The Medina of Marrakech can certainly overwhelm the senses with its vibrant colors, cultures and aromas that seem never-ending through the dizzying twists and turns of the labyrinthine design.
Surely to catch your eye though are the woven baskets with their brightly decorated pom-poms, leather straps and other embellishments that are stacked in piles, suspended in air or spread around the Berber Market in Rahba Lakdima Square.
Basket weaving is a traditional craft found amongst indigenous communities all around the globe. The local environment dictates what natural materials can be used and the intrinsic techniques passed down from generations predicate the design.
In Morocco, the indigenous people are Berbers, which have been residing in North Africa since at least 3,000 B.C. Morocco is home to about 40 percent of the world’s Berber population with two-thirds living in rural or mountainous regions.
The first use of “Berber” was by foreigners as a variation of the Greek word for barbarian, but rather than a discriminating connotation, it was used to describe anyone who did not speak Greek. Without etymological basis, it somehow gained widespread use over centuries.
Nowadays, Berbers proudly call themselves by their native Amazigh (male), Tamazight (female) or Imazighen (plural), which mean “free men” or “noble people.” There are many different tribes and dialects of their language, as well as traditional crafts with distinct designs.
Those familiar with basket weaving are able to identify which region each design originates from based on the material and weaving style. So for a more peaceful atmosphere and a better understanding of Moroccan craft culture, venture outside of Marrakech.
Just over a two-hour drive west of Marrakech you’ll arrive at the coastal city of Essaouira. With the Atlantic Ocean as a border, here you can find baskets made from seagrass that have its color naturally evolve over time from greenish to yellow. Native to the region are the Haha Berbers who apply their unique weaving touch.
If you head east over the Atlas Mountains, you can visit the Tafilalet region, which is the world’s largest oasis covering an area over 233 square miles with palm groves stretching over 30 miles along the Ziz River.
The palm grove is used for growing dates, a central economic means for local farmers, but the palm trees are also integral in basket weaving. The use of natural ribbon-shaped fibers, especially the leaves of a dwarf palm tree, is common. In the region are unique weaving styles, such as those of the Ait Atta Berbers. Over the last 20 years, however, the oasis has been severely impacted by climate change.
During the last century, Morocco has lost a third of its oasis. Actively focused on re-stabilizing the habitat and spurring development, a variety of domestic and international partnerships have been established implementing sustainable initiatives. So far there has been 1.8 million palm trees planted with locally-led social enterprises providing innovative solutions.
In a world where we are becoming increasingly aware of the devastating environmental impact of plastic pollution, the natural basket has once again come into it's own, as pure beauty of sustainability and artisan craft. The handmade baskets you often find in the cities come from rural areas and likewise when traveling through, be mindful on how much can go a long way.