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Myths, symbols and superstitious rituals in Moroccan carpet weaving

ph. A. Elalami

Tappeto di Rabat (ph. A. Elalami)

di  Abdelkrim Elalami [*]                          

The art of carpet making in Morocco 

The art of carpet making is a time-honoured artisanship world-renowned for its exquisitely designed products and a very laborious process which demands a lot of time and efforts. The Moroccan rugs are famous not only for their high quality, strength and diversity, but also for the particularity of being unmatched and hand knotted by proficient and industrious women artisans.   

There has always been a significant relationship between this creative handicraft and the tourism business.  In fact, in the past decades, the craft has been   looked upon as one of the sources of foreign exchange and especially the most important source of income for thousands of families in villages around the country. In almost every household in rural areas and in the cities of Rabat and Salé big and small carpet looms could be found. 

Carpets differ from one another in terms of the technique of their weaving and their origin. The technical quality is determined by the number of knots to the square meter, the nature of the raw material, and the delicacy and combination of the colours.  In the past, each region in Morocco was known for its particular technique of weaving due to historical and social factors.  This is the main reason why the classification of the carpets is based upon tribe belonging.

ph. A. Elalami

Tappeto berbero (ph. A. Elalami)

But the very wide range of Moroccan carpets can be classified into two large groups: the rural and the urban carpets. The first is executed by means of Gheordés-knots, has particular designs and colours and is full of symbols. Without any set design or pattern to follow, the tribal artisans create unique rugs that reflect their own stories and life. The patterns and motifs range from the very simplest, even naive, to the most intricate and the motifs are geometric – most often triangles, squares, and especially a lot of animal representations and mythical symbols.  On the other hand, the urban carpet is related by design to oriental rugs from western Anatolia, but combined with regional Moroccan motifs. It is a delicate and fine-quality rug with fine patterns and a harmonious limited colour palette. It also features the recognizable trait of leaving a free red central field with a medallion at the centre and giving more weight to the ornate borders. Rabat and Salé are the main centres of Moroccan urban pile-rug weaving. Despite its oriental origins, the Rabat’s Carpet which has been introduced in Morocco by the Gharnatis who were expelled from Andalusia (Direction de l’Artisanat, 1986) has achieved its own identity after having undergone profound transformations through the years. Except for the extra-high quality carpet, which is completely made of wool, these carpets are made of thick virgin wool knotted on a warp and weft of cotton yarn.   

ph. A. Elalami

Tappeto berbero (ph. A. Elalami)

The force of superstitious and ritual practices in carpet weaving

The handicraft is also an expression of the beliefs, preoccupations and fortunes or misfortunes of the women involved in their fabrication. Since the carpet makers are primarily women, carpet making is a genuine means of self-realization for the woman in the Moroccan society.  Through her carpet designs, she expresses her problems, passions and aspirations. Every instrument she uses and every action she does has its magical connotation. The motifs, for example, are loaded with various meanings, ranging from good luck to bad luck, happiness, joy and love etc.

Besides, the oral tradition of this artisanship casts some light on its history.  Every lexical item in the carpet weaving language has a cultural trait and a historical value. It is this history of the craft that has safeguarded the old forms of expressions. Most if not all old expressions have survived during centuries and are still used today. Through these expressions, tradition is conveyed. Each of the items of the jargon used in this field can be measured by its cultural, religious or mythical value. Each is, in some way, the medium through which the artisans express the importance of the ancestral values of the craft.

For example, terms like «Ruh» and «Khamsah» don’t mean respectively «spirit» and «the number five», but they have a particular dimension where the material and the immaterial dimensions are interconnected. They both imply other levels of interpretation that can’t be handled without prior knowledge of the trade in all its facets.  

Tappeto di Rabat (ph. A. Elalami)

Tappeto berbero (ph. A. Elalami)

The term «Khamsah», also known as the Hand of Fatima, after the daughter of Prophet Muhammad, refers to a decorational motif where is depicted an open right hand with the fingers turned upwards. This image that can be found in paintings, house decorations, tattoos and rural kilims conveys the meanings of strength, power and blessing. The symbol is believed to be a talisman that provides protection against the evil eye.

