History of the traditional Amazigh carpet

History of the traditional Amazigh carpet

Since time immemorial, the rural Amazigh Moroccan shepherds and farmers have based their economy on sheep and the wool used by women to weave carpets, which fully reflects the importance of wool in all aspects of Amazigh life. The carpets are made by hand with sheep wool and with the help of simple wooden looms, vertical or horizontal, placed on the ground. The size of the loom limits the width of the carpet to about 2 meters, which is the size a family needs to sleep, and it is very rare to find an old carpet that is not long and narrow enough.


Traditionally, Moroccan rugs were made only by women to be used in their own homes, to decorate the floors and to serve as seat covers, bedspreads or blankets during the coldest months. The carpets are full of symbolism and often tell the story of the woman who created each piece. Each rug takes about 20-30 days to be woven by hand and the design is always completely original - no two rugs are ever the same.


During a visit to the Atlas Mountains, journalist Brooke Bobb of Vogue met Amazigh women weavers and discovered their age-old art and knowledge inherited from grandmothers:


"The woman and her fellow weavers use only a small image of the design as a reference when making the carpet. 

Their understanding of where lines and shapes begin and end is based solely on instinct, a knowledge passed down to them by their Berber mothers and grandmothers. One of the carpets was bright pink and purple, decorated with traditional diamond-shaped patterns. Another was a deep blue and grey, in the style of a Rothko painting. All the threads are hand dyed and spun by hand with raw wool. 

Wright and Lobo-Navia studied the piles of fluffy yarns stacked on the floor of a room. They evaluated how weak they were for some colors, and how much they had too much for others. After examining the yarn, they began measuring the carpets halfway on the looms. Most of them were accurate; one was off by one or two centimeters".


Handicraft is still very important for Amazigh communities. Generally, while the men work in the mountains or on the farms, the women work in their huts, creating beautiful handmade ceramics or weaving carpets. All the finished products are then taken down to the big cities like Marrakech, where people auction their products to souk owners. The buyers then sell the carpets, ceramics and other pieces in their stores to other locals and tourists. 


This process provides income to Amazigh villages, and is often their main source of livelihood.



Moroccan carpets represent the most characteristic aspect of the country's cultural heritage. The soul of the carpet seems to reflect the landscape of the Atlas Mountains. These carpets are like books filled with signs and symbols. One discovers there a universe of thought based on a palette of exuberant colors. These women living in rural villages have appropriated their textile creations as a space of freedom where they have developed a personal creativity and a surprising artistic expression. The carpet becomes essential, it is a link between past and present, between earth and sky. These magnificent carpets could be presented in different art museums.


For the journalist Brent Crane who wrote an article about the Moroccan carpet entitled: "Good Company: Mellah's Radiant Moroccan Rugs" in Barron's:

"Moroccan carpets - complex, infinitely varied, rich in symbolism and cultural depth - are a reflection of Morocco itself. This country of 35 million inhabitants occupies a unique geographical space, wedged between three great natural bodies - the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Sahara - and two continents, Europe and Africa. It holds many surprises".


The culture and traditions of each Amazigh community can be very different from one region to another. Thus, depending on the tribe, the carpets may have different styles, colors and weaving techniques, or even belong to the same generic type. The origin of the Amazigh carpet can be found in the Atlas mountains of Morocco, the populations used different techniques from those used for oriental or Persian carpets.


If you compare the patterns of the Amazigh carpet to the signs of the rock arts and the artifacts of the primitive cultures of mankind, you will find the same signs and forms used and you will discover surprising similarities and links that you can also trace back to the Upper Paleolithic period in Europe and the Neolithic period in the East and in the Mediterranean basin, which explains why the Amazigh carpet can be considered as the last testimony of the archaic world.


The abstract and geometrical language of the Amazigh carpet comes from the origins of the body, form and functions of the human sexual organs. Based on the duality and relationship of man and woman, it became the expression of universal fertility including all nature. 


The carpet is an artistic creation of the woman and reflects above all the phases of her life, her timeline and her sexual experience: as a virgin, a new bride, through marriage, pregnancy and childbirth. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Morocco was already known for the beauty of its Amazigh carpets, rugs and wall hangings ( Hanbel ).


In the Middle Ages, the carpet was one of the gifts of foreign embassies or was used in the princely caravan where beautiful silk fabrics with gold thread and "zarabi" carpets were mounted on camels. Among the different meanings of "zarabi" (carpet) that come from Arabic, we can retain "flowerbed" and "that which is placed on the ground and on which one leans". The Berber word for this is "tazerbit". 


In Morocco, one can also use the word "gtifa" which comes from the same origin, which is the name of wool carpets often knitted in the region of high altitude, Marmoucha or Ait Ouaouzguite for example.


In the 16th century, Jean Léon L'Africain (Hassan al-Wazzan) explained that the carpet was one of the gifts of the brides of Fez: "We always give a woollen carpet of about twenty cubits and three blankets of which one side is a sheet" . The carpets were also sold at auction in Fez and exported notably to black Africa.


The oldest carpet preserved in Morocco dates from the 18th century is that of Chiadma, which is dated exactly 1202 H/1787 AC.


The carpet is a perfect gift and, in the 19th century, the Moroccan carpet was one of the most exported  products to Europe. Many of them were found in France during the World's Fairs of 1867, 1878 and 1889. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, carpet weaving was a very important activity in almost all the cities of Morocco.

The French authorities of the Protectorate in a concern to preserve and encourage the art of carpet in Morocco have created a craft and commercial label, to preserve traditions, according to Prosper Ricard.

"For the maintenance of traditions as original and asserted, from the triple point of view of technique, decoration or color, as well as for the happy blossoming of tendencies which at all times and in all places must be respected, the government of the Protectorate took from the beginning the measures of protection, encouragement and propaganda which were necessary. As such, a special body, the Service of Indigenous Arts, which later became the Service of Moroccan Arts and Crafts, has exercised and continues to exercise the happiest influence. » (p.12)


and give this traditional art an official mark of authenticity.


"Also, to give this manufacture an official mark of authenticity and safeguard the reputation of Moroccan industry, the government of the Protectorate has instituted une estampille d’Etat délivrée sous certaines conditions bien déterminées. » (p.56)