Embroidered Blankets from The Marsh Arabs(Ma’dan)of Beni Hassan villages of Southern Iraq

I have always been fascinated by these magnificant primitive embroideries that first appeared on the oriental carpet market 5 yrs or so ago . They have a modernistic feeling that is as inspired as it is unique.

As far as I know most dealers sell these as ‘Arab cicims’ or ‘Turkoman embroideries’ but after weeks of rather relentless research I did in fact find their origins !

Embroidered Blankets from The Marsh Arabs(Ma’dan)of Beni Hassan villages of Southern Iraq

The wetland marshes in the middle and lower basin of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq comprise a complex of shallow freshwater lakes, marshes and seasonally inundated floodplains extending from the region of Basrah in the east to within 150 km of Baghdad in the west.This area of Lower Mesopotamia is the legendary site of the Garden of Eden, and possesses the famous ruined cities of Ur and Babylon.

The Mesopotamian marshes have provided a home for the Ma’dan or Marsh Arabs for at least 5000 years.There was a considerable historic prejudice against the Madān as they were considered to have Persian or other “mixed”(possibly Indian) origin.The majority of Marsh Arabs are Shiite Muslims, In addition to their Islamic faith, the Ma’dan still held a number of pre-Islamic or extra-Islamic beliefs, from the existence of strange monsters in the marshes to that of bewitched isles.The Ma’dan  live in semi permanent reed or mud brick houses that were built on artificial islands made from layers of mats, reeds and mud. They are primarily buffalo herders, fishermen and reed mat weavers, although others cultivated rice,and wheat.

All of the carpet weaving, embroidery, and related crafts are practiced solely by Ma’dan women except for the hand spinning of wools,which is done by both sexes.Although many of the carperts resemble Tribal weavings from other areas the embroidered blankets are unique to this specific region.Initially hand woven blankets are purchased from the Bedouin or Kurds in the nearby market towns. They use locally spun and dyed wools and traditionally weave the blankets on ground looms in seperate panels, before being purchased and then elaborately embroidered by young Ma’dan girls for their marriage beds and sometimes by mothers for their sons.

The most common examples are comparatively lightly embroidered, but those most prized are heavily embroidered over their entire surface with a multitude of colorful patterns. According to research in 1970, the sale of these blankets is a relatively recent phenomenon although the best embroiderers have always occupied a position of respect within the community.

Design : Right angles dominate in the repertoire of stylized geometric designs although the lines are often slightly curved and the angles slightly skewered. All weavers agree that the major part of these designs are abstract adaptations from environmental subjects such as the frog, scorpion, date palm, dome or minaret. Each small group or village use different designs that indicate the origins of the weaver, but a single design is often assigned an entirely different significance by different weavers. In the last decades there is an increasing use of small, more or less realistic representations of men, women, animals, birds, flowers and mosques, whose meaning is as clear to the prospective buyer as to the maker. While geometric designs still dominate on woven carpets and kilims, the embroidered blankets are often especially inventive in combining the geometric and small figural in a wide variety of interesting ways.Carpets as well as the embroidered blankets are made without drawn patterns of any kind. Each weaver keeps in her head the position and size of the patterns she wishes to appear on the finished work and weaves or embroiders accordingly.
Enormous changes have taken place in weaving crafts in the villages in the last 20 years. A primary factor is the total absence of the Bedouin, who used to camp in the area during the fall and early winter.In the past a major part of the carpet weaver’s output was traded to the Bedouin weavers for cloth suitable for making clothes, for blankets, and for bags woven on horizontal treadle looms. Although there is still a market for carpets in the villages themselves, the village craftswomen, where they still exist, no longer have a near monopoly on this trade in their own villages. Draining of the marshes and the building of a network of dirt roads has made the trip to the nearby market towns a matter of minutes rather than hours. As a result of this change a prospective carpet buyer can more easily shop for traditional carpets in the local souq at very competitive prices.

Only two elderly woman carpet weavers exist in the area today although the dynamic embroidered blankets are still made. The designs, while pleasing and decorative, are seldom as densely applied as in the past and as with many decorative arts, the older embroidered blankets are rarer to find and more expensive in todays market place.

The finest collection of Iraqi embroidered blankets was assembled by Agatha Christie.

15 thoughts on “Embroidered Blankets from The Marsh Arabs(Ma’dan)of Beni Hassan villages of Southern Iraq

  1. Hi, can you recommend where to buy marsh arab embroidered carpets? I live in Denmark and haven’t found any for sale? BR, Dorthe

    • Hi Jody ,
      Delighted to hear that you are now keeping you wonderful ‘gem’. They are fabulous and unique and as they are no long being made in the tradition they are worthwhile keeping 🙂

  2. I have owned 6 or 8 of these since my first in 1968. I have a very good piece with all of the marsh tightly depicted: camels, cats, deer, scorpions, flowers, palms, etc; plus 4 female figures with real character. As you know, they are more rare than the geometric ones and it’s rare that the people go beyond stick figures. I live in France, but wonder if anyone in the EU or America might be interested in its purchase since I’ve moved from a big house to a small apartment.

  3. How much is it? because I want to buy one but can not find any in the UK. And is the heavily embroidered one better than the less one….and why some of them they look like two pieces? Thanks

    • Sorry for my delay in reply .I am not currently selling any Ma’dan pieces but do look on the internet and you will find some for sale from various dealers . The finer and more detailed the embroidery the more expensive the piece and prices can vary from $400 – 1200 .I would suggest for a larger size one that a general price for a good piece is around $800 .In saying that it does always depend on the quality .

      • A really beautiful example, old, full of animals, people, camels, marsh animals. In the hands of the right dealer – $1800. He expected the worst price to be 1500/1600, the best to be $2000/2400. Last November.

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