The word “zellige” comes from Arabic الزليج ( al zulaycha ) that means « little polished stone ». This word is sometimes written zillij or zellij. This ornemantal technique is typical of Maghrebi architecture: how to assembly fragments of glazed terracotta tiles of different colours to create a geometric pattern. Sherds used are sometimes so thin that it is a true ceramic inlay.
Representation of human beings or animals, has often been forbidden in Islamic art. This explains the development of this decorative art governed by the geometry. Basic geometrical shapes such as squares, diamonds, triangles, stars, crosses, and other polygons are combined together according to strict mathematical patterns. Thanks to their complementarity, they form patterns that intersect and are repeated endlessly.
Art of zellij is born in Morocco to the tenth century, in white and brown tones, in imitation of Roman mosaics. Although the Romans no longer occupy the region for centuries, they left numerous traces. This art will be continuously enriched by the contributions of the different dynasties that succeeded in Morocco and al-Andalus, that part of Spain then under Moorish domination: the Almoravids from the desert, the Almohads from the High Atlas, and last but not least, in the fourteenth century, the Marinids, originally nomadic Berbers. During these four centuries of exchange, science and arts grow considerably. The architecture and decoration then reach their highest level of sophistication, and zellige invade the inside walls of all the palaces, tombs, fountains, patios, hammams. The colours are diversifying with the use of blue, green and yellow, red being added only in the seventeenth century.
Where to see zellige?
You can see wonderful examples of zellige in the Alhambra Palace in Granada (14th c.), the Medersa el-Attarine in Fes (14th c.), the Nejjarine fountain in Fes, the Moulay Ismail’s tomb in Meknes (1700), the Medersa Ben Youssef in Marrakech (16th c.), and more recently, the Kasbah Telouet (19th c.).
This tradition is still alive as evidenced by the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca inaugurated in 1993.
Creating zellige patterns is an art that requires expertise in mathematics and geometry. Many books highlight the rules used and their symbolism (see bibliography).
Zellige manufacturing is a work of patience and precision that mobilizes a large and experienced workforce.