Moroccan architecture is recognized as being among the most beautiful in the world, with intricate tile designs enhancing many buildings. Moroccan tiles are called “zellige,” (or “zellij”), an Arabic word that translates as “little polished stone.” In Spain and Portugal, these tiles are called “azulejo.” The largest mosque on the planet in Casablanca, Morocco, beautifully adorned with fabulous zellige tile designs. The former grand palace, now a museum, has stunning geometric designs on the pillars, floors, and walls.
The Art of Moroccan Tile Making
The art of zellige tile making was born in Morocco. It is believed to have been inspired by Greek and Roman mosaics, but with a difference. The strictures of some Islamic sects forbade images of living creatures in works of art, so artists worked to create intricate geometric patterns and colors. The earthenware tiles were handmade by craftsmen, with techniques passed from generation to generation. Training involved years, and sadly, it is a dying art, as commercially produced tiles are now available.
Traditional, Handmade Zellige Tiles
The process of creating zellige first involves selecting the ideal unrefined Moroccan clay, which is then filtered and kneaded by hand to produce the ideal texture. The clay is then dried naturally in special forms for weeks or months, depending on the weather. The chosen geometric design is drawn onto the tile, which could be curved, triangular, multi-sided, or any shape the artisan has created for the final design. Enamel glaze is applied by hand and the tiles placed in a wood-fired kiln, which circulates heat less evenly than a commercial kiln, creating subtle, natural variations in color.
The creation of these tiles required skill and precision, achieved with years of training and practice. Three craftsmen are needed to produce the tiles, once the ideal clay has been chosen, filtered, and processed. The first step is the creation of the design and selecting the tiles. The second craftsman hand cuts and shapes the tiles. The third craftsman removes bits of excess clay and precision cuts the geometric shape. The envisioned design is then produced in a special flat form, and placed to enhance the beauty of walls, floors, or another area.
Talented craftsmen of days created intricate tile designs long past, and were added to opulent palaces, gates, mosques, shrines, fountains, schools, and other structures. In Morocco, you can see this unique artform on many buildings with the geometric designs of zellige tiles on the exterior and the interior.
A History of Moroccan Tiles
The tiles first appeared in the 10th century, and originally only a few colors were used. As this traditional artform flourished, other colors became available, with tiles produced in blue, green, and yellow, and finally red. The tiles were used to adorn all types of structures, including palaces, tombs, patios, baths, and to add beauty and opulence to the private homes of the wealthy.
Zellige tiles can be seen in modern homes, but rarely the handcrafted, original versions. Floors can be enhanced with zellige tile borders or used as a backsplash in the kitchen, on shower walls, or on floors. As a design element, the tiles are stunning, but nothing is more mind-blowing than seeing the original works of art, created by the artisans of the past, ornamenting structures in Morocco, where the art was born.