Music, celebration and healing
the Sudanese lyre

18 June – 16 August 2015

The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Objects in focus

Supported by

This display features a magnificent 19th-century lyre from Nubia in northern Sudan, adorned with a diverse selection of coins, charms and beads.

This stunning lyre, known as a kissar, was owned and played by a singer, minstrel and spirit healer in Nubia (northern Sudan). He played it at important occasions such as weddings, and at ceremonies associated with the cults collectively referred to as Zār in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. These cults, and the trance dances associated with them, were aimed at calming the restless spirits within those possessed who would come to seek treatment from the spirit healers. Zār ceremonies remain popular today in the wider region.

This type of lyre, also known as the tanbura outside Nubia, would have been the leading instrument in a small band which might also have included drums and tambourines. It is festooned with charms and wooden prayer beads, as well as numerous other pendant decorations, including cowrie shells, probably from the Maldives, a very small pistol(?) mechanism, bells, glass beads and coins from a wide area – Yemen, Egypt, the UK and even Indonesia. In common with many African objects it is anthropomorphic, with eyes, nose and outstretched arms. The name kissar means ‘skull’ and refers to the bulbous resonator of the instrument.

The display explores the historical and contemporary cultural significance of the lyre, and showcases the artistic qualities of one of the most remarkable objects in the Museum’s collection. In addition to highlighting the lyre’s relationship with alternative spirit healing, music and dance, the display demonstrates the development and continued use of a very ancient style of musical instrument.


Nubian lyre made of wood, skin, glass beads, cowrie shells, coins, gut and iron. Sudan, probably late 19th century.

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