Morocco is the country where most Berber people live today. Their origin is not really known and neither is the origin of the name Berber. Recent research suggests that the Berber people once populated the whole of North Africa until Arab immigration drove them out of the Eastern regions. We now describe all tribal and village carpets from Morocco as Berber even though the tribe may now speak Arabic.
Berber carpets generally have a coarse quality. They are creations of rustic folk art by women living with their families in villages or as nomads. They are woven for their own use, as bedding or blankets, or to decorate their homes for special occasions such as a wedding. They are prized possessions but if cash is needed, a carpet is taken to a local souk to be sold.
Whilst weaving, the lower part of the carpet is rolled and disappears from sight, so the weaver must rely on her creativity to continue her work, using tradition but also her imagination. The symbolism of the Berber carpet is the expression of a primitive fertility cult, originating from remote early cultures. There is no other form of artisan art in which this still survives to this day.
A weaver will not generally be aware of the meanings of the symbols she uses, simply saying that her mother or grandmother used the same ones. However, we do know that the main ‘female’ symbols in Berber carpets are the lozenge, the chevron and the X shape. The eight pointed star, known as ‘Solomon’s Star’ also belongs to the feminine fertility symbols. Maternity is the most important aspect of a Berber woman’s life. ‘Male’ symbols are always long and thin, straight lines or sticks next to one another, sometimes forming a fish-bone pattern. The ‘snake’ also plays an important part in male symbolism and is the only animal which appears in Berber carpets with a symbolic meaning. Male motifs usually frame the female motifs and almost always form a border to the rectangular area of a carpet.
Understanding the meaning of symbols gives a Berber carpet a new dimension other than just aesthetic admiration.
Extracts and images from ‘Berber Carpets of Morocco – the Symbols, Origin and Meaning’ by Bruno Barbatti. A recommended read for anyone interested in exploring the history and style of Moroccan carpets.