ARCHITECTURE

“ZELLIGE”- ANCIENT TILES FROM MOROCCO

“PRINCE OF TILES” – I

Zellige, is the famous handmade Moroccan tiles made up of clay or terracotta in mosaic form, normally displaying intricate geometric patterns and range of colors. It is the main element of Moroccan architecture and often found on the walls and floors of Moroccan dwellings. Zellige, is actually a French word directly transliterated from the Arabian word, refers to the mosaic by small ceramic geometrical pieces used for the decoration of the wall, fountain, floor, pavements etc. This incredible art is brought in Morocco by the Muslims from Spain.

Zellige is far more than just a “Moroccan tile”,it is a handcrafted heritage seeped in the history of Morocco. It is a representation of finery, delicacy, patience and sophistication. Zellige has been the symbol of royalty and proudly called as – “prince of tiles”.

Aladdin’s Fountain, Rabat, Morocco
Photo by Niklas Schweinzer on Unsplash

HOME OF ZELLIGE – MOROCCO

The magnificent country of Morocco is well known for its rich art and culture heritage. It is home of distinctive Zellige tilework. The land is bordered by splendid Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The country displays a long history of architectural heritage right from ancient Roman and Berber sites to the recent 20th-century colonial and modern architecture.

Moroccan Mosaic Tiles- Zellige

Morocco has been the epicenter of craft and culture, with the city of Fez (country’s cultural capital) playing major role in embracing skilled craftsman and artisans. The famous Moroccan tilework -Zellige, is beautifully crafted here giving honor to the age old tradition of handmade tile production. It is made from non-refined natural clay extracted from the Fez region in Morocco

Medina of Fez, Morocco

Broadly termed as “Moroccan” architecture, the work mainly features Islamic architectural elements like geometric patterns. The Islamic influence appears clearly in Zellige as the art developed and flourished during the Islamic period from 7th century and after. This “Islamic architecture” here, was a part of much complex and wider culture, referred as “Moorish” art, which comprised of Morocco, Al-Andalus, parts of Algeria and Tunisia.

ABOUT “ZELLIGE”

The land of Morocco glorifies its history and tradition in every artform it owns. One can simply find the Moroccan architecture following a distinctive tile patterns creating amalgamation of intricate patterns/motifs and variety of colors. This is nothing but ZELLIGE- a well crafted Moroccan tile.

Zellige (Arabic: الزليج‎, romanized: zˈliʑ), also referred as Zelige or Zellij. This style of tilework create mosaic patterns by using geometric tiles made up of glazed terracotta that are set in a plaster base. The art find its roots in medieval Moorish artform that eventually became a characteristic feature of Moroccan architecture.

Marrakech 2018 / VI

The design follows the Islamic geometric patterns which tends to avoid figurative images. Radiating star, polygon, squares, diamond etc are thus used to create colorful mosaic patterns including regular and semiregular tessellations.

The art of Zellige is characteristic of Morocco, and it is found almost everywhere- old monuments, mosques, public buildings, in fountains and pools, hotels, for the paving of floors, modern homes, commercial buildings, hammams (spa’s) and wealthy private houses.

THE STRIKING ART OF “ZELLIGE”

Zellige offers its craftsmen to work upon an infinite number of combinations using squares, triangles, stars, diamonds, polygons and crosses to form a precise mosaic. The geometric tiles are fitted together in plaster base in an orderly arithmetical fashion to form a beautiful pattern. It seems like a classic combination of mathematics and arts.

The classic combination of colour palette used in zellige tiles has changed over the centuries. The increased number of color palette now makes it possible to multiply the compositions ad infinitum. The popular forms of the zellīj includes a square, along with the octagon combined with a cabochon, a star, a cross, etc. These geometric patterns are created as a way of adding color, ornamentation and significance to the mosaic.

Zellige_loose_tile_shapes

Zellige adds a sense of refinement to a masterpiece. They are sometimes even used to create hypnotic effect on the viewer and to provide inspiration for meditation and religious practices. Moroccan tiles are often associated with the colors brown, white, green, saffron, blue and black, often representing fire, water, air and earth.

