Tunisian Rugs and Textiles: Part 1, the Lecture
On March 28, 2009, Bill and Sondra Bechhoefer
gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program on Tunisian rugs and textiles.
Bruce Baganz, the President of The Textile Museum board of directors,
introduced the Bechhoefer’s, saying, in summary, that Bill is an architect and a retired, Emeritus Professor of Architecture at the University of Maryland. He and Sondra have traveled widely, and lived in Tunisia during their Peace Corps days. They have collected eclectically for a number of years, and Bill has served on the Textile Museum Advisory Council.
Their presentation on Tunisian textiles, here, is of special interest, because they know the geography first hand and can speak to questions of attribution with more confidence than most of us often can often manage, having seen textiles and rugs in the places where they were woven and used.
Bill began with a Power-point-assisted lecture. They have provided me with a CD of it and I have used it generously in what follows.
One real difference: Bill was often able to present several images in various justapositions on single Powerpoint slides. Since wordpress limits me to a max width of 450 pixels, I have had to present most images in vertical sequences in order to retain comprehensible size. This means that, sometimes, I cannot provide the sort of side-by-side image presentation that is most useful in some situations, but I can manage any length of vertical presentation, and hope that difference in orientation is not too distracting.
In their title slide Bill and Sondra acknowledged the sources on which they have drawn in this lecture. They are:
Irmtraud Reswick, Traditional Textiles of Tunisia and Related North African Weavings
Centre des Arts and Traditions Populaire, Les Costumes Tradionneles Feminins de Tunisie
Favrod and Rouvinez, Lehnert & Landrock, Orient 1904-1930
Note: One does not encounter books on Tunisian textiles frequently, but a search on the Advanced Book Exchange site for “Tunisian textiles,” yielded at least one of the books above and some others, all currently available.
A separate search on Reswick’s name, alone, brought the following listing:
Bill began with the map below.
There is not room for explicit “country” labeling of it here, but Tunisia is that “wedge” on the Mediterranean sea, between Algeria and Libya. Its city of Tunis does get specific mention, and the location at a strategic point in the Mediterranean accounts in part for the multiple cultures that have occupied the country.
Next, Bill provided a brief, compressed treatment of Tunisia’s long and varied history.
He divided it into three broad periods.
First, he said, the Berbers are seen by some to stretch from as far back as 6,000 BCE to the present, and they are of great importance for textiles.
In 814 BCE, the Phoenicians of Carthage were in Tunisia and Rome was, subsequently, there, as well, with the Punic Wars ending in 146 BCE. The Vandals arrived in 439 CE and the Byzantines in 534 CE.
A second broad period of Tunisia’s history is taken up with the Arab Conquest in 670 CE and with the various , subsequent Arab and Berber regimes that included, the Ummayads, Aghlabids, Fatimids, Almohads, and the Hafsids.
A third period of Tunisian history, is marked by the arrival of the Ottomans in 1574. Tunisia was under strong Ottoman influence until the mid-19th century. In 1881, it became a French protectorate (there is some overlap between the Ottomans and the French, since the former empire continued in some form into the 20th century). Tunisia finally achieved its independence in 1956.
The postcard below, Bill said
is a “French orientalist” composition from the early 20th century. Despite its intended exoticism, it tells stories of the cultural overlays that exist in Tunisia. In it we see indigenous plain weave, some striped klims (ed. Arabic transliteration), with some Berber decoration in front of Andalusian architecture. The “eagle Kazak” is a mysterious inclusion, and he speculated that it was a “prop” from the photographer’s studio.
The two photos of the city of Tunis below also reveal historical overlays in the architecture.
There are North African, Ottoman, Colonial and Modern buildings. Note the cathedral in the photo below.
Bill said that the image below is of the el Mnouchi family, their first textile collecting mentors in Tunisia.
They were not always accurate regarding provenance, but had access to a variety of quality examples.
Tunis has an “urban” culture. Its textiles have a strongly Ottoman character, as shown in the 18th century wedding dress below.
The textile below is in velvet and gold, and strongly Ottoman in character.
The image below is of an everyday 20th century “safsari,” woven in wool, cotton or synthetics.
