Morocco is the country of color and sensuality. Weaving is perhaps the oldest and the finest of Moroccan artistic traditions. Carpets constitute an intriguing aspect of Morocco’s cultural heritage. They are works of art that capture color, texture, mood, exoticism and sensual appeal. They achieve this through combining different elements that merge into one harmonious entity. In Morocco, one makes the distinction between two different forms of traditional art. One is manufactured in cities called urban art. The other is made in mountains and countryside, labeled rural art. Each one has its own specificities and characteristics that contribute to identify it.
Rural art is essentially practiced by Berber craftsmen who daily face problems that are directly linked to nature with which that have an immediate and complex relationship. They express their close contact with nature with which they have an immediate and complex relationship. They express their close contact with nature through the creation of carpets that turn out to be beautiful and spontaneous masterpieces. Moreover, rural carpets represent an important repertoire of both individual experience and shared knowledge about physical reality of nature.
Urban art is rather based on geometries that are symmetric and give birth to shapes that repeat themselves endlessly. They usually take the form of medallions whose center evokes "Al Kaaba" (the prophet’s tomb). The lines on a carpet, for instance, suggest the flux and reflux of Muslims who engage in ordered and rhythmical processions invoking God. Floral motifs, leaves, plants remind Muslims of the promised life in heaven after death. These diverse elements of decoration emerge from Islamic art and animate beautifully the surface of the Moroccan carpets.
Urban carpets are characterized by symmetry. This is achieved by the existence of a regular border, which is formed by two tiny separated strips that limit a large area. This area is closed by means of two arcs or just one arc when it is a prayer rug. The center of the carpet is ornate with a medallion surrounded by geometric and floral motifs. The two major types of urban carpets are the carpet of Rabat and that of Mediouna.
Rural carpets, however, are characterized by a wide variety of knots and of colorful dyes that constitute apparent parallel zones on the other side of the carpet. The motifs used in rural carpets are much more diverse than those of urban carpets. They are placed in an asymmetric way even when they are geometric. The majority of motifs in rural carpets resembles those of tattoos and has symbolic significance. Each region uses its own colors, motifs, and techniques that characterize it and label the carpet on its name: Taznakht, Beni Mguild, Ait Ouauzguit, Marmusha, Zayane, Glaua and Ulad Busba…(Khatibi, el Moujahid 199)
To understand a carpet, one needs to perceive ot its entire composition, its beauty, its rhythms, its harmony, its geometry, its colors and its symbols. Through symbols and signs, man is able to express himself/herself and communicate with others. The decorative language of carpets relies largely on the symbolic significance that is hard to decode because the oral tradition is usually evasive. Carpets or the image they reflect is strongly linked to the symbols that carpets contain. The following picture illustrates quite well this idea. It is a carpet garden that symbolizes eternity and paradise. According to Sufis (Islamic mysticism) paradise is constituted of four gardens: the garden of the soul, the garden of the heart, the garden of the spirit, and the garden of the essence.
The language of symbols is widely used in Moroccan carpets. It is important in that it communicates messages about a certain category of people, their mode of life. In order to understand these messages, one needs to understand or at least to be familiar with the major symbols used in Moroccan carpets: the cross is a universal symbol that is present in almost all ancient civilizations. It establishes a relationship between the center, the circle and the square that are the fundamental symbols. The four basic points of the cross symbolize the totality of the cosmos. The cross contains four elements: the triangle whose superior point symbolizes fire and the masculine sex, while the inferior point represents water and the feminine sex. The left point of the triangle symbolizes air and that of the right, earth. The cross undergoes many variations and takes several forms:
The stylized cock is a symbol because its voice announces sunrise. Islam has borrowed this symbol because it urges people to pray. It also became a Christian symbol evoking Christ’s resurrection.
The crab or the spider is evoked in carpets to ward off its evil. It is also a cosmological symbol symbolizing the sun that spreads its rays the way the spider secrets its threads. It also symbolizes the action of weaving. And in some regions the spider’s thread symbolizes that strong yet invisible link between the creator and His creature. According to the oriental conception, especially the Chinese one from which it originates, the dragon represents the expression of strength. It is the symbol of the vital forces of nature. It is also believed to be the guardian of hidden treasures. It essentially symbolizes good and wisdom. The letter "S" represents a dragon, which is stylized to the extreme.
