Amazigh Textiles in Morocco

Weaving Technique
Imagery and Motifs
Female Context


Putting Morocco on the Map
The Kingdom of Morocco is a country on the northwest coast of Africa, in a region known as the Maghrib. It is situated between Algeria, Western Sahara, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea. Its 33 million people are nearly one hundred percent Muslim and ethnically homogenous, composed of Arabs, Berbers, and mixes of the two. While genetically quite indistinct, Arabs speak the official language of Arabic, whereas 40 percent of the nation speaks a variety of Berber dialects. Morocco annexed the neighboring country of Western Sahara in the late 1970s and has yet to give it back. Though today its economy rests largely on the mining of phosphates, Morocco’s rural life centers around its agriculture (CIA). It has a fertile coastal plain with a few bustling urban centers, but much of the country is covered with high mountain chains. It is here in the rural highlands where the Berbers are located.

Map of Morocco, showing ethnic distribution
Map of Morocco, showing ethnic distribution
(Source: Morocco – Wikipedia.

The Amazigh People
The name Berber came from the Greeks, who generically called all North Africans “barbarians”. The name they chose for themselves was the Imaghizen, which means “free people” or “noble ones”. Its singular form is Amazigh. Throughout this work I will use Amazigh and Berber interchangeably. The Berbers come from a diverse background of tribes, collectively defined by their languages, Tamazight, which are from the Afro-Asiatic (formerly, Hamito-Semitic) language family. The indigenous Berbers have inhabited the areas of Morocco and the rest of the Maghrib (which roughly encompasses Western Sahara, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, along the Atlas Mountains) for roughly 10,000 years. With the rise of Islam, Arabs expanded into the region in the seventh century, converting most of the population. Whereas the urbanites are mostly of Arab descent, the rural inhabitants in the Rif, Middle Atlas, High Atlas, Siroua, and Anti Atlas mountains are mostly Berber (Briggs, et al.). And though originally nomadic, many live in settled village communities now.

Until the Berber linguistic and cultural movement in the 1980s, most study of this group was external, so their origins and identity are still highly debatable (Hart 23). Furthermore, Berber languages are rarely written down, so tracing histories is a complicated process. The Imaghizen have had a tremendously long time to divide themselves into a complex tribal organization. The tribes were patriarchal, polygamous groups, which alternately allied or disbanded to control trade routes or war on other tribal configurations (Jereb 49). Tribal prefixes are Ait or Beni, which mean literally “sons of”. Berber social stratification revolves around an amorphous kinship system (Gellner and Micaud 83). Placing the Amazigh inside a social context can give insight into their artistic forms.

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