The safsari as an outer covering has a long history, as shown in this early 20th century view of Tunis.
But by the mid-20th century, the black veil was rare.
The merchant in the image below exhibits typical male dress.
He wears a white djebba and a red felt hat, called a “chechiya.” Such hats are remanents of the fez. (The fez is now for tourists.) The djebba is the traditional everyday outer garment for men, and can be in cotton, wool or synthetics.
The image below in the Chechiya Souk in Tunis has some hat shops visible on the left side.
This embroidered djebba is for special occasions and can be of cotton, wool, or silk.
The image below is of a calligrapher in Tunis.
We are looking at examples of Ottoman turga and figural calligraphy. Some of the designs, like those in the border, find their way into rugs.
This vintage photo of a weaver prepares us for our move into Tunisia’s countryside.
First stop: Kairouan.
Kairouan has been known for its silk, cotton and linen fabrics since the 8th century.
Its most important pilgramage site is the Grand Mosque, which in its current form dates from the 13th century. Seven pilgramages to Kairouan is said to equal one visit to Mecca.
The image below shows one of the arcades surrounding the main court; all the columns and capitals were scavanged from earlier Byzantine and Roman buildings.
Zaouia Sidi Sahab, 17th century, showing typical Kairouan pile carpets in use.
Pile carpets in Kairouan are decendents of Anatolian imports in the 17th and 18th centuries, and such rugs were first made in Kairouan in the 18th century.
Typical Kairouan type rugs. Man is wearing a safsari to cover his shorts and short sleeves.
Today most wool is imported, and since the beginning of the 20th century dyes have been almost entirely synthetic.
The exception is for pieces made for home use like the shawls of the South, where local wool and natural dyes are used.
“Zarbia” rugs, as shown below, are the most typical Kairouan pile rugs.
Their designs feature double “mirhabs,” eight-branched medallions, bouquets, roses, and kufesque borders. They have symmetric knots and through the 19th century handspun wools and natural dyes were used.
In the 60’s there was a creditable French effort by the Office Nationale de l’Artisanat to research traditional motifs, but there has not been follow-up, ala a DOBAG-type effort to begin again to use handspun wools and natural dyes. Examples, as above, can be finely woven, but are over-reliant on cartoons, which limits the freedom and improvisation of the weavers.
In about 1913, one family, responding to dissatisfaction with the quality of wool and, especially, of dyes invented the “alloucha,” initially a rug made in natural shades of white, beige, brown and grey wool. “Allouchas” were later made from dyed wool.
Here are two examples — the first woven traditionally, and the second being Artisanat production using dyed wool to simulate natural wool colors.
Their designs feature rose or kufesque borders, bouquets, reels, assembly and Greek motifs.
Here is a Kairouan zarbia from the early 20th century, which still has a sense of freedom and improvisation.
The orange in the field is from henna, seen here in a local market.
From the 17th century, Tripolitanian Berbers migrated to Tunisia, bringing with them more complex and fine geometries. The “mergoum” technique was adapted to Kairouan carpets, with results as shown below.
These are flatweaves, woven from the back in weft substitution weave.
Many mergoums are woven in Oudref, which is further south in Tunisia. The same motifs are found in jewelry and tatoos.
In Kairouan and many other places these designs have been adapted for textiles and carpets.
Bill continued with pile pieces from more rural contexts and Berber and Bedouin traditions.
The photo below is of a tent made of goat hair strips called “flij.” It is loosely woven, but closes up when it gets wet to become water repellent.
The tent contains a horizontal loom for weaving “flij.” The rug is a long-pile carpet called a “Qtifa,” a sort found across North Africa. They were woven by itinerant male weavers called “reggam.” These were luxury carpets and production was virtually extinct by the mid-20th century.
These two photos are of a tent in Tozeur.
The “qtifa” piece, visible in it , has geometrical motifs associated with the Berber tradition, but they also assimilated other design ideas, such as those from Anatolia, as shown in the example below.
Here, below, are two more Qtifas.
The one below is an Artisanat effort that exhibits Scandinavian influence in its resemblence to rya rugs.
Bill concluded this part of his discussion of pile rugs by providing examples of the Anatolian connection visible in the designs in Tunisian rugs.