One can deduce that nearly all motifs have a symbolic dimension and share the characteristics of a non-verbal, yet very efficient language. Motifs in carpets vary between environmental or natural motifs, animal motifs and motifs of objects used by people in everyday life. By means of these motifs, the weaver communicates messages about her/his region or tribe. The weaver is, thus, a storyteller who narrates past events and stories about the people of her/his tribe. In a similar vein, being symbolic, the carpet acquires a historical dimension that elevates it from a mere decorative object to a repertoire of recorded events, habits and traditions. In other words, history and tradition, instead of remaining limited in the context of orality, transcend that to be recorded on the surface of carpets.
As far as the origin of carpets is concerned, one makes the distinction between the Berber carpet and the urban carpet. The Berber carpet is divided into two major categories: the Middle Atlas carpets and the High Atlas carpets. Middle Atlas carpets are characterized by an utter simplicity of motifs despite their wide variety. The diamond motif is repeated many times to create effects of illusion. The most striking of these effects is that of miniaturization of motifs inside diamonds themselves.
Obviously, High Atlas carpets differ from Middle Atlas carpets in that their number of knots do not exceed 25 on average against only 12 to 20 for Middle Atlas carpets. High Atlas carpets are characterized by the thinness of their thread and the variety of the colors of the dye: purple, green and orange. They are also shorter (length) than those of the Middle Atlas, which grants them a silky aspect and adaptable texture.
The High Atlas embraces the plains of Marrakech that extend south of Casablanca along Morocco’s coastline, past the Tennsift River towards Agadir and east to Marrakech. This has long been inhabited by Arab weaving tribes such as the Shiadma, Oulad Busbaa, Ahmar, and Rhamna. Their woven work is incredibly diverse with Middle Eastern compositions and designs that are dominant in some areas and absent in others (Pickering, S. Yohe 27).
Urban carpets include Rabat and Mediouna carpets. Rabat carpets are characterized by a red center surrounded by four triangles-rectangles that weavers call the "wings of birds". The central medallion has a double effect on the one who sees it; it catches her/his attention without, however, distracting her/him from contemplation of the other motifs. Seemingly, Rabat carpets are a rich repertoire of geometric, floral and animal designs that one encounters in many other ornamental works such as architecture, mosaic, pottery, ceramics and wood. In brief, Rabat carpets are characterized by a central medallion called "al kubba", which is surrounded by diverse motifs that are disposed on a red background. The "Kubba" is encircled by means of four arcs in the form of triangles. The framing is very important. It is constituted of 3 to 7 borders that are full of motifs with different colors: red, yellow, blue, white and orange.
By and large, carpet-weaving is not only an ancient Moroccan tradition, it is also a work of art in itself and a celebration of the senses. The art of carpets is characterized by the existence of harmony between the substance, the colors and the motifs. It is usually a symmetric composition and a repertoire of coded signs that need to be decoded in order to understand the message of each particular carpet. Moroccan carpets are, thus, a decorative thought and a cultural memory. But what is this decorative thought that sends messages and communicates ideas beside being highly symbolic and coded? The answer is not very hard to find since the analysis of carpets has several levels of comprehension: the historical and technical levels are essentially narrative and descriptive: they tell stories through forms and motifs that they classify meticulously. The musical level is detected in the perception and execution of carpets that are governed by a regular rhythm in the technique the sequence of repetitive designs and the tonality of colors. Then comes the symbolic level: carpets are a laboratory of signs that revolve around Morocco’s unchanging identity and show it as it is. They are also the mirror that reflects the weaver’s subconscious and psyche. One should not forget the decorative level that denotes much of Moroccan’s aesthetic vision of the world around them. Whether of a rural or urban origin, Moroccan carpets are the product of a unique country and people whose sense of beauty has been celebrated by Delacoix: "they are closer to nature in a thousand ways, their dress, the form of their shoes. And so beauty has a share in everything they make. As for us in our corsets, our tight shoes, our ridiculous pinching shoes, we are pitiful" (Herbert 126).
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Kandisky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Dover Publications: New York, 1977.
Khatibi, Abdelkebir. El Moujahid, El Houssain. Civilization Marocaine: Arts et Cultures. Belgique, 1996.
Ypma, Herbert. Modern Morocco. Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Middleton, Andrew. Rugs and Crafts. Mandarin Offset. Hong Kong.
Royaume du Maroc Ministère de L’Artisanat et des Affaires Sociales. Les Arts du Textile. Rabat.
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