Posted on 06 July 2017
Symbolism in the Amazigh culture is a substantial concept to take into consideration when examining a carpet or a garment. More-so, it's the irrefutable welding ink that ties all the intricate cultural components of such a sui generis saga into a coherent screenplay.
Historical fact checking can be tricky when there is a lot of written information related to a specific subject, but it's trickier when there isn't that much to go with or compare it to. The Amazigh subject fit to a T the latter.
On one hand, most of the literature we found on the subject, was either written by orientalists who romanticized the Amazigh culture and made it look like thousand and one night, or dismissed the pre-Islamic era of the Amazigh tribes considering it unexistant up till the arrival of Islam to Northern Africa. Albeit, some of them mentioned the significant magnitude of symbology in a culture that has moved through history preserving and reproducing outstanding iconographic communicators.
On the other hand, the terrain research has proved to be full of impasses. Mr. La Houcine, one of our great friends and rug connoisseur in Khenifra, laments the awayness of knowledge ,even within the Amazigh community, on matters related to the Amazigh's history. For instance, most of the rug shop owners won't be able to pin-point the difference between the major wool types used by Amazigh weavers (we have a blog entry dedicated to wool and how to check for the real deal), let alone explain the significance of a cpecific symbol.
Before jumping into conclusions regarding the Amazigh men, consider this: The weaving has always been the sacred domaine of the Amazigh women, so men are rarely part of it and when they are, it's either afterward, selling the carpets, or beforehand ,shearing the sheaps or helping with the assembly of the loom. The intimate knowledge of the motifs is a feminine inheritance passed down from mother to daughter.
Additionally ,and due to the establishment of borders implemented by the colonization powers, most tribes had to give up their nomadic lifestyle for a settler one, and with that their tents. Conjointly, they had to renounce to several customs in order to avoid friction with their Arab neighbors. And while the Islamic teachings were scarce while roaming the desert, as settlers they had an easy and daily access to the religious institutions, which affected one of the most iconic ways to preserve symbols: facial tattoos. (Please check our blog on Facial tattooing)
Facial Tattoos for the Amazigh women are both a communicator and a way of embellishment. They were used for protection, beautification, and as sign of belonging to a certain tribe. As a way of keeping the millennial tradition, women nowadays tattoo their hands and feet using henna and harquus. The facial tattooing has vanished.
Along these lines, symbols immigrated from the skin to carpets and from tents to doors.
That doesn't mean that there were no symbols on the Amazigh carpets prior to this. Far from it, most of the symbols date way back to the Neolitic period and were used by other tribes in distant parts of the globe.
The signs may be a two dimensional rudimentary projection of the outside world (Faune and Flora) or of the human body parts (fallus and breasts), Neverthelss the meaning is strikingly sophisticated.
Amazigh women, who prefer to keep to themselves and shy away from outsiders, have been known to incorporate several intimate messages unto the weaved products. Their symbology is considered as one of the few remaining systems established around a unique fertility cult.
While visiting our weavers on the High and Middle Atlas Mountains, we learned quickly not to ask the women about the meaning of the symbols, For one, they probably cannot consciously express such a subconscious gender identification and for another most of the symbols imply a talk about their own intimate identity which is not something that a Berber woman would engage in with new acquaintances no matter how nice they are. We had to spend several weeks with three Amazigh families in order for them to feel comfortable around us and share some of their millennial knowledge with us.
Consider a carpet as a woman's daily diary, it's a mirroring of what she considers crucial to her wellbeing and tribal status. The woman will sit and weave several times a day in between chores. She may change her mind about the message at anytime and reroute the pattern to tell another story. In the old days, a mother will check the soon-to-be daughter in law's weaving to determine if she's a fit for her son and family.
Once married, the weaving becomes an identifier of the household's mistress. Women's influence may be restricted on the public space but the private space belongs to them and they sure use their skills to make it respond to their intimate needs and untold wishes.
When reading through the literature available on the subject, we can't help but disagree with the theory stating that the carpet, throughout it's weaving, is considered a new born that grows up into an adult and then dies when the carpet is finished.
According to several elderly weavers from the Zayan region, most of the carpets portray the copulation, pregnancy and by the end of the weaving process, the delivery. Hence the usual joyful ceremony held by women once a carpet is finished and the high praises given to carpets made with the Dezza wool.
Erstwhile, weaving was used to fulfill the household's needs but when there were a need to bring in an extra income, women, would weave to make ends meet. At first it was for the local population and later on it extended to the national and international buyers.
Nonetheless, we believe that the symbology has persisted since we can still find new carpets with very intricate and coherent design projecting a very specific procreation message.
Before proceeding to the next blog posts with a hand-picked selection of symbols, we would like to emphasize that symbols are utterly polemical amidst the anthropological community in particular when it comes to archaic tribal cultures such as the Amazigh one. Thus, the upcoming explanations are the outcome of five years of an extensive terrain and literature research during which we followed the academic arguments that made sense for most consistent and culturally backed theories.