Salam Aleykoum! This post is part of the Moroccan Fridays series in which I aim to shine a light on the country I grew up in. The series strives to explore various topics, swaying between reality and legends, geographical wonders and curious traditions. You can discover previous posts here.
No series about Morocco would be worthy of the name without the mention of zellige. So brace yourselves, this post is a feast for the eyes. No music to distract you, no mood to set. I will let the patterns and colours do the talking.
What is zellige?
The word zellige derives from the arabic word الزليج (al zulaycha) which means “little polished stone”. The art of zellige so characteristic of the Moroccan architecture consists of terracotta tiles covered with enamel which are then cut into small-shaped pieces and assembled together in a geometrical, mosaic-like structure.
In Islam, depicting human beings or animals is not allowed (if we have to be specific, the Quran prohibits idolatry, not the depiction of human figures) and that is how ornamental patterns came to life : a decorative art that places geometry on a pedestal. Squares, lozenges, stars and various other polygons are assembled so as to create a geometrical pattern of interlocking shapes. Mathematical precision with an artistic twist. No room for error.
Where can you find zellige?
Many of you will have visited or dreamed of visiting (I belong to the second category for now) the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain. There, you can find sumptuous examples of zellige and islamic architecture, a legacy of various dynasties such as the Almoravids and Almohads.
Going back to Morocco, the most stunning zellige artwork can be found in Fez and Meknes.
And of course in Casablanca…
It must’ve been the year 2000. The lower façade of the Hassan II mosque was being revamped. This meant that for the 10 year old I was, a construction site had been metamorphosed in one giant, open-air treasure chest. You see, the famous mosque is covered with 10,000 m2 of zellige assembled in 80 different patterns, some of which were being replaced.
I have said it before, zellige tiles were little gems to me. Jade green, Cobalt blue, Teal… the shades were endless and those castaway pieces quickly started to form a collection. A deconstructed puzzle left for me to reassemble. I remember scouring the vast plaza in search for a glimmer of colour on the floor. Some days were hopeless, others had me grin with excitement, a little like Golum in possession of the ring (but less diabolic).
I don’t know where my collection is now. Maybe it was lost in the move, maybe it was kept safe in a tiny box. Maybe I will stumble upon them one day, or maybe they will forever remain in my memories…
I leave you with a video that had me hypnotised.