Zellij, the Art of Islamic Tilework

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Many things come to mind when you think of Morocco: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Dooley Wilson as Sam going hard on the piano… alright, so that’s just the movie Casablanca. But it’s in Morocco! And if you’re not familiar with the country, much of what comes to mind is through the lens of American films. The usual suspects are the bustling markets, colorful clothing, narrow alleyways, winding streets. And mosaics! Beautiful, intricate, how-did-they-possibly-do-that-and-how-long-did-it-take mosaics (the answer to that is “years of practice and very slowly”).

Zellij (the arabic word for mosaic tilework) is an Islamic art form that has been around for centuries and is one of the defining characteristics of Moroccan architecture. With different trends, colors, and techniques gaining and waning in popularity over the years, zellige has gone through numerous 100-year-long stylistic trends. There are two cities in Morocco, Fez and Meknes, which are considered the centers of the form: both have abundant clay resources and a storied history of master artisans creating and arranging the tiny tiles.

That’s right: each and every tiny piece of tile is hand-cut and hand-dyed by a life-long master. The clay is dyed, dried, chiseled and shaped, all by hand and all using a technique that’s been passed from master to apprentice since before calendars were invented. In a world of fast fashion and mass-produced everything, it’s a refreshingly mesmerizing technique to watch.