The term «Ruh» refers to the life of the carpet because, for the weaver, it is like a living being with a soul and a body. Once the rug weaver starts weaving with the wool threads and the weft, the life of the carpet is born and it draws its life from the weaver, as if this latter has breathed into it some of her soul. As soon as the carpet is taken off the loom, its life is extinguished. The carpet’s death is best illustrated in the last ceremony to celebrate the end of the weaving [1]. During this ritual ceremony, the manageress [2] soaks the pitchfork [3] in a bucket of water, splashes a few drops of that water on the finished carpet, and addressing it (as if it were a living creature) she says:

 - sqinaki- f d-dunya “we have supplied you with water in this life”

- sqinaki- f laxrasupply us with water in the hereafter” 

The remaining water in the bucket is sacred and mustn’t be spilt because it contains Ruh z-zeRbiya the carpet’s soul”.  The manageress pours the water in a flower pot so that the living plant can absorb this life. Now that the carpet removed, it is lifeless.  

Numerous and very characteristic are the rituals of the wool-work, mainly those related to the archaic loom. The first category of these rituals is associated with the artisan’s future, and these concern mainly love, marriage and fecundity. The second category is associated with the occult forces that are very present within all the processes of the wool-plies transformation from their growth to the stage where they become a rug.

Tappeto di Rabat (ph. A. Elalami)

Tappeto berbero (ph. A. Elalami)

The Moroccan rug weaver deems those rituals as the essence of the wool work. Before she starts weaving, she has first to prepare the wool. The first operation consists in cleaning the fleece in order to get rid of the impunities it contains. Then, it’s boiled with a sort of soapwort. In the next operation, women go in groups to clean their fleece by running water (in the spring of Chellah at the city of Rabat or by the Bouregreg River at the city of Salè). They are a joyful group, singing beautiful original songs, telling jokes, eating dainty food, and as the work begins, the young girls and the women emulously ask the wool about their future and fortune. Back at home, the cleaned wool is left in a corner of the house for days with the firm belief that it will grow in size. Like, in the peasant’s belief, the grains of wheat which increase in the open air after the harvest, wool, once cleaned, can grow in size for the benefit of its owner who must take care not to bother the mysterious forces that preside over the supernatural growth. This shows clearly enough the analogy, to the Berber’s mind, between the wool and the other products of the earth. This belief, which tends to disappear in the city, turns to be a legendary souvenir in the memory of many. Asked on this point, an old weaver says that, in the past, wool used to grow after it was dipped, but it no longer does today because people have become wicked and evil. Thus strengthens in the popular mind the souvenir of a golden age, where everything was available without efforts, where nature was more generous and people more honest.

Carpet making, like any other handicraft, has its black letter days. These days vary according to regions and operations, but the principle exists everywhere. Thus, in Rabat, for example, women rug-weavers don’t weave on the days of the three Muslim feasts [4]. Friday also is a bad day for work. On the contrary, Monday and Thursday are favourable days for carpet weaving and selling [5].

Once cleaned, the wool is carded, sulphureted; on the whole, it is transformed into wisps ready to be spun. Those operations are carried out at home thanks to the same usual support lent by the neighbours especially if this wool is used in the making of a bride’s trousseau.  Ritual practices interfering with the work aim at chasing the evil influence from the wool putting it in the magical conditions most favourable for the accomplishment of the work.

Tappeto di Rabat (ph. A. Elalami)

Tappeto berbero (ph. A. Elalami)

Young girls are in a majority in this trade. What interests them most in the future is to know if they will get married and what kind of husbands they will have, and if they are married, whether they will have an offspring and what will be their sex and destiny. All is a matter of presage, and the instruments themselves play a huge role in this this divinatory magic. They either portend evil or predict good.

And to explain the mixed origin of the decorative motifs, the Rabat rug weavers recount the legendary story of a stork that was flying over Rabat while holding an oriental piece of carpet that he had stolen from Turkey. Suddenly, he left it fall on a lucky house and the women who lived in that house made a fair copy of that carpet and depicted other different objects present in the house: the cups with which they were drinking tea /kissàn/, the birds on the tree branches /T-TyuR/, and even  the stork feet /ReZʤlin bellaReʤ/.

