Woven in Morocco by artisans from a small number of distinct Berber communities, these rugs are notable for their simple designs and monochromatic color scheme. To be viewed as “authentic” by sellers, the berber rug must be handwoven in the traditional fashion out of white and black wool from sheep raised in the Atlas mountain range. Traditionally the Berber rug was useful to the tribes not just for aesthetic reasons, but because it could serve as a bed covering, a sleeping mat, and (on certain occasions) as a burial shroud. Because the rugs were originally intended to keep their owners warm in the harsh environment of the Atlas mountain range, they are supple and heat-trapping, regardless of the fact that the modern Western rug owner may not have need of these characteristics.
The 17 Moroccan communities that weave these kinds of rugs are collectively known as the “Beni Ourain tribe”. These Moroccan communities reside primarily in the Atlas Mountain range, where they would traditionally live their lives as semi-nomadic sheep and goat herders. In their spare time they would weave rugs from the wool of these animals, both for aesthetic and practical purposes. The Beni Ourain rug is a particularly interesting kind of rug because the two kinds of wool it uses are undyed. Rather than tainting the wool with pigments to get a darker color, artisans from the Beni Ourain tribe simply use wool from a black sheep. These sheep are a special breed that are priced especially for their soft wool, and are primarily only seen in the Atlas mountain range.
The Beni Ourain rug that we now know has its origins in the 7th century. Historically the rugs were primarily woven by women, who would hand-knot the wool in order to make the geometric patterns that are so distinct to this kind of rug. These artisan women would often choose to incorporate aspects of their lives into the designs of the rugs. The images woven into a traditional Beni Ourain rug would often refer to natural events, births, spiritual occurrences, or be symbolic of more abstract ideas such as fertility and femininity. Occasionally the rugs would not depict the life of the weaver, but rather that of one of her ancestors.
The simple geometric designs of the rugs made them particularly popular in the West after the advent of the modernist movement in art, which admired and drew inspiration from the sleek designs of these rugs. When the modern movement in interior design took hold around the mid-1900s, these rugs saw an explosion in popularity in the West due to their capacity to complement the more minimalist design that was in fashion at the time. This demand still continues to this very day.
Today, most Beni Ourain rugs sold on the internet are antiques made in the mid-1900s. Very few rugs made later than that are made through the traditional method by artisans in Morocco, though many companies create rugs that seek to emulate the Beni Ourain style.