e Haq)," the pearl is the dwelling place of the sole Creator whose essence is hidden in a shell, deeply embedded in the bottom of the sea, and covered by waves. Hafez, the well known mystic Persian poet whose Divan is still a common household treasure, speaks of "the pearl which cannot be contained by the shell of time and space." Hariri praises "the pearl of the mystic Way preserved within the shell of Divine Law." To Shabastari, the Persian Sufi poet, the pearl is "Heart's Knowledge," which only comes with great effort from fearlessly diving into the dark muddy depths, discovering the treasure hard to attain, and bringing it back to share with humanity.

The quest for the ideal pearl represents the long and arduous solitary search for the sublime essence hidden within the higher Self or the Divinity within. Once the spiritual seeker acquires this pearl, his or her life task has been fulfilled. Dreams of finding pearls may be an indication of one's existing potentials, which only remain as potentials until one seizes the opportunities to fulfill them. Dreams of selling pearls may refer to spreading knowledge. However, the pearl of great price is not to be "cast before swine." The heart's knowledge should not be spread around heedlessly to those who prove unworthy. It should be carefully protected as a pearl of speech within the shell of words. In the Hadith, stories of the life and teachings of the Muslim Prophet Mohammad, he is quoted as stating: "God has servants who are like rain. When it falls on dry land it gives birth to corn; when it falls on the sea, it gives birth to pearls."

In Persian literature, a subtle thought or a creative word can be viewed as a precious pearl, not only for its beauty, but also for the individual's creative abilities. To "scatter shining pearls from the lips," means uttering brilliant message or speech which carries a special meaning. To "string together matching pearls" or "threading pearls" refers to versification in poetry, a favorite pass-time for many, from ancient Persia to present Iran. And so, the historical connection of "the pearl of great price" with the pristine warm waters of the Persian Gulf is linked together with rich alchemical imagery, mythical symbolism, poetic inspiration and mystical knowledge which tie us to past Gnosis and encourage us to work toward unveiling its hidden mysteries.

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