HISTORY AND ADVANCEMENT

Historically Zellige is known as “the prince of tiles”. It is ancient and marks its presence to the 10th century possibly being inspired from Roman and Byzantine mosaics. The art of Zellige became very popular in the Azulejo period (Hispanic-Moresque period) in regions of Maghreb (Northwest Africa) and Al-Andalus (Spain).

Casablanca, Morocco

The colors then were less vibrant and white and brown color were more common. The Nasrid and Merinid Dynasty enhanced the art, by adding green, blue and yellow colors to Moroccan tile during the 14th century. By the time of 17th century, vibrant mixes of colors and red colored handmade tiles brought much popularity to the art of Zellige.

Innovations continued and the 20th century marked the import of glazes, which when mingled with the conventional colors, offered even more choices to the craftsmen. The cities of Fes and Meknes in Morocco, remain the centers of this art.

CLASSIC USE OF ZELLIGE

  • Zellij fragments from al-Mansuriyya (Sabra) in Tunisia, possibly dating from either the mid-10th century Fatimid foundation or from the mid-11th Zirid occupation.
  • By the 11th century the zellij undergone influence from the western Islamic world, as evident from the elaborate pavements found at Qalaat Beni Hammad in Algeria.
  • Prominent bands of ceramic decoration in green and white were featured on the minarets of the Kasbah Mosque of Marrakesh.
Kasbah Mosque of Marrakesh
  • Relatively simple Zellige patterns, were showcased in artistic works of Sanhaja Berber culture.
  • The white and green glazed tiles on the minaret of the Kutubiyya Mosque, dating back to mid-12th century, early Almohad period, is one of the earliest dated example of zellige in Morocco.
  • Zellige tilework in the Saadian Tombs (late 16th century) used thinner individual pieces for finer patterns.
Zellige- Saadian Tombs
View of the Grand Chamber. In the center is the muqarnas archway leading to the mausoleum of Muhammad al-Sheikh and Lalla Mas’uda.

ZELLIGE IN OTHER PARTS

Over the years, this beautiful Moorish art gained much popularity and travelled in different countries. The art has been adopted and affectionately nurtured in many places, including Samarkand and Cordova.

Cuba, South America and Central America saw a rise in the popularity of the “Spanish tile.” These are kind of Zellige but made out of hand painted cement tiles. They look attractive, but they are not comparable to Zellij.

It was in Andalusia and Morocco that the art of Zellige was embraced and dedicatedly practised. The Moroccan tile eventually became synonymous with Moorish architecture, with intricate and vibrant designs and matchless patterns filling almost every interior and exterior spaces.

Marrakesh, Morocco
Chicken posing next to colourful tiles

ZELLIGE ARTISANS – “Maallems

The art of Zellige making requires patience and years of experience. The in-depth knowledge of materials, process, production technique, finishing etc is a difficult thing to master. Their are skilled craftsmen required for this purpose which are known as “Maallems”. These Zellige artisans are expert masons and hold the skill of creating perfect tilework. Maâlems (master craftsmen) take their time and skill to create these terra cotta tiles.

A maallem starts its practice from the very childhood, spending years to achieve excellence in his work. The knowledge and skill is generally passed down from generation to generation. Once achieved the level of perfection and gained confidence, the young maallem starts with simple elements of production and simple designs. Years of practice and dedication turns young maallem into a master. Thus the cycle of creativity goen on keeping alive the ancient art of Zellige.

Maallem’s are artisans who have a passion for their work and who are able to use their expert skills and knowledge to create amazing art. No one can become a Maallem just for the sake of livelihood. It is about passion. The work of a true Maallem is finally displayed in the multicolored and complex geometric tilework at the final stage.

Zellige decoration

Oh! There is so much to talk about Zellige…Process, colors, clays and much more…May be in the next post. Hope you enjoyed the article. Write you comments below.

IMAGE COURTESY : UNSPLASH AND WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

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