Posts Tagged ‘Iconology’

Iconography in Berber Rugs, Jewelry, and Matriarchal Societies

September 10, 2009

Berber kilim, from

Berber kilim, from

A person who reads and comments on this blog, Berowne, a fine writer and photographer in his own right, raised this question about the Christian cross tattooed on the head of the Berber woman in the photograph dated c. 1910.  Berowne got me thinking about symbols, in particular crosses and their cross-cultural meanings.

Looking at the one Berber rug I have, I started to notice patterns I had only been vaguely aware of before. My husband (non Berber) gave this rug to me 20 years ago for a wedding present. It was a ‘modern’ kilim, but unusual because it was of very light colors. Basically it was on a cream background and I loved the floral and geometric designs. Though I say ‘modern’, it was really of an ancient design, simple but full of symbols.  They only became apparent to me with some further study, and within this particular rug, there are ram’s horns, spiders and crosses.  Quite a mixture of symbols.

I happened upon a site that took up the argument of Christian iconology in kilims and the exploration of this was amazing. It was not actually only Christian symbols, but Jewish, Muslim, and pagan symbols woven into these rugs….and formed into Berber jewelry. It was surprising at the far ranging influences played out in these Berber crafts.

I will try to illustrate with a few photos I found, and with thanks to Sophia Gates and Marla Mallet, a friend here in Atlanta.

(For the complete article by Sophia Gates at

I thank Ms. Gates in advance for the quotes used from her   amazing article:  It is the basis of a lot of deep research and understanding and her writing  adds so much to the general research on “Tin Hinan”.

Most obviously, the cross shape is one of the most natural designs for a weaver to make. Whether a pile weaver or a flatweave weaver (oi) – the geometry of warp and weft lends itself with complete ease to the use of cross shapes as decorations. Plain crosses, diagonally crossed crosses, crosses in negative space – all are relatively easy for weavers to produce and I think it’s a stretch to assume that they all are meant to indicate a Christian icon.

More importantly, however, the cross as a symbol is used almost universally, in many cultures, in many media, all over the world. It shows up in painted pottery in America, it’s woven into Berber and Navajo blankets. Almost universally, it carries the meanings star/sun/light/protection. It has been argued that Christianity built the symbol(s) of Jesus right into an existing iconography that is both ancient and powerful. This symbolism extends beyond the cruciform to include others that Gantzhorn mentions, including floral/leaf (boteh, lily) symbols of Mary and the ubiquitous trees, which he also assumes have a Christian meaning.

And this:

“The Turkic ram’s horns! There’s the Turkic influence Daniel mentioned! The 8 pointed star, formed by a cross diagonally crossed by another cross, a symbol of the light-filled cross, a Christian Star! – bearing the square shape of the Kaaba, surrounding the ancient ram’s horn motif – perhaps this one goes all the way back, to the ancient Shofar of the Hebrews?

Aren’t we seeing into the past? Aren’t we actually viewing layers of iconography, from the ancient times represented by the horns, to the square Islamic symbol, back to the Christian star, the whole surrounded by a field of flowers, and a border of stars and crosses and trees?

(Well, the Ram’s Horn was a symbol of Amon, and the Berbers were early worshipers of Amun, or Amon. JKB)

For many years, I’ve been thinking and reading a great deal about women’s issues. These have been brought to everyone’s attention by the war in Afghanistan. Recently, however, my reading has gone in a different direction, back to the ancient religions, social structures, and art of North Africa, North America, and Asia Minor.

Some historians theorize that the monotheists who have flourished in the Middle East, may actually have swept down upon an essentially matriarchal and agricultural society from outside the region, from the north in approximately 3,000 bce. These were male dominated, patriarchal pastoralists – nomadic or semi-nomadic people who depend upon animal husbandry – and include the ancient Semitic people – Hebrews among them – and they altered or virtually eradicated, by Mohammed’s time, the matriarchies and the goddesses who were their deities.