All the instruments, be they primary or accessory, play a magical role. These instruments may, for instance, give indications about the future; they may even influence the destiny of the one who has recourse to their good offices. The Moroccan girl, who reaches the age of 20 – 25 years of age and thus is likely to get old, borrows from a manageress weaver all the instruments of the loom and its accessories. Then, she gets water from seven different wells “where God’s look is reflected”. In Friday at the time of Zuhr Prayer [6], she cleans the instruments with that water. A married woman who doesn’t have children proceeds in the same way in the hope of giving birth to an offspring. In this, we remark the particular union between magical beliefs and the rites of the Muslim orthodoxy.

The pitchfork which plays an important role in tightening the tissue of the rug has the same magical usage as the carding brush. But the reeds of the loom, whose role is to interlace the threads, have a particular power in a number of ceremonies and magical practices and are connected with the mysterious life of the loom. The future mother who wants to foreknow the sex and the future of her baby lays her hands on the reeds as soon as the carpet is taken off the loom and rushes to the door of the manageress’ house / Dar le-mçellemma/. Does she see a man, she will have a son. If her eyes fall on a woman, she will have a daughter. According to the individual’s aspect, the born baby will be rich or poor, happy or unhappy, strapping or weak.

Likewise, weaving operations are in magical contact with the events of the human life, mainly love and marriage. The first work process consists in preparing the warp threads. First, it is necessary to give them the wanted size. Two pegs are planted into the ground. The distance between the two pegs constitutes the wanted length of the carpet to be woven. A woman holding a card of strong cotton threads spools it going from a planted peg to another, thus making as many voyages here and there as the largeness of the carpet requires. If the carpet to be woven is of a great dimension, the work mustn’t be interrupted no matter how long and tiring it is. In this way, the weavers can take turns with each other provided that they aren’t changing with a relative because that would bring misfortune and bad luck upon the two. To sneeze during this operation is a sign of death for one of hers. An unmarried weaver as well as her apprentice should abstain from striding over taut threads; otherwise in their wedding day, they wouldn’t be able to fulfil their marital duty. On the other hand, striding over this thread is auspicious for married women.

Apart from the maleficent influence of the loom, it is possible to derive beneficial aspects from it; it is believed to have a magical power to preserve young girls’ virginity until the day of their marriage. Once the work is over, the carpet is not taken off the loom before celebrating an important rite. Among the warp threads that keep the carpet on the loom, the ones in the middle are cut. Then, the manageress makes her apprentices (usually those below 12 years old) pass through the opening which she has just made.  When each of the young girls has passed through the aperture, she kicks the girl on her loins with one of the reeds saying: 

bent n-nas , hiT!                                good girl, be wall !

weld n-nas , xiT !                                good boy, be thread ! 

Once having been subject to this rite, the girls can’t lose their virginity even if they are willing to.

Tappeto di Rabat (ph. A. Elalami)

Tappeto berbero (ph. A. Elalami)

Besides the rituals with their secret codes and meanings associated with the history, culture and religion of the weavers, every Moroccan carpet has patterns, motifs and colours intended to perform hidden messages. Most of the motifs refer to ancient pagan beliefs that have been imbued with magical or religious significance.  These symbols can be found in traditional Berber rugs from many locations, including the Middle Atlas Mountains and the region of Marrakech. Each Berber carpet has its own designs and patterns representing the characteristics of the place. The traditional Berber rug is filled with geometric patterns, signs and symbols with a meaning in relation to the life of the female weavers living in rural villages.  It is an artistic creation of these women and reflects the different phases of their lives: before and after marriage, before and after becoming a mother. Most of the symbols relate to the origins of the body, the form and functions of the human sexual organs and depict the relationship with man and nature.

The primary symbols include zoomorphic motifs like the images of the scarab which   gives protection against the evil eye, butterflies which represent the feminine beauty and the camel which symbolizes the weaver’s suffering and resilience. It is not unusual to find images of domestic animals like the rooster or peacocks and the birds in general are depicted in a stylized manner because they are believed to influence the offspring of the livestock.

There are also countless examples of symbols depicted on the Berber carpets and each has a definite meaning. For example, the mesh and flowers evoke femininity, the Partridge Eyes are a symbolize beauty and femininity. The teapot pattern symbolizes the generosity towards the visitors. Twigs express closeness to nature and are related to the tree of life while the Berber cross is a symbol of freedom. Basically, the subject of symbolism of carpets is very extensive and it would be difficult to describe it all in this paper. 

