By John. B. Hawkins
Former President of the AAADA

Crochet, with or without beads, was well established in the Ottoman Empire by the 1870’s. Most bead crochet items made before World War I were done by women for their own use.

There are few examples of beadwork souvenirs made by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century civilians incarcerated in Ottoman prisons, but the bead crochet snakes the subject of this essay were in the main made after 1915.

The majority of beadwork reptiles made in the Balkans can be divided into three types: snakes and lizards made by Turkish soldiers imprisoned in British military and civilian internment camps during World War I, snakes made by villagers in parts of South Eastern Europe for their own use, and less elaborate snakes made to be sold at markets.

Detail of an underjaw, featuring a beaded letter ‘A’, the meaning of which is unclear.

During the course of the First World War some of the 150,000-250,000 Turkish soldiers were captured by the British, Australian, Russian, and French armies and moved to camps located in Egypt or on the island of Cyprus, and at Salonika.

To combat the boredom of imprisonment, prisoners of war were allowed to craft souvenirs that could be given as gifts, bartered for amenities such as extra food, or sold in local shops and by street vendors. Many Turkish soldiers used beads to make handbags, purses, necklaces, bracelets, bookmarks, belts, covered bottles, snakes, and lizards.

While most of the beadwork snakes and lizards were undoubtedly made in Middle- Eastern camps, some of them were made by the one hundred Turkish men interned at Knockaloe Camp on the Isle of Man. Family legends tell of Turkish prisoners trading beadwork snakes to locals for food.

Whether made in Egypt or England, the snakes share similar design characteristics. Snakes might seem like a strange choice today but they were actually regarded as good luck symbols in parts of the Ottoman Empire. The beadwork versions range in length from 13 inches (33 cm) to 18 feet (5.5 m) with a common size being around 60 inches (152 cm) long and 2-3 inches (5-7.5 cm) around. 

The snakes were done with bead crochet: beads were strung in a pattern and the snake was crocheted around in a tube from tail to mouth. The common patterns for the top decoration were a zig-zag or diamond shape. The mouth was a two-part construction, sometimes holding a beadwork tongue that is sewn in afterwards.

Large snakes were stuffed with fabric strips, used yarn, horsehair, and string to prevent them from collapsing. The large snakes usually have some kind of writing on the belly: a date or phrase such as TURKISH PRISONER with or without a date, or more rarely TURKISH POW. The jaws of the snakes were usually decorated with a triangle, diamond, or what looks like a capital A.

Turkish POWs also made bead crochet lizards or salamanders but in fewer numbers than the snakes. These range in size from 3.5 inches (9 cm) to 9 inches (23 cm) with a common size being a little over 7 inches (18cm). Some of the lizards are caught in the mouths of snakes but many stand on their own little legs.

Common decorations are stripes, zig-zags, diamonds in various forms, and an all-over dotted pattern. Like the snakes, the lizards have a two-part mouth that sometimes contains a beadwork tongue. The lizards may have a phrase or date worked in beads on the belly.

From my own collection I illustrate three examples of such Prisoner of War beadwork. They provide a link on Anzac Day with the Gallipoli landings and the war against the Turks now nearly one hundred years ago.

Reference: Much of this material comes from a book by Adele Rogers Recklies, Bead Crochet Snakes, History and Technique.

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A small Turkish Prisoner of War beadwork snake without any inscriptions.

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