Occasionally, however, we still see remnants of these ancient goddesses and their symbols: Isis, The Queen of the Heavens, Astarte, Ishtar, Hecabe, Diana – they’ve been subsumed into Mary, the Panagaia – great mother; Mary, the Immaculata – eternal virgin. Yet their symbols continue to appear. . .

The crescent moon, often associated with Hecabe, Diana, and Isis, is here superimposed upon the cross form. Perhaps it represents a remnant of those ancient beliefs in a mother-goddess? The “S” forms in the field

that Gantzhorn says mean “God” may in fact still carry their ancient meanings: rain dragon, serpent, goddess, woman. Who’s to say that this rug wasn’t woven by a devotee of The Goddess? The small subversive acts of women in a domineering patriarchal world: the schools of ROWA in Taliban Afghanistan; the cryptic poetry of Bedouin women, singing to each other of forbidden loves and heartaches they dare not speak aloud – who’s to say that women didn’t weave their hopes and dreams and heartfelt beliefs into their rugs?

The main thing, which has troubled me about certain theories concerning Turkmen and other Oriental rug iconography, has been their overwhelmingly male nature. Arrows, mushrooms, and signs supposedly drawn in the sand by MALE shamans celebrating male deeds such as war and hunting – well. As I’ve written before, one of the joys of symbol-art is its ability to carry many meanings within one “glyph”. But – just perhaps – the guls ARE flowers; they’re eggs; the hunting birds curling up inside them are babies. The trees aren’t arrows – they’re TREES, sheltering, protective, and cool. Those aren’t drawn bows – they’re lady spiders, weaving!

And do we still see anything of The Goddess?

A few matriarchies still survive, among them the Berber and Tuareg of North Africa and the Hopi of North America. The Dineh – the Navajo, are matrilineal if not outright matriarchal – land stays with the woman’s family and the husband moves in with the wife’s family. These groups, interestingly, are still active and highly productive in the ancient arts of weaving and potmaking and jewelry manufacture; and although they are under extreme stress from modern times, Christianity, Islam, and Arabism, their art flourishes still.

Right away, we can see that the iconography of these Berber pieces differs considerably from what we’ve been looking at so far. Serpents, no longer shy little “s” forms, wriggle potently across the field. The stars are open blossoms, their petals wide open to the rain. The dominant forms are diamonds – eyes – even the “cross” forms are dominated by eyes.

Eyes – and the weavings they appear on – have amuletic power. The weavings themselves are gigantic amulets of protection. They aren’t “meant” to have power; to the weavers and their families, they DO have power. These women have POWER! And these pieces, although they are essentially contemporary – all of the pictures are of 20th century shawls and blankets, continue to exhibit in their iconography and form absolutely traditional and ancient symbols and the beliefs that accompany them. It occurs to me that the Kurdish pieces – the Jaf bags – might have a similar meaning. They are not just random, abstract diamonds. Similarly, one finds eye-diamonds in Caucasian pieces – even in the cross-filled, possibly Christian-made, Shirvan prayer rug!

Sophia Gates: extracted from her article at www:

In writing “Tin Hinan” I became aware of the embroidery patterns that early Berber women would have used and created. They were full of symbols, but I was only seeing part of the picture: these symbols in the above rugs speak from centuries of cross cultural influences.  But of course, “Tin Hinan” come from the 5-6th century, and I was focusing on the more Egyptian symbolism.  I need to extend my understand of the dominant and subdominant influences here.

And then I came across this, in the Tuareg Jewelry (Berber). I almost fell off my chair.

Southern Crosses in Berber Jewelry

Southern Crosses in Berber Jewelry

And then this and,

Star of David in middle of hand pendant

Star of David in middle of hand pendant

and this:

Egyptian "eye" in Berber piece?

Egyptian "eye" in Berber piece?

Ms. Gates has made a believer of me!  I recommend the entire article to be found at the above site.  Amazing and profound research done by Sophia Gates.

Lady Nyo

All photos from Sophia Gates illustrations of her article on www. turkotek. com/salon

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