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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

(Part 3):  Streams of Influence: Motives and Origins of Moroccan Carpet Design

by David R.E. Hunt

The Moors

Othello, the central character in Shakespeare's tragedy of matrimonial jealosy, is probably the Moor with whom most of us in the west are familiar .  But this group of Mauretainian Berbers have played a decisive role in the history of the Maghrib, having lent their name to both Morocco and Marrakech.   Originating from the southeastern portion of the Maghrib, the Moors are of a negro racial stock due to their proximity to subSaharan peoples.

Just as with the Tuareg, the artistic heritage of the Moors has been impacted by the Arabs.  In this instance, close proximity as opposed to isolation has resulted in a modification of the repertoire, a crowding/proliferation of design elements and introduction of design elements from outside the traditional Berber heritage.

Upon the demise of the Umayyad caliphate in 1009 AD, the Christians of the north siezed upon the opportunity to regain territory from the Arabs.   The Sultan of Seville enlisted the aid of the Moors in fending off the Spanish incursion, yet relinquished power to the Almoravids in the process.   Thus, the seat of power was moved from Cordova to Marrakech and these relatives of the Tuareg became the rulers of Morocco untill the middle of the twelfth century, when they were supplanted by the Almohads, a Berber tribe of the Atlas region.

This Great Mosque of Tlemcen, built in 1082 during the Almoravid period, could perhaps serve as an example of the crowding/proliferation of design elements which characterizes the Moorish artistic heritage.  It especially contrasts to the minaret of the Qutubiyah mosque, constructed during the Alhomad empire by Atlas Berbers, which will be considered next.

The Atlas Berbers

The Alhomads, Berbers from the plain of the Atlas mountains, supplanted the Almoravids or Moors in the middle of the 12th century and ruled until their dynastic demise near the middle of the 13th century.  Given their propensity to build with unfired mud brick, much of their construction is no longer extant.  But of that which is, this mosque represents one of the crowning jewels of all Islamic architecture, the Qutubiyah of Marrakech.   Their austerity of both temperament and artistry is reflected in the ornaments of the minaret, depicted above.

Fatamid architecture and decorative elements have an interesting combination of styles of various artistic heritage, including those of the Umayyad centered in Damascus, the Abassids of Baghdad, and the Tulunids of Egypt.  This, the minaret of the Mosque of Hassan II in Casablanca, was constructed by the reigning dynasty of the present day, which represents the longest continuous monarchy of Islam.  The fact of their Tunisian origins and claims of Fatimid ancestry are born out by the ornaments of this minaret, with its minute and repetitive motives, which just as with the adornment of the Rashida of the African Horn, bear witness to their closer spatial proximity to Arab influence.

This is the earliest example of a prayer niche votive with which I am familiar, and dates from the 9th-10th centuries.

Observations of Moroccan Carpet Design

This Berber cape could be the crown jewel in any collection, and I think much can be learned from examining this piece more closely, for it is my understanding that this cape is the consumate ethnographic document.

The symmetry of the arrangement of the these stemmed triangles, zig-zag lines, chevrons and x's are for the most part linear, yet it is readily apparent that they could be arranged to a diagonal orientation if so desired.   Also, note how lines, either zig-zag as on the lateral extremities or conforming to the objects dimensions as above and below, seem to demarcate simple borders.  Yet, what I find most interesting about this weaving is this small area defined by these zig-zag lines directly below and apparently integrated into the design of the hood.  Note the lines intersecting at right angles, dividing the compartment into a grid and hence the basic symmetry of the so called Turkic format of design composition.  Also, these zig-zag lines form the borders of a field, a characteristic of many Moroccan rugs, such as the following.

Notice this central medallion and how it could be drawn from the above mentioned stemmed triangles.


As could be this medallion from a rug from the Marrakech plain (above), as well as the banded pattern displayed on the flatwoven bag (below).

This photo from the cover of Oriental Rug Review could represent the transitory phase of the evolution of this stemmed triangle into the medallion format of the rug in the photo above.  If so, could this be evidence of an indigenous origin of those medallion format designs formerly attributed to Turkic influence?

The origin of the prayer rug is somewhat obscure.  It seems that Ottoman production of the prayer rug was responsible for it becoming so favored a design in Turkey, yet it strikes me as odd that as long a time as that which separates the production of the above mentioned Tulinid votive (above), demonstrating the classic prayer rug design, could pass in which no prayer rugs were made.  The Ottoman production of prayer rugs roughly coincides with the appearance of the Holbein rugs, which von Bode states are not to be found in Spain, as Spain possessed an important carpet industry of it's own at this time.

Thus, we have Mudjar carpets produced in Holbein patterns with Spanish knotting in Spain.  If memory serves, textiles were begining to be manufactured in Europe and sold to the middle east during this period.  Also, it is my understanding that some of the earlier Holbein carpets are believed to have been influenced by Mamlik carpets.  Thus, Ottoman/Turkish designs may have been subjected to considerable external influence.



The first image is an enlargement of the border from the Mucar or Mudjar carpet.  First, note the zigzag border, which is shared by four of the five images above.  Next, let me call your attention to the drawing of the flowers or rosettes, and specifically to the similarity between that of the second from the bottom in the Mudjar border and that of the Rabat carpet, (the second image). And finally, notice how the disarticulated floral border element, surrounding the third rosette from the bottom in the first image, describes half of the cruciform element depicted in last two images.  While hardly conclusive, it does seem that this Mudjar rug from Turkey and these Berber works from Morocco are related.  But what is the nature of this relationship?  I would suggest that a common origin might best explain it.

I hope you have enjoyed our brief journey as much as I have. As for myself, this is an ongoing process, and this exercise has been of much help.  I look forward to your questions and comments, and will answer you as best I can.


1. Du Ry, Carel J., Art of Islam, Holle Verlag GMBH, Baden-Baden 1970
2. Eiland Jr. and Eiland III, Oriental Carpets. A Complete Guide, Bulfinch Press, Boston 1998
3. Eiland, Murray L., Oriental Rugs From Pacific Coast Collections, San Francisco Bay Area Rug Society, San Francisco 1990
4. Fisher, Angela, Africa Adorned, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York 1984
5. Bode,Wilhelm von, Antique Rugs From the Near East, Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1984

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