Zellige, a sacred art of geometry in Palais Faraj

For centuries, zellige has graced the monumental doors of medinas, the walls and floors of palaces and mosques, and the linings of hammams, fountains and ornamental basins. Their geometric patterns and color combinations are fascinatingly complex and beautiful. Enter the world of zelliges, the glazed mosaics that are a living treasure trove of Moroccan craftsmanship.

Moroccan zellige, an adventure spanning almost a thousand years

Although the date of appearance of zellige in the Maghreb and Andalusia remains unclear (between the 8th and 10th centuries, depending on the region), historians attribute the spread of this mosaic art to the Romans and Byzantines as early as Antiquity.

But it was during the medieval period, under the impetus of the Mérénides dynasty in Fès, that zellige (from the Arabic zelidj, meaning “small polished stone“), became a Moroccan passion that has endured through the centuries without ever wavering.

Bab Boujloud in Fez, the most famous gateway to the medina from the 12th century

Today, the cities of Fez and Meknes are still at the heart of zellige production, and master craftsmen (the maalems) perpetuate age-old gestures, reproducing ancient motifs to perfection for both restoration projects and the creation of contemporary decors.

The Palais Faraj, restored in the early 2000s, is home to superb examples of traditional zellige.

Entirely handcrafted

Moroccan zellige, traditionally made in Fez, is a natural white clay tile harvested in large blocks. Mixed with water in a basin often dug into the workshop floor to make a paste, it is molded into 10cm squares, or cut in half to form small rectangles.

Photos credit : salimafilali.com and beijmatstudio.com

These tiles are sun-dried during the summer before being fired at 1000 degrees in a wood-fired kiln. They are then hand-coated on one side with a colored glaze and fired a second time.

It is their handcrafting, their position in the kiln and the variations in firing temperature that create the infinite nuances of each tile, giving them a unique, tactile beauty.

The “zellige de Fès” was registered with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in 2015 on behalf of Morocco and is the subject of a national label awarded by the Ministry of Crafts.

Geometry, an invitation to spirituality

Starting with identical tiles, the maalems use a hammer to cut small pieces in traditional shapes (squares, rectangles, triangles, hexagons, stars, etc.), which are then assembled to create geometric patterns, sometimes of gigantic proportions.

An added difficulty is that the mosaics are composed with colored face down, requiring the craftsman to have a great capacity for abstraction and memorization.

Photo credit : beijmatstudio.com

Elaborated from mathematical formulas and carrying ancient symbolism, the harmonious designs created by craftsmen stand in contrast to the chaos of the world, and are vibrant tributes to divine creation, its perfection, its beauty, its uniqueness.

These motifs can be found in most Islamic decorative arts: carved wood, stucco, pottery, brassware…

Palais Faraj recommandations

Photo : interiors of Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca (Morocco)

While the decoration of the Palais Faraj pays tribute to the zellige tradition, the whole of Morocco is a veritable open-air museum.

Tips for visiting Fez around zellige:
▪ The Attarine (1325) and Bou Inanya (1357) medersas.
▪ Bab Boujloud (12th century), the medina’s famous gateway, with blue zellige on one side (the color of Fès) and green on the other (the color of Islam).
▪ 17th-century Nejjarine fountain.
▪ The seven gates of the Royal Palace (created in 1970).

Elsewhere in Morocco:
▪ The spectacular Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, completed in 1993.
▪ Moulay Ismael’s mausoleum in Meknes (1703).
▪ The Telouet kasbah (19th century) in the High Atlas.

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