Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Moroccan Tile: In a Class of Its Own

Countries with colorful histories have always provided a deep-rooted fascination to outsiders because of their culture, traditions, food, and most importantly, the art produced within the country. It’s through this art that we, the current generation, are allowed to take a brief glimpse through the artist’s mind and eyes of what was seen, felt, and experienced at the time.

Handmade Moroccan Zillij tile
A central 10-point star is the beginning point of this expanding zillij pattern
Image Source: Ceramics Today via Saudi Aramco World. Photo Credits: Peter Sanders/Saudi Aramco World/PADIA.

But what if an art or art form remains unchanged through the centuries? Moroccan art and architecture has been steadily experiencing a renewed interest thanks to talented, visionary designer and architects. But for this post, I would like to focus on just one of these art forms -- the mesmerizing forms, colors and shapes of Moroccan tile, Zillij (also spelled as Zellige or Zellij).

Handmade Moroccan zillij tile fountain
The 17th-century Nejjarine Fountain, retiled and repaired by two generations of master zlayjis of the Benslimane family.
Image Source: Ceramics Today via Saudi Aramco WorldPhoto Credits: Peter Sanders/Saudi Aramco World/PADIA.

Zillij: Handmade through the Generations

When the Moors conquered Spain in 711 A.D., they introduced various forms of art and artistic techniques, including a unique custom of painted ceramics, called Zillij. As defined by Islamic law, which prohibits the depiction or likeness of living things, Zillij uses only geometric shapes, straight lines and vibrant colors.
These handmade creations can be seen adorning every palace, museum, home, street, mosque, fountain, wall, walkway, and so on.  It’s not only an art form; it’s an essential building material.

Moroccan Zillij pattern with taqshir calligraphic border, as seen at an Islamic School
Zillij patterns, including a taqshir calligraphic border, at the Attarine madrasa (Islamic school), built in 1325.
Image Source: Ceramics Today via Saudi Aramco WorldPhoto Credits: Peter Sanders/Saudi Aramco World/PADIA.
Throughout its handmade history, Moroccan Zillij has been created by master craftsmen called “Maalam Ferach.” From an early age, pupils would study their craft under the tutelage of a master. Often times, techniques were handed down from one generation to the next within the male members of the family.

With the guidance of their mentors, the pupils would learn the essential, but laborious, task of baking clay, meticulously hand-cutting each piece, and then painting the pieces with painstaking accuracy. According to the authors of “Zillij: The Art of Moroccan Ceramics,” authors, John Hedgecoe and Samar Damluji, “Zillij mirrors the genius of the Moroccan craftsman, his feelings, values and commitment, reflecting his inspirations, spiritual and material composition.”

Moroccan zillij
Zillij, or tilework of Morocco.Image Source: Ceramics Today via Saudi Aramco WorldPhoto Credits: Peter Sanders/Saudi Aramco World/PADIA.
The authors further go on to say, “Zillij has been employed in Morocco since the earliest times, as may be seen from the mosaic pavements of the old city of Walili (Volubilis). The Arab influx introduced, amongst other arts, the Zillij inspired by the Persian cut tile, al qishani, which still adorn the domes, mausoleums, and madrasahs [school] of Iranian cities like Isfahan. Zillij, however, was adapted to specific Moroccan and Andalusi characteristics that nearly obscured the trace of Persian origin.”

Avente Tile’s Moroccan-inspired Fez handmade cement tile collection
Handmade cement tile inspired by Moroccan patterns. "Fez" by Avente Tile.
With such attention to detail fostered by years of discipline and learning, it’s no wonder the long-lasting beauty and versatility of Zillij has remained popular amongst those who truly admire craftsmanship with the added touch of the exotic. A wonderful blog to follow for all things Moroccan is My Marrakesh. It’s written by author, designer and photographer, Maryam Montague.

How would you use Moroccan tile? Where have you traveled and seen Moroccan influences in tile and architecture?  




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