RABAT, May 23, 2008 -- When people think of oriental carpets, Morocco is not the first place that comes to mind.
But the Berbers, whose nomadic ancestors settled this land around 2000 BC, have an ancient tradition of tribal weaving that is both similar to and distinct from other Middle Eastern rugs and carpets.
The Berbers still make up some 40 percent of Morocco's population -- the rest are Arabs and Moors -- and their stronghold is the Middle Atlas mountains. The peaks rise up as a tall, temperate barrier between coastal Morocco and the vast Sahara desert. On the slopes, which are often better suited to grazing sheep than to farming, about a fifth of the tribes still weave pile carpets and flatweaves in styles that bear their names.
The rugs tend to be large, long, and loosely woven with bright, earthy colors including lots of oranges, yellows, and browns. They have simple geometric designs. But their simplicity is deceiving.
The motifs, often based on diamond shapes, change size and sometimes orientation. And the symmetry is deliberately never perfect.
The result is something that not only looks sui-generis. Often, it feels that way, too. That is because many of the Atlas pile weavings are unusually soft and flexible. They call to mind blankets a much as they do carpets – a light quality which makes them practical for mountain life.
Ancient Berber beliefs, which survive alongside Islam, also find their way into the rugs. Some tribes will burn the frings of their carpets to make them less attractive to the demon of envy. It is part of their belief the duality of life and their desire to invoke positive power, or Baraka, to ward off evil.
Baraka is thought to exist to some degree in all things and artists try to transfer it to their creations through a whole vocabulary of symbols and techniques to protect themselves, their work, and the consumer.
The best place to buy the tribal pieces is from the tribes themselves. But as Western interest in weavings from the Atlas Mountains has grown since the 1970s – and the renewal of curiosity about tribal art worldwide – the rugs also have become a staple of the shops in Rabat, Marrakesh, and Fez.
In these cities at the foot of the mountains, some workshops have even begun producing Berber-type designs. The workshop products tend to be heavier and hold to the floor better than the tribal pieces as they aim directly for the Western interior design market.
Interestingly, Morocco has a long-standing workshop tradition – but not for Berber carpets. Instead, the tradition is for Turkish designs and it dates back to northern Morocco’s long period under the Ottoman Empire from the 16th to late 19th century. The style was loosely modeled on the famous Anatolians from Gordes and Ladik, among other Turkish weaving centers.
These ‘city rugs’ from Rabat and Casablanca do not enjoy much critical acclaim. They are often described as coarsely woven imitations in bold colors that are not likely to please fans of the Turkish originals. But some of the designs offer unusual local twists and they are a historical curiosity.
Older pieces are likely to include cochineal reds from the days when, beginning in the late 18th century, Morocco was one of the main centers outside of Central America for farm-raising insects for dye. Now, such rugs are one-of-a-kind because chemical dyes have long since replaced insect dyes and other natural dyes in all Moroccan weaving.
These days, Moroccan city carpets are moving from Turkish designs to Persian-like medallion patterns in a new bid to compete in the world market.
But the strength of the country’s weaving remains, as ever, in its Berber traditions. If the Berber weavers return to natural colors, just as village and tribal weavers are now doing in many other parts of the world, Morocco’s tribal pieces could well gain the greater notice they deserve.
RETURN TO HOME PAGE
Brooke Pickering Moroccan Rugs
Nazmiyal Collection: Antique Moroccan Rugs
I Love Marrakesh: Ethno Art Gallery
Turkotek: Discussion of Moroccan Weavings
YouTube: My Favorite Rugs Come From Boujad, Morocco
Euratlas: Pictures of Morocco