AL-HAMZA, Iraq (AFP) — In the shadow of the Imam Hamza mosque in the region of the ancient kingdom of Babylon, a carpet market that was once bustling is now almost empty.
The only visitor to Hamad al-Soltani’s small shop in the city of Al-Hamza in central Iraq, some 175 kilometers (110 miles) south of Baghdad, is a local tribal chief.
Nothing in the world can convince Sheikh Hazem al-Hiyali — a Bedouin scarf on his head, hooded cloak over his shoulders and shawl on his neck — to replace the traditional carpets he receives his guests on for imported versions.
Over the past few years, Iraq has been flooded with carpets from abroad — but although they may well be much cheaper they are of a far lower quality, he insists.
Hiyali says he cannot bear to even imagine his “diwan,” the traditional reception room where visitors sip tea and chat, without the long rectangular carpets adorned with geometric patterns.
“It is by the beauty of its carpets that one can judge a room,” he tells AFP, running ring-covered fingers across the merchandise hanging on the walls of the shop.
“Our mothers and our grandmothers worked at home to weave” these carpets, says the tribal leader, his beard speckled with gray.
Soltani, 32, inherited his carpet shop from his father.
He says older generations of women also embroidered saddles for camels and wove covers for their harnesses, but such items are sold nowadays only as decorations.
Mehdi Saheb spent 50 years working at a loom and can speak for hours about the rich history and intricacies of carpet manufacturing in Iraq.
As he talks, Saheb, 70, weaves in long-forgotten words from the past that are now unfamiliar to younger Iraqis.
Inherited from the Turkish used during Ottoman domination more than a century ago, they describe the different colors and types of wool used in this agricultural area where keeping livestock is widespread.
“Before, people came from abroad to place orders,” he said, wearing a beige robe as he sits in his small house on the verge of a dusty road.
By “before,” Saheb means before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that sparked chaos and bloodshed which still roils the country.
“Every day, some twenty groups of tourists would come to visit the ancient sites” of Babylonia and other archaeological treasures, recalls former antiquities official Fallah al-Jabbawi.
Now no tourists come to see this millennia-old heritage.
“There are only Iraqis left,” laments Saheb, who throughout his working life embroidered patterns passed down from the different civilizations that once ruled this region.
Circles, squares, and stylized animals or flowers: the symbols woven into Iraq’s carpets can be traced back to the Babylonians who ruled there some 2,000 years before Christ was born, or the Assyrians who followed.
Meanwhile, certain motifs represent the Jewish Star of David or Christian crosses, and others, found in mosques, are said to be Islamic.
In many houses families jealously guard carpets passed down from their ancestors, while the offices of senior government officials or foyers of luxury hotels are often decorated with the traditional goods.
But on the markets, the majority of new models being purchased are now mass-produced in neighboring Iran, Turkey or Syria.
About half as cheap as their Iraqi equivalents, the imports have slowly but surely made their way onto the stalls.
Shopkeeper Soltani still has carpets on display that are more than 50 years old, but he struggles to sell many of his wares.
An item that he once could have got more than $100 for, he now has to let go for just $20, he says.
In the rutted streets of the old neighborhood nearby, the impact of the industry’s decline can be seen.
Some 30 or 40 families who once made their living from weaving now struggle to scratch together $100 each month.
Once a source of pride, this testament to Iraq’s varied heritage is now neglected and shunned, bemoans former carpet maker Saheb.
“Neither the state nor the private sector support the weavers,” he says.