Zellij – The Prince of Tiles History

Allow me to take you on a journey to a land that is home to diverse and rich culture. A land that boasts a magnificent cost line, bordering the azure seas of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. A land seeped in history and tradition, where the distinct architecture draws the eye to a tapestry of vivid colours and intricate patterns. This land is Morocco and it is the home of the exquisite Moroccan tile – Zellij, which is fittingly known as the prince of tiles.


The Beautiful Art of Zellij.

Zellij (sometimes referred to as Zellige or Zelige) is a Moorish artform that features heavily in Moroccan architecture. The striking tilework is created using geometric tiles that are set in a plaster base to form wonderfully intricate patterns.

There are endless combinations of Moroccan tile patterns including squares, triangles, stars, diamonds, polygons and crosses all fitted together in arithmetical fashion to form orderly and precise mosaics. It may seem an odd combination to some, mathematics and art, but mathematics is used in many creative arts, from music to sculpting and is an effective tool in producing a visual masterpiece.

The patterns and shapes have meaning too. Islam prohibits the portrayal of living things, hence geometric patterns were created as a way of adding color, embellishment and significance to the mosaic. Zellij offers the opportunity to create bespoke masterpieces. Mosaics that can produce an almost hypnotic effect and provide inspiration for meditation and religious contemplation.

Along with pattern, color has also played a large part in the art of Zellij and the craft itself is associated with a number of traditional colors. Moroccan tiles are often associated with the colors brown, white, green, saffron, blue and black. The four elements, fire, water. air and earth are represented by these colors.

Today, Moroccan tilework decorates the walls of stylish hotels and homes, adorns hammams (spa’s), adds sophistication to regal palaces and brightens up swimming pools and fountains. If you have the good fortune to travel to Granada be sure to visit the Alhambra Palace to see the striking Zellij in all of its glory. Similarly, if by chance, you are visiting Fez, you must visit the Medersa el-Attarine and the Nejjarine Fountain. Other fine examples of Zellij include: Moulay Ismail’s tomb in Meknes, Medersa Ben Youssef in Marrakech and the Kasbah Telouet, (which offers a more recent example of Zellij, from the 19th century).

The humble description of “Moroccan tile,” really does not do the noble art of Zellij justice. Zellij should be celebrated as a unique and long established artistry, seeped in history and tradition. It has long since been regarded a symbol of sophistication, representing wealth and power. Zellij has royal connotations and is associated with those who are considered to be of high standing. It’s becoming clear to see that this Moroccan tile lives up to its “prince of tiles” title!


A Notable History.  

The Moroccan tile first made an appearance way back in the 10th century and was thought to be inspired by Roman and Byzantine mosaics that were popular in that period. The colors were less vibrant and there wasn’t much of a choice, if you were in the market for white and brown you would have been in luck.

The 11th century heralded the establishment of geometric patterns, such as star polygons. The art of Zellij became very popular in the Azulejo period (Hispanic-Moresque period) in regions of Maghreb (Northwest Africa) and Al-Andalus (or Spain as we now call it).

The hands of time ticked by and brought with them developments to the craft of Zellij. The Nasrid Dynasty and Merinid Dynasty embraced the art, enhancing it with the addition of the green, blue and yellow Moroccan tile during the 14th century.

With colors becoming more popular the 17th century bore witness to the red Moroccan tile being added into the vibrant mix, and the innovations continued.

The 20th century heralded the import of glazes, which were coalesced with the conventional colors, offering even more choice.

Over the years, the ancient Moorish art has been adopted and embraced in many places, including Samarkland and Cordova. However, Zellij didn’t quite make it to the Americas. With the Spanish colonization of South and Central America there was a shortage of skilled artisans on hand to create the authentic Moroccan tilework. Instead Cuba, South America and Central America saw a rise in the popularity of the “Spanish tile.” These are cement and hand painted tiles that are attractive to look at and have their very own traditional backstory, but they are not comparable to Zellij.

