Women have been the guardians of traditions and language throughout history. The Berber women of Morocco are no exception. Despite a cultural mixing over the centuries – mostly due to conquests – the tribe’s cultural preservation survived.
Hallmarks of the Berber craftsmanship are native symbols found in their weavings, jewelry, pottery, tattoos, and even henna body painting.
The Berber identity developed thousands of years ago in a vast territory that stretches from Morocco’s Atlantic Ocean coast into borders of the eastern Maghreb bordering and inside neighboring Algeria.
The Bahrain National Museum in Manama, Bahrain is currently featuring a traveling exhibit entitled Berber Women of Morocco. “It is a tribute to the women who have never ceased transmitting the Berber culture’s singular identity,” states an exhibit storyboard.
The Berber people are recognized for their high moral virtues, including respect for the elderly, protection of neighbors and guests, renouncement of vengeance, and a hatred of oppression, among others.
Exhibit items featured, along with stunning archival photos, include woven carpets and rugs, capes and outerwear, woven belts, silver, amber and glass necklaces, toiletry items, cooking utensils, and weaving combs and distaffs. Accompanied by informational storyboards, the well-rounded exhibit lends itself well in providing an introduction into this interesting culture, its women, and the famous Berber rugs. A video shot in 1965 depicting young Berber women weaving rugs was particularly compelling in depicting the handiwork that has been handed down from mother to daughter for generations.
The Berber Rug and Hanbel
We’ve probably all heard of Berber rugs, but I for one, knew little to nothing about them, including how they got their name. Women have woven Berber rugs since the Neolithic Age. However, the techniques and traditional symbols incorporated are specific to each region of Morocco, as well as the uses. The colors were usually bright and designs simplistic, but over time they became even more vibrant and complex. These rugs are recognized by their distinctive knot texture and high durability, and the hand-spun cloth of natural sheep’s wool fibers was named for the tribe.
Thick heavy-piled rugs were ideal for cold weather dwellers in the high Atlas Mountains, while the lightweight flat woven mats and hanbels were suitable for the Sahara Desert’s scorching climate. Hanbels, on the other hand, were usually of simplistic design and less colorful than the heavier rugs.
Modern Berber carpets, of course, are manufactured around the world today using nylon, olefin and wool, but the authentic Berber carpets from Morocco are still handmade. Modern carpets and wall hangings are often of bright colors or deep rusts and orange hues and not to be confused with the traditional hand woven Berber products.
The hanbel, which means ‘weaving’ in Berber language, is a woven piece that is lighter and thinner than the rug. It can replace the heavier rug, but it might also be used as a blanket, sleeping mat, or cushion. During celebrations, hanbels are often used as wall decorations similar to a tapestry.
Loom wire strainers (used to hold the fabric at a steady width), iron and wood weaving combs (used to weave thick rugs and compress the rows of tied knots) and distaffs (wood sticks) are all necessary components in weaving.
In addition to the rugs and throws on display, a woman’s cape, hat, belt, leg warmers, and shoes were also featured. Most of the fabrics used are wood and cotton, although silk can be found in belts. Interestingly, in Morocco, knitting and crochet work are exclusively done by men stated a sign next to the women’s leg warmers.
Figures shown on screens illustrated the variety of Berber female dresses, along with jewels, that display the tribal identity of those wearing them every day, as well as during festive celebrations. A white wedding gown was one of the featured archival photos.
The Berber only dressed themselves with their sheep’s wool until cotton was introduced in Morocco in the early 20th century.
Many ornate head ornaments intermixed with silver, glass, seashells and leather were on display. An indigenous stone from the predominantly Jewish Souss region of Morocco used in necklaces was amber, complemented with silver, glass beads, and enamel objects. Pendants were mainly made of silver, enamel and glass coins. The necklaces appeared very heavy, particularly those with the large amber stones.
Wooden combs, cosmetic bowls, basketwork and wood containers used for storing henna-based preparations were displayed. Mortar pestles used for mixing plants and dyes for cosmetics, as well as wooden, copper and molded skin boxes for storing cosmetics and jewelry were common items in the Berber woman’s household.
Most of the cooking utensils and jars were made of earthenware with colored pigments.