The word “zellige” comes from the Arabic al zulaycha, which literally means “small polished stone”. It is a typically Moroccan ornamental technique, inspired by the mosaics of the ancient Romans. It first appeared in Arab Spain (Al-Andalus) around the 8th century, and was introduced to Morocco in the 10th century.
Initially limited to shades of white and brown, the art developed over time through the art and culture promoted over the centuries by Moroccan royal dynasties. All colors had symbolic meaning in Islamic culture, as did the geometric shapes used. Traditional zellige does not depict anything that depicts living creatures, thus respecting Islamic thought and teachings.
A precise art
Creating a zellige mosaic is an art that not only requires creativity, but also a high level of expertise in mathematics and geometry. It is a work of patience and precision, which often requires a lot of time.
First, pieces of clay must be taken and soaked in water for 24 hours in special tubs called ezubas. Then the clay is cleaned of impurities until it is smooth and ready to be shaped. It is then kneaded, placed in rectangular molds and left to dry in the sun. Once dried, the rectangles are cut into 10 cm squares, called laajoura, and baked at a temperature of up to 1500 degrees. At this stage, the laajoura are colored and then cooked again to become lemzehri.
At this stage, the processing of the zellige is entrusted to craftsmen, called zlayji. To get a finished mosaic, the masters divide the work into three stages.
How to make a zellige
First, the cutter takes the colored squares and makes many small tesserae of different shapes. There are around 300 possible tile shapes, each with its own name and place in a particular decorative scheme.
We then move on to the composition of the chosen decoration. The traditional technique is that the tiles are not laid directly on the wall or floor. Instead, they are placed on a special panel, colored side down, forming the chosen and previously designed pattern. All parts must be assembled following the drawing with the utmost precision.
The last step is the actual installation. First of all, it is necessary to check that the zellige panel adapts perfectly to the chosen surface, checking the measurements and the alignment with special tools. Finally, the zellige is fixed to the surface with a cement and water-based primer.