He showed this detail of a western Anatolian pile carpet
and invited comparison of its designs with those in the three Tunisian pile rugs below. The first is a qtifa.
The second is a Kairouan zarbia.
The third is a Kairouan type in natural wool, woven in Djerba. The central motif is said to be an “octopus”. All three are clearly related to the Anatolian example.
While acknowledging that design similarity alone does not absolutely indicate influence, Bill noted that in the case of Tunisia, the Ottoman import of rugs is well established.
Bill now moved to treat the Sahel area of east central Tunisia, including El Jem, Mahdia and Jebeniana.
It has a flat landscape with olive groves and water control.
There was a Roman presence here, as shown by the coliseum in the photo above, and mosaics in the photo below.
Its colliseum is the second largest after Rome’s…and better preserved.
The piece below is a shawl from El Djem known as a “mouchtiya,” in the Berber tradition.
The earliest examples of such shawls have simple stripes, but they have become more complex over time.
These shawls are woven in black and white cotton on wool and are subsequently dyed red. Cotton resists the red dye and remains white.
Here is another of this type that the Bechhoefer’s own.
A closer look at a detail of the piece above.
Bill drew attention to the orange henna markings on these pieces, saying that it is not known why they were put on –possibly for good luck , or simply to make the pieces sparkle.
The piece below is termed a “Wazra.” It is a kind of blanket.
The garment below is from “El Djem.”
Bill pointed to the embroidered ends of the shawl.
Here is the back of another piece, which is striking because of the red/black division of the ground.
It is silk and gold on wool with sequins.
This is the coastal town of Mahdia.
Square, gridded fabric, such as in the costume below, is found from here and farther south, and is often silk.
The costume below is from Ksar Esouf, which is near Mahdia.
The example below from the Bechhoefers’ collection is silk and gold on wool.
Some of the designs are similar to those on the el Djem examples.
There is conjecture about whether the round design devices represent oil lamps. Bill suggested that the artist Paul Klee must have seen such things in his travels in North Africa.
Still further south and on the east coast is the city of Sfax.
This is a classic Arab-Islamic city on a Roman “castrum,” or military encampment. Sfax and Redayef , which is to the south and west, are in different regions, but are linked by the phosphate mining industry and migrations of Tripolitanian Berber mine workers. Therefore, textiles and carpets in the 2 places have affinities and can be discussed together.
Below a French “cordon sanitaire” separates the old Arab city from the newer French Colonial city.
The images below are of the Sfax “medina,” a term used to describe the old sections of Arab cities in North Africa.
Sfax is known for its blankets and shawls. High standards of wool and craft are exhibited. Saddle makers were active well into the mid-20th century, but today there is less need.
Here are some Sfax textiles. The piece below is a Sfax shawl, white and black on white with “jewel” dots of color. The design language of Sfax is similar to that of El Djem and Jebiniana, although the open areas are more prevalent in Sfax and further south. This piece was collected by the Bechhoefers and is now part of The Textile Museum collection. The cushions are probably from Jebiniana.
The piece below is a Sfax shawl produced for the Artisanat.
The next piece below is a “klim-mergoum” woven by Tripolitanians who migrated to Sfax and Redayef in the early 20th century. It was not necessarily made in Sfax, but is associated with it because of these phosphate workers.
Now we move to the western side of Tunisia and slightly south of Sfax to Redayef. These weavers are a particular group of Berber phosphate workers. Here are two Redayef weavings.
Bill said that the larger motifs are possibly the result of influence by nearby Gafsa and Sidi bou Zid.
In the next sequence of images we move to Gafsa proper, including Sidi bou Zid and Tozeur.
Gafsa is an oasis in contrast to the austere landscape that surrounds it.
Below is an urban courtyard house.
There is also a Roman bath.
Gafsa is known for its blankets and klims. References to textiles from Gafsa often include those from Sidi bou Zid and Tozeur.
The town of Tozeur has distinctive brick buildings.
Here are some images of its market.
Notice the brickwork above the klims in the image below.
Tozeur weavings are flatweaves and include those from Sidi bou Zid. Colors include a shocking pink. The synthetic dyes used do not age gracefully.