It was in Andalusia and Morocco that the art of Zellij gained acclaim and was affectionately nurtured. The Moroccan tile became almost synonymous with Moorish architecture, with intricate and vibrant designs filling interior and exterior spaces alike.

Historically Zellij “the prince of tiles” has always been favored by the affluent. Decorative cement tiles were offered as a cheaper alternative but they could not match the exquisiteness of the true Zellij. Nowadays Morocco is the epicenter of the craft, with the city of Fez playing to host to some of the most skilled craftsman. They produce beautifully handmade Moroccan tilework in accordance with time honored tradition of Zellij and the results are breath-taking.


The Vital Role of the Maallem.  

Zellij is certainly a difficult art to master, it requires patience and an in-depth knowledge of the unique processes and production techniques, not just anyone can produce Zellij. The superb craftsman behind this ancient art are known as Maallems (or Zellij artisans). They are expert masons, able to employ their painstakingly learnt wisdom and skill to design and create stunning tilework. A maallem will spend years perfecting their craft and take pride in each piece they produce. It is traditional for Maallem’s to begin training when they are very young and often the craft is passed down from generation to generation. It is common for a father to pass on the secrets and skills of surmounting this unique craft to his son, who will eagerly watch and learn.

When he has gained confidence, the son can start to try his hand at simple elements of the process, building up to more complex tasks as his confidence grows. The master teaches his pupil, the pupil immerses himself in the precision and creativity of this age-old craft and the pupil eventually becomes the master, and so the cycle continues.

There is real satisfaction from becoming accomplished in this recognised art form and this is not a role for those who are merely going through the motions in order to collect a wage at the end of the month. Maallem’s are artisans who have a passion for what they do and who are able to use their expert skills and knowledge to create amazing art. The work of a true Maallem emanates quality and the multicolored and complex geometric tilework looks amazing when transferred to its setting – be it to embellish a fountain in a town square or to decorate the wall of a stylish home.


An Intricate Process. 

Zellij is an ancient artform that required the use of traditional methods, there are no shortcuts. It’s difficult to believe that Zellij begins with a humble square of burnt soil, with the most suitable soil for the craft being supplied from Fez, a region of Morocco.

The soil is mixed with water and a dye is added to give the tile a vibrant colour. The Maallem will use a combination of their hands and a heavy hammer to knead and manipulate the soil to make a tile of the desired size. Each side of the tile usually measures around 4” in length and the tiles are approximately 0.5” in thickness. The tiles are then placed outside in the natural heat of the sun, where they are left to dry for a while prior to being baked in a special oven. The color of the tile determines the temperature at which it is baked. Once ready, the tiles are removed from the oven and laid out.

The next part of the process involves the design being drawn onto the tile in preparation for cutting. To aid this job a Zellij template is designed which features the desired shape. The objective of the template is to ensure the shapes remain consistent and to fully utilize the tile (so as many pieces as possible can be cut from it). The template is then placed onto each tile and the pattern is carefully hand-drawn, this task is often carried out by those in training to become a Maallem.

The next stage is the cutting process. This entails the tile being taken to the “cutter.” Again, this does not incorporate any fancy machinery or productionized process. The “cutter” tends to sit on the floor next to a heap of stones – which is in fact his workspace area. The table on which he cuts is actually a section of iron or a large, firm stone, both are fine as a base on which the tile can sturdily sit prior to being cut.

The cutter has to be accurate and has mastered this delicate skill over a number of years. An experienced cutter with proficient skills can cut up to 400 pieces of Moroccan tile each and every day. A tool known as a Menqach is used to do this job (it resembles a big and broad hammer, but both ends are cautiously sharpened). The tool seems large and cumbersome in comparison to the intricate and delicate pieces the cutter is able to produce when using it. Following the cutting process, sharp edges are filed down and then the tiles are sorted into storage baskets depending upon their shape and particular color.


The Importance of Zellij in Moroccan Architecture.

