Zellige Mosaics

12 / 15 / 2021


What are these tessellated jewels of the tile world?

 The only thing more cool than the way zellige looks is the fascinating way in which these tiles are made. From the moment we laid eyes on the highly detailed zellige mosaics at the Alhambra, we felt absolutely compelled to find out more about their rich history. Moroccan zellige is on fire right now (no pun intended) but their popularity reaches back a millennia; the influence of zellige on the tile world and ceramics in general cannot be overstated.  For centuries, master craftsmen known as Maâlems have created stunning tile mosaics. This unique form of tile decorating is known as zellige or zellij (or zillij or zelij or zilij - yes, a little confusing). Zellige tiles originated in the cities of Meknes and Fes. The nomadic Berbers of North Africa are known to have popularized the art form as well as the Almohads and the Almoravides of Moorish Spain. The word zellige itself means, “little polished stone” (which btw, is adorable). This art form became prominent during the Hispano-Moresque period, and dates back to the 10th century. Originally, the tiles were white and brown, and though there’s nothing wrong with neutrals, we’re happy the color range of zellige tiles expanded immensely.  Beginning in the 14th century, the interlocking geometric forms of Zellige mosaics became more prevalent, initially imitating popular Greco-Roman marble mosaics. These intricate zellige mosaics were used as a luxurious status symbol and were meant to exemplify class and sophistication (which still holds true, if you ask us).   
Jade handcut zellige mosaic from Morocco

It's Hammer Time: Making Zellige Mosaics

 The tradition of crafting these tiles by hand has been passed down from generation to generation through artisan schools that teach these highly specialized techniques all over Morocco. Each of our artisans must also be mathematical experts to execute the ornate designs.  The process of creating zellige starts with the Miocene grey clay that’s mined near the city of Fez, Morocco. Large chunks of this pale grey clay are broken apart and mixed with water to create a moldable paste. Once the tiles are shaped by hand and dried, they are placed in an earthen kiln and fired with olive pits. This multi-step process ensures that no two tiles look exactly alike; their organic, perfectly imperfect quality is without-a-doubt the most compelling aspect of zellige. We think that learning about the process of creating zellige tiles is just as exciting as installing them. After using precise geometric calculations to determine the size and shape of the tile, the tile maker uses a menquach, or sharp hammer, to cut out the shape of the tile. They are then molded into precise shapes using a radius gauge. In order to create these dynamic forms, artists would draw the pattern on the floor to make sure the placement was correct because once glazed, the tiles do not allow any room for mistakes. Finally, the edges are beveled with a smaller hammer, creating precise, interlocking geometric shapes that glimmer with reflected light in all their multi-tonal glory. Quite the contrast to the mass-produced tiles at your nearby hardware store!      
Cutting zellige at the Cooperative des Maalems Zelligeurs, at Ain Nokbi, outside Fez, Morocco.

Zellige Tile Patterns

 Zellige tiles are often quite small so they can be assembled like a mosaic to create colorful arrangements with various shapes. These intricately tessellated pieces are called furmah, and the traditionally geometric forms are actually informed by Islamic tradition. North Africa is the cradle of algebra and advanced mathematics dating all the way back to the ancient Egyptians. It’s this background in advanced geometry combined with a strict prohibition on the depiction of animals or people in Islamic art, that led to the creation of insanely complex (and breathtakingly beautiful) zellige mosaics.   Zellige tiles come in a plethora of unique colors, and the range and variety of patterns is next to infinite. So if you’re looking for a tile that is so much more than a tile, zellige is for you.     

Installing Zellige Mosaics 

 Installing zellige mosaics can be tricky, so we recommend hiring a professional. If you have any questions about design or installation tips, our team at Zia Tile is happy to guide you through the process! Call us at 310-844-1170 or emails us info@ziatile.com