Tappeto di Rabat (ph. A. Elalami)

Tappeto berbero (ph. A. Elalami)


The alluring diversity and richness of Morocco is inseparable from the exquisite workmanship of the astonishing collection of handmade carpets. The craft which dates back to the 2nd century has been handed down from one generation to another attaining progressively the high degree of perfection.  Nonetheless, in the last decade it has lost the important role it used to have because of the rise of the industrial textile industry and the consequent competition of industrially produced carpets.

Since the earliest times motifs and patterns of the rugs have been used by superstitious people, all of them illiterate, as efficacious agents to ward off the effects of evil eyes and malignant spirits.  This superstitious and irrational attitude of the weavers has left an indelible mark on the posterity. This is the reason why still some objects and symbols like the hand of Fatima or the scarab which are still believed by the younger generations as a good agent against the evil eye.

The many examples that we showed aptly demonstrate that myths and superstitious beliefs are bound to remain relevant among the carpet makers in so far as they provide them with explanations on their origin and predictions of their future. 

However, it must be asserted that the new generations are sceptical towards the irrational and superstitious beliefs despite their attachment to their ancestral traditions and to the culture of the community they belong to certainly because they believe that education can bring progress and they refuse to believe that chance can control their life and future. 

Dialoghi Mediterranei, n. 53, gennaio 2022
[*] Abstract
I tappeti marocchini sono famosi nel mondo non solo per la loro alta qualità, resistenza e originalità, ma anche per la particolarità di essere annodati a mano da artigiane abili e creative. La storia del tappeto marocchino racconta miti e superstizioni, entrambi custodi di misteri. Poche persone sono consapevoli della sua connessione con le preoccupazioni e le ambizioni delle tessitrici analfabete. La creazione dei tappeti è l’espressione delle loro credenze e del loro immaginario. Attraverso i disegni che crea, la tessitrice intende proteggersi e proteggere i suoi contro l’invidia e il malocchio. Ogni strumento che usa e ogni azione che compie ha la sua connotazione magica. I rituali e i simboli come   lo “scarabeo” o la “mano di Fatima” e persino gli attrezzi possono  scongiurare il malaugurio, assistere le donne incinte e portare fortuna alle giovani. Ogni elemento è un potente strumento che determina, secondo la credenza, la sorte della donna e quella della sua famiglia. 
[1] The moment when the rug is removed off the loom is called in the jargon «t-tegraz»
[2] The woman who is experienced and highly skilled in the craft of carpet weaving. She has reached the highest level of craftsmanship after years training on the job and passing though different stages. Beefore becoming m3ellma, the weaver must pass through the stages of apprentice to qualified journeywoman who can earn by his work. Only after having passed these two stages can she be elected to become a master craftswoman
[3] Called «medra»
[4] The official holidays celebrated in muslim countries are two: Eid Al Fitr which commemorates the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and Eid Al Adha which is also a public holiday. In Morocco, is celebrated also the birthday of the prophet Muhammad (the Aid Mawlid Nabawi).
[5] Monday and Thursday are the market days when the rug weavers sell their weavings to carpet  merchants in rue des consuls in Rabat.
[6]  Each week on Friday, Muslims are required to assemble in the mosque for Friday Prayer. 
Barbatti, B., (2006), Tapis Berbères du Maroc, la Symbolique – Origines et significations, Courbevoie: ACR Edition.
Naji, M., (2007), «Valeur des tapis marocains: entre productrices d’artisanat et marchands d’art», Cahiers du Genre, vol. 43, no. 2 : 95-111.
Stanzer, W., (1991), Berber – Tribal Carpets and Weavings from Morocco, Graz: Helmut Reinisch. 
Direction de l’Artisanat, (1986). Guide du tapis marocain, Casablanca: Fondation Konrad Adenauer.


 Abdelkrim Elalami, professore di lingua e letteratura italiane presso il Dipartimento di Lingua e Letteratura Italiana dell’Università di Rabat, ha studiato al Dipartimento di Italianistica dell’Università di Bologna. Specializzato nella letteratura comparata, particolarmente nei rapporti tra Dante e la cultura islamica e nel  Sufismo musulmano, ha ricoperto l’incarico di capo del Dipartimento degli studi italiani presso la Facoltà di Lettere e Scienze Umane di Rabat e ha contribuito alla promozione del Master di Traduzione Letteraria e Culturale presso la stessa Facoltà.



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