Antigua’s cobblestone streets bloom with vibrant sawdust carpets during Holy Week, an artful tradition that mesmerizes onlookers. Devotees meticulously craft these ephemeral masterpieces, infusing them with faith and culture. Antigua’s history and spirituality intertwine in every colorful grain.
In the heart of Antigua, Guatemala, the dawn of Holy Week heralds a spectacular transformation. Locals emerge with baskets filled with flower petals, palm leaves, and vividly dyed sawdust, ready to craft stunning alfombras, or carpets, along the cobblestone streets. This ancient tradition, deeply intertwined with Antigua’s cultural heritage, paints the city in vibrant hues during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, an annual celebration that commences on Palm Sunday and culminates with Easter.
The origins of this enchanting tradition can be traced back to 1524, when Spanish conquistadors voyaged from newly conquered Mexico to Guatemala, bringing with them the practice of creating intricate carpets. Nevertheless, the roots of this tradition delve even deeper into history, harking back to Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the capital of the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory, where it was part of the Feast of Corpus Christi—a Roman Catholic event venerating the presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
Over the centuries, the art of crafting these carpets has evolved into an elaborate and time-consuming endeavor. Some carpets now span entire city blocks and require days to complete. Furthermore, this once-exclusively religious tradition has become inclusive, embracing the participation of non-Christians.
“At one time, the carpets were quite simple, but now they’ve crescendoed and have become the backbone of Antigua’s cultural traditions,” explains Elizabeth Bell, the founder of Antigua Tours and an expert on Guatemalan culture. “You don’t have to be a Catholic to make a carpet; everyone gets involved.”
During Semana Santa, Antigua’s streets are adorned with countless carpets, created by church parishes and residents using organic materials readily available. These carpets are adorned with various motifs, ranging from depictions of Jesus Christ on the cross and the Passion of the Christ to non-religious themes like birds, animals, and bouquets of flowers. Sawdust, dyed in a kaleidoscope of hues, is one of the preferred materials, alongside flowers picked from gardens and other locally sourced supplies.
Creating the grandest carpets involves meticulous planning and coordination. Months before Semana Santa, designs are meticulously crafted, and large groups collaborate to execute the carpets. Preparations entail clearing the road surface of debris, filling cobblestone cracks with sand or undyed sawdust to achieve a level surface, and using cardboard stencils and long planks of wood to shield the work from disturbance.
As the carpets are completed, thousands of people join daily processions that wind through the city streets, commencing within local churches as part of holy vigils. The carpet routes can be both publicized and spontaneous, as residents may construct carpets on the spot using any available materials upon hearing the approaching crowds.
This year’s Semana Santa celebration is particularly significant, marking the return of formal events after a two-year hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Although scaled down compared to previous years, this year’s festivities feature live music and a schedule of parades. After the processions pass, cleanup crews swiftly clear away the remnants of the carpets, recycling them into compost and leaving a clean slate for the creation of new carpets the following day.
Antigua’s alfombras stand as ephemeral works of art, a testament to the artistic expression of their creators. In a matter of minutes, the streets are restored to their original state, ready to once again come alive with the radiant colors of these captivating carpets.