Following on from a post on holiday tattoos in Jerusalem I’ve come across an interesting reference to tattoos and conversion in Nabil Matar’s article ‘‘Turning Turk’: Conversion to Islam in English Renaissance Thought’, Durham University Journal, 1 (1994), pp. 33-50.
Matar talks about the phenomenon of Christians in the Ottoman Empire tattooing their children with a cross. This provided an indelible mark of faith as permanent as circumcision, and as the tattoo was commonly placed on the hand, arm or face, it was a visible reminder of the individual’s religious affiliation (pp. 38-39). Matar argues that the use of such bodily markers was designed to counteract the attractions and habits of the cultural and religious environment of the Ottoman Empire and prevent conversion to Islam.
While it was traditional for medieval and early modern pilgrims to acquire pilgrim badges commemorating their journeys — individuals who completed the journey to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, for example, would wear the mark of St. James in the form of a clam shell — travellers to Jerusalem occasionally acquired more permanent mementos of their journey to the Holy Land.
Edward Terry, Chaplain to Sir Thomas Roe, Lord Ambassadour to the great Moghul, describes a traveler getting a tattoo in Jerusalem in ‘A Voyage to East-India’, published in 1655:
At Jerusalem this our Traveller had made upon the Wrists of his left Arm the Arms of Jerusalem, a Cross Crossed, or Crosslets; and on the Wrist of his right, a single Cross made like that our Blessed Saviour suffered on; and on the sides of the stem or tree of that Cross these words written, Via, Veritas, Vita· some of the letters being put on the one side of that stem or tree, and some of them on the other; and at the foot of that Cross three Nails, to signifie those which fastned our Saviour unto it: All these impressions were made by sharp Needles bound together, that pierced onely the skin, and then a black Powder put into the Places so pierced, which became presently indelible Characters, to continue with him so long as his flesh should be covered with skin: And they were done upon his Arms so artificially, as if they had been drawn by some accurate Pencil upon Parchment. This poor man would pride himself very much in the beholding of those Characters, and seeing them would often speak those words of St. Paul written to the Galatians, Gal. 6. 17. (though far besides the Apostles meaning) I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.