Moroccan Rugs: the Millennial Enigmas
Moroccan rugs are no mystery to me. I grew up in a family of rug artisans watching the women of our riad weave beautiful Moroccan rugs from scratch.
Wonderful and coveted Moroccan rugs (often referred to as Berber rugs) are products of artisanal hands. They are made by local indigenous tribes in Morocco that have occupied the land for five millennia. The art of rug weaving dates back to time immemorial, perhaps to the second century BC.
Moroccan rugs are made by tribal women from the virgin wool of sheep and goats herded in the region. It is not a primary activity as these craftswomen must do the work in their spare time. However, they are always needed as blankets and mattresses for sleeping. No matter when and where the products of their expert hands are prized possessions and a great source of personal pride. I view them as works of art and an expression of creativity.
Short History of the Moroccan Rug
Imagine these rugs existing in the Paleolithic era of prehistory. The very first tools crafted by humans were used to fashion amazing Moroccan Berber carpets. Were the very same patterns and symbols used? We know that the answer is yes given the rock paintings found in the area from thousands of years ago. Of course, there was no written language at the time, so cave painting depicted the myths and legends of the tribes of yore. Glyphs and assorted marks are hints at this primordial culture.
Centuries passed in the Berber territory of Tamazgha. History tells us of the invasion and colonialization of the area by various empires such as the Romans, Ottomans, Arabs, Spaniards, Portuguese, and French over time. The Arabs as we can see in the prevailing Islamic culture had the greatest far-ranging impact. All the while, despite this imprint, the Berbers were able to hang on to their unique traditions in the face of the invaders due to their long isolation.
This explains the longevity of the patterns and symbols of Berber carpets. They still reflect the glyphs and marks of the distant past. Today’s tribal weavers tell the same stories that have been passed down for eons. The experience of a modern rug is a walk through the past. In fact, these masterpieces are like a time capsule or history book. The proof is that the oldest carpet dates back to 1202 H/1787 AC. It was discovered in the 18th century and is identified as Chiadma.
The Tradition of the Loom
Local weavers have always used the loom to make their rugs. You might say that they work with the threads of life. We must credit the rural tribal women with the skill needed to fashion the noted Beni Ouarain, Kilim, Azilal, and Boucherouite rugs. They have enabled the craft to survive in modern industrial times. It is by memory and touch with no formal training involved. The older women pass on their knowledge orally to young, unmarried girls. Apparently, certain patterns, looping techniques, and colors are family secrets! These women are in essence a repository of tradition.
Weaving is so much a part of life that it informs the tribal women’s identity and creates their multi-cultural context. They acknowledge their millennial heritage with great personal attachment. It makes them feel part of a distinct group that has miraculously survived the test of time. Their role is to safeguard the tradition and perpetuate it with the skills they have developed.
The Wool Used in Moroccan Rugs
Sheep shearing is an important time in the tribal calendar for men. When spring comes, traditional rituals are performed, including prayers to attract the “baraka”, or divine blessing. Then the female cycle of weaving begins, starting with the preparation of the wool used to make rugs. The weavers are adept at wielding special tools, such as combs, cards, and distaffs. An entire day goes into the process, except for prayer times on Fridays and religious holidays.
What is called “tadut” takes place, the operation of sorting and cleaning the wool. As a rule, the wool is boiled in a soapwort bath in advance to bleach it. Alternatively, it can be washed in a river in a wicker basket. If this procedure is followed, the female artisans repeat a phrase: “Wool like wheat creates abundance.”
Dyeing comes next to impart color to the carpet. Of course, it will retain the property of thermal insulation for comfort. It is a precise purification ritual dictated by tradition done in baths under starlight. The weaver fumigates the wool and dispels any evil within. It is akin to preparing to pray. At dawn of the next day, the dye is ready. The artisan recites the Basmala prayer and lets the rug dry in the warmth of the sun. It must be stored for months in a “khzin” or reserve. When taken out at the end of the winter season, the loom is finally set up. It entails molds and hammer combs with carved handles replete with designs that ward off evil. It is interesting that these tools are often found in tribal rugs.
Wool preparation is clearly a spiritual experience. In fact, it is considered to be lucky. Nonetheless, the weaver needs to ward off evil even during actual weaving.
Moroccan Carpets Weaving Rituals
So much tradition dictates weaving on the loom. The women, seated on the ground, begin the carding, meaning working the resistant weft thread with two wooden boards lined with nails, effective on the curly fibers of the wool. These are known in Berber as “imchdn”. It mandates considerable skill and experience but the women have freedom to shape the wool per their imagination and inspiration. Creativity is thus the key to the special individuality of the final products.
Of note, the loom exists as a symbol of magical protection, imparting a special quality to the rugs. In fact, the women see it as a living creature possessing baraka. It represents divine goodness, something the rugs are said to contain.
During the spiritual process, it is common for the chanting and singing to fill the air, along with marvelous tales of prosperity and romance, not to mention magic and superstition. The Bismillah prayer is recited in the name of Allah to ensure good fortune. The rug’s progress is thus protected as it is a fragile experience. It is the belief of Berbers that their textiles possess a power of protection – of both the weaver, the family, and the tribe.
The Symbolism of Moroccan Berber Carpets
We see that the famous Berber rugs of Morocco are laden with traditional symbols, stemming from ancient times. But they are more than a rural folk art that appropriates the local landscape, creating the geometric forms of chevrons, triangles, rhombuses, and zigzags. It is an art form from top to bottom that has evolved while retaining the magic-religious purpose of preserving the maker and the species. It promises fertility for all people on the earth. It also portends the cult of the dead.
In short, a rug is a kind of magical tapestry to be used in ceremonies. As such, it has sacred status. For example, a “handira” wraps the new bride for protection against the evil eye of the jealous, petty, and wicked – known as the “ayn”. Blankets are traditionally given as funeral gifts while the finest weavings (including rugs and cushions) decorate guest tents during festivals. They are worn or carried to tombs in honor of the dead or saints. Not all symbols are decipherable by modern historians. Weavers only say that they use traditional designs passed on to them by their ancestors.
The Moroccan Berber rug is very special indeed. It is a magical art that reflects the local inhabitants or rural villages of the Atlas Mountains. You might read the signs and symbols if you can. If not, they still impart a world of knowledge within their colors and shapes. The forte of the tribes are textile creations of splendid refinement and appeal. What a wonder that the women weavers have freedom of expression. We see it in the artistry of each piece. In addition, these age-old rugs provide a valuable link for historians between the past and the present, and the earth and the sky.
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