The art of Moroccan zellige. #MoroccanFridays

Moroccan-Fridays

Original photo by my dearest friend and talented photographer – Lina. (Adapted by Writer’s Caravan)

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

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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.

Mosaic & fountain at Hassan II mosque – photo by Milamber (CC)

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.

The Alhambra Palace – photo by Chris Stoelting (CC)

Going back to Morocco, the most stunning zellige artwork can be found in Fez and Meknes.

Moulay Ismal Mausoleum in Meknes – photo by Alex Drainville (CC)

Nejjarine fountain in Fez – photo by mhobl (CC)

Medersa el-Attarine in Fez – photo by american_rugbier (CC)

Medersa Ben Youssef in Marrakech – photo by Heather Cowper (CC)

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.

Fountain at the Hassan II mosque – photo by Evgeni Zotov (CC)

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.

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Thanks for reading.
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25 responses to “The art of Moroccan zellige. #MoroccanFridays

  1. Oh yes, this is one of my most absolute favourite aspects of Moroccan art and design – I would love to incorporate this kind of tiling into my own home somehow. Have you been to Leighton House Museum in London? There is a whole room filled with Frederick Leighton’s collection of Islamic tile art, which he collected and then built into the room – it is quite extraordinary and well worth a visit. I would love to go to the Alhambra as well – it’s on my wish list at the moment :-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I’ve been meaning to go there but still haven’t. Maybe something to do this weekend. :)
      I hope you get to go one day. At least it’s not as far as the other destinations on my wish lish (such as Asia and South America) :D

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes – it’s pretty easy to get there from here. Even Morocco is only 3.5 hours by plane :-) Hope you get to go there too and, if you visit Leighton House this weekend, have a great time. I just loved it – I could have moved in there :-)

        Like

  2. Love this post with such beautiful examples! That video of how the tiles are made just made the rounds in my facebook feed this week, and now I get to see some of the lovely results! Fascinating, painstaking, incredible art.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It must have been 1980 hen I went to the Alhambra. I was probably your age now and I was utterly blown away by the detail and craftsmanship. I’d seen the splendour of northern European cathedrals and palaces but nothing with such detailing. A Moroccan carpet maker who we commissioned to make the most splendid rug told us he couldn’t make anything perfect because only God could do that and he showed us the geometric flaw he would introduce into the corner of what was otherwise a sumptuous pattern. Is that usual or was he just showing his own devotion?

    Liked by 1 person

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