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What is Zellige?

Debra Durkee
Debra Durkee

Zellige is an art form that began in Morocco. Tiles are painted or glazed, then set into different patterns on walls, floors, or ceilings to create a decorative mosaic pattern. Traditionally, tiles are clay, ceramic, or terracotta, and are typically about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter.

Tiles are usually made into hexagons, squares, triangles, or other geometric shapes. These tiles are made to fit together perfectly, and then applied to the surface they were designed to decorate. As the work used to create them is so exact, there is often no filler material in between tiles. Other types of zellige allows for a small amount of filler in between each of the tiles.

Woman posing
Woman posing

The texture and color of each tile is generally different from those around it. As the tiles are traditionally cut, fired, and painted by hand, this characteristic is part of the zellige look. Colors can be semi-transparent and in varying shades of solid colors, metallic, or even pearlescent. Some are painted with intricate designs that form a larger pattern when assembled in the final location. Designs vary from solid colors in different shades on the tiles to intricate, hand-painted designs that contain great detail.

Zellige tiles can be used to cover almost any surface, from walls and floors to ceilings. They can also be used as accents to line backsplashes or baths, and have traditionally been used in the decoration of outdoor fountains. As they are designed to be hard-wearing, they are well suited to an indoor or outdoor installation. They are easy to clean, making them a popular choice for areas that frequently get wet.

Decorating a large space with intricate mosaics formed from these handcrafted tiles was once a sign of money and power. In the city of Fes, located in the heart of Morocco, tile makers would often be commissioned to design zellige murals for government buildings and for the homes of royalty and high-ranking, wealthy citizens. Mosques were often decorated with these mosaics, from the walls and floors to the courtyards outside. These intricate tile mosaics have continued to create a traditional North African atmosphere in any modern areas where they are installed.

The method for creating tiles has been in practice for centuries, and many craftsmen in Morocco carry on the traditional ways of creating these decorative tiles. Craftsmen usually study under another accomplished in the art form, passing the knowledge and traditional technique down through the years. Authentic tiles and mosaic masterpieces can be found in homes throughout the world.

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