Morocco conjures up images rugged mountainous ranges, huge expanses of vast desert, and an extensive coastline that stretches along the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. If the changing landscape is anything to go by Morocco offers a diverse range of sensory experiences and this carries across to its vibrant and  distinct interior and exterior design features. Moorish architecture really stands out from the crowd and has become very popular across the globe. The most outstanding examples are found in Morocco but head to Europe and the U.S (amongst other places) and you are likely to find colorful and intricate designs that showcase Moorish architecture and the Moroccan culture.

Think elaborate carved patterns and doorways with sculptured arches. Horseshoe shape arches (which can also be known as Moorish arches and Keyhole arches) are generally sizable and are circular in shape. They are synonymous with Moorish design and are usually found sitting majestically above a straight and narrow doorway or a groove in the wall. You will also find attractive domes and pretty courtyards. Interiors are adorned with bright and colorful fabrics that add an air of exuberance. We must not forget the star of our show – the sumptuous Zellij. The Moroccan tile is effortless in its ability to create mesmerizing patterns and can be teamed with other materials.

They look striking in contrast to the sleek appearance of the likes of limestone, marble and granite. The words vibrancy and effervescence spring to mind and Zellij designs light up a room. There is no place for a dull day when you incorporate Moroccan style.


Authentic Zellij.

There are many imitations of Zellij, they may look similar but they lack the authenticity of Zellij and do not share the same sense of tradition and deeply woven history. Cement and hand painted tiles have their place but if it’s quality and substance you seek then hand-crafted Zellij is a must.

In a world where technology and machinery plays such a huge part in the manufacturing process it’s comforting to know that some historical traditions continue on. Although the industry has seen advances the processes for creating a Zellij tile remains unchanged.

It is heartening to be able to adorn your home or business with something that has been produced with so much passion and care. When people ask about the striking décor there will be a fascinating story to share about its origins and the pure skill that has been utilized to create such an inimitable design feature. Incorporating Zellij tilework is not only a lifetime investment but also a method of helping to preserve this ancient craft.


Zellij Gallery – Home of craftsmanship, ancient tradition and unique design. 

If you are looking to incorporate beautiful tilework from an authentic source the Moroccan tile is a perfect choice. Zellij Gallery are masters of the craft and have over a century of wisdom, experience and skill when it comes to Zellij.

Moroccan tile making is an ancient art and Zellij Gallery only employ Maallems (or Zellij artisans as they are so often called) who have extensively trained in their craft and have outstanding skills. Many are following in the footsteps of their forefathers and have dedicated their lives to perfecting their art.

The Zellij Gallery itself is a very much a family affair. Back in 1948 Miloud Farhi began to learn the exquisite are of Zellij from his own father, becoming a renowned Maallem and joining the Cooperative of Maallems Zelligeurs de Fez in 1982.

This collective of craftsman worked together to bring Zellij to the global stage, and won a number of awards along the way. You can see their stunning work at the royal palaces in Morocco, throughout the Middle-East and Europe and even at the EPCOT centre at Disney World in Florida.

Miloud continued the family tradition and passed on his skills and knowledge to his own son, Faissel Farhi. Today the Zellij Gallery is jointly lead by Miloud and Faissel, a passionate father and son team who are intent on sharing their beautiful artisan product with the global market. Faissel has made it his mission to combine the traditional element of the fine art of Zellij with an impressive business mandate and he has not wasted a single moment. There have been collaborations with top architects and designers, who simply can’t get enough of the Zellij Galleries handcrafted Moroccan tiles.

The Zellij Gallery are looking to exceed the expectations of their clients and offer a number of impressive services. They can offer a bespoke service, creating unique Moroccan mosaic patterns sure to impress. They even offer a Mosaic Colour Matching Tool for interior design professionals which they can use to assist their clients in investigating the myriad of colour combinations available and selecting the best one for their scheme.

Zellij Gallery take an enormous amount of pride in the role they play in representing the art and ancient traditions of Morocco, which can breathe new life into any home renovation or new build project. It’s time to rid our homes and businesses of the dull, soulless walls and bland design features. There is no better way to make a stunning transformation than to inject a little of the magic of Morocco in the form of awe-inspiring Zellij.