The piece below is a “huli” and is five meters long, including two end panels. The camel caravan is a typical motif.
In this new example, camel drivers and fish are depicted as well as camels.
The example below is typical of Artisanat production.
There also designs that feature squares, in a type called “ferachiya.”
The older examples of this design had a softer palette. It is often commercially produced now.
The piece below is a typical Gafsa kilim. It has a white ground with “caravan” and field designs, among others.
“Eye dazzler” designs are also produced in this area, and are principally associated with Sidi bou Zid. Here, below, are two.
This second example, below, is new production.
We move back, now to the east coast, to the island of Djerba. Djerba is at the deepest indentation in the map below, between the words “GABES” and “Matmata.”
Djerba is called “the island of the Lotus Eaters,” from Greek mythology.
It is a place of legend, mentioned in one of the tales of Ulysses and sirens.
It exhibits a unique small scale of building designed to escape the notice of pirates, as well as a response to scarce building materials and the climate. The minarets of mosques all over the island are in sight of each other, allowing signals to be sent everywhere in case of danger.
There is also an ancient and distinguished Jewish community there.
The buildings below are “fondouk,” often restored for carpet shops and hotels. They are a distinctive form of commercial building, also know as “hans” and “caravanseris” in other parts of the Middle East and Central Asia. Originally, there was commerce below and living above.
No textiles in the photos are typical of Djerba, although they may have been made there.
To find local products one has to look for local workshops.
This is Djerba silk weaving.
Below is a characteristic studio: the architecture is transverse arches with infill vaults.
The costume below is winter dress, which shows the same gridded fabric we saw in Mahdia.
A Jewish wedding shawl, embroidered in silk and gold on a similar gridded fabric of raw silk.
There was only one weaver left in 1990. Such fabric has been replaced by cheaper machine-made versions.
Bill moved next to treat the Matmata region. It includes Chenini, Medenine, Douiret and Tataouine.
This is the edge of the Sahara, where the culture is predominately Berber. The landscape below shows underground houses. Vegetation grows where water is captured in depressions and valleys.
Some of the finest Tunisian textiles come from this area.
Building underground is an excellent climate response, later emulated by the Romans at Bulla Regia.
Here are some example of older and newer living rooms.
Many Tunisian women have tattoos, and the designs are the same as those found in the weavings.
And below is an older image showing similar dress. The safsari, however, is not typical of the south, but was used by the photographer who posed the subject in Tunis.
And a closer detail of this same image.
The tatoo design vocabulary is pervasive. The designs appear in jewelry and pottery, as well as in textiles.
Tunisian women often wear head covers to protect shawls from hair oils.
These headcovers are termed “tijara.” Here are two from Matmata and Douiret. The Matmata example uses tie-dyed henna stains, while the Douiret example has embroidery applied on top of the woven designs.
This is a grain sack from Medenine, north of Matmata.
This textile is woven in strips.
Below is is a closer detail of the piece above.
Bill said this was a hitch-hiker who got them to Toujane.
The houses there blend with the landscape.
These shawls from the Matmata region are termed “bakhnug.”
These shawls are woven with white cotton on white wool. They are dowry pieces and are dyed only after marriage. It is said that white is for young women, red is for mature and blue is for older women; however, there are enough variations on this idea to merit further investigation. [A similar color symbolism seems to be practiced by Turkmen who wear the chyrpy, although white, in the Turkmen usage, seems honorific, and is awarded to mothers (only) over 60 seen to merit it.]
The shawl below is from Toujane.
A detail of the piece above.
Here is the front of one of these shawls dyed red.
Here is the back of a related piece.
Chenini foum Tataouine
Houses are built into the hillside, as well as on it.
Some of the best pieces come from this area.
These shawls, both blue and red, are covered with beautifully woven decoration.
Bill ended his lecture showing several examples of such pieces.
Bill and Sondra owned the piece below. It is now part of The Textile Museum collection.
Here are some additional closer details of it.
Bill ended his lecture saying that these Chenini pieces, in particular, deserve to be better known and appreciated.
We next moved to examine some of the material in the room. Because there are so many images in this lecture, I have, again, placed our examination of the pieces in the room in a separate post. To see it go to the following link:
R. John Howe