Moroccan Mosaics: The Art of Zillij

By Sarah


fountain in fes

Once you see a Moroccan zillij masterpiece, you can spot the style anywhere. It is an art form that has been practiced for a thousand years. It is a unique specialization of Morocco and continues to thrive in Moroccan society within a contemporary creative framework.

This website is full of research related to understanding zillij, such as my research on the meaning of the eight-point star. On this page, you will find the following:


Meaning

Zillij is an Islamic art that is based on learning, discipline, and faith. The geometric patterns reflect the Islamic belief that life is ordered by cosmic intelligence, even if people cannot always understand it. The abstract patterns reflect the Islamic desire to understand God’s creation through study rather than copy creation through representational art, which is shunned as a pathway to idolatry. Zillij patterns are constructed from archetypal shapes that have been refined by centuries of scientific study, artistic tradition, and religious belief. “Truthfulness—sidq—is in everything I make” said a modern zillij artisan in a recent interview.

Fundamentally, the purpose of zillij is decoration used to inspire the viewer into meditative reflection of the underlying laws governing the universe. Since Islamic tradition frowns on representational art, Muslims celebrate beauty through decorative arts, such as arabesques, textiles, architecture, tile work, and pottery design. The Prophet Mohammad is quoted as saying “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” The Prophet’s love of learning, appreciation of beauty, and directive to avoid representational art provided an ideal set of constraints for the creation and support of zillij art work. It is hard to imagine this art form arising from any other tradition.


Application

In Morocco zillij is used to decorate water fountains, home interiors, add architectural detail, and cover tombs. It is rarely, if unsuccessfully, liberally applied to the exterior of buildings. According to Zillij: The Art of Moroccan Ceramics, zillij is “the subtle application of man’s feelings through form and color, exactly as the house is designed to reflect his requirements. Zillij is an expression of man’s interior world.”

Zillij artisans today continue to be supported by commissions. Restoration work and new building projects keep them occupied as do commissions for zillij installations in private homes. If a family can at all afford it, they will likely add a zillij fountain, wall, or walkway to their residence.

History

The practice of zillij dates back to the eleventh century. The practice was likely inspired by Roman mosaics, remnants of which can be seen in the ruins at Volubilis. It is certainly influenced by Islamic belief and tradition, which warns against representational art for fear of idol worship. Whereas representational art may, according to the Islamic perspective, disfigure reality in the observers’ mind and lead to misplaced study and misguided worship, zillij, through a disciplined approach to space, line, and color, encourages the observer to reflect on the perfection of God’s creation.

Moroccan mosaics are unique in the Muslim world. The lines in Moroccan geometry are straight as opposed to the curved lines used in Middle Eastern art traditions. This straight line is thought to be an influence of pre-Islamic architecture, constructed by the Berber (Amazigh) populations before Islamic culture arrived in North Africa. The Moroccan line can be seen in both the hard edges of zillij tiles and the rectangular, not round, minaret of mosques.

Resources for Further Study

I am facinated by zillij and have gathered a few resources that have assisted me in learning more about this incredible artform. I will continue to update this post with additional information and resources as I find them. If you have other zillij resources to share, please leave a comment so I can share the information.

Websites

Books

  • Islamic Patterns: An Analytical and Cosmological Approach
    This book contains some heavy explanations about the origins and meaning of Islamic designs. I refer to it often for its many useful and accurate pattern templates.
  • Zillij: The Art of Morroccan Ceramics
    A book about how Morocco uses Islamic patterns in pottery and tile and other artisan crafts. Contains lots of color pictures. This is the only in-print English-language book I know of dedicated soley to Moroccan zillij. Includes a very useful glossary of zillij terms, including tile shapes and pattern names.
  • Arabic Geometrical Pattern and Design
    This book contains 190 linear plates of geometrical Islamic patterns, including Middle-Eastern styles. The collection of plates was originally published in French in 1879. It was republished in 1973. There isn’t any text in the book except for brief a publishers note.

Lesson Plans

12 Responses to “Moroccan Mosaics: The Art of Zillij”

  1. MoroccanDesign.com Says:

    I recieved an e-mail from Gene Turangan and wanted to share it with anyone else who may be interested in crafting their own zillij masterpieces…

    ————————————-

    We want to share how easy it can be to create zillij mosaic panels or tables. We have discovered the new technique in making zillij mosaics. You can use any tiles. We prefer floor tile/non glazed/monochromatic color or rustic tiles.

    I used to teach my craftman to make “furmah” in less than 30 minutes. For geometric patterns you only need 1 (one) book (“Arabesques”
    by Jean-Mark Castera ;isbn 2-86770-124-4 ).

    For the table base use fiber cement (all weather) or medium density fiber (indoor). No iron bar or concrete needed.

    See my workshop:
    http://www.liputan6.com/news/?c_id=4&id=112427

    Enjoy.

    Regards,
    Gene

    …THANKS, Gene!

  2. david Says:

    I enjoyed your website ,very interesting. I tried to go to the web site from Gene Turanagan but the site is in Indonesian and his photos do not load.Any idea of how to see it?

  3. MoroccanDesign.com Says:

    Sorry, I can’t even read the language on the site with Gene’s video, or else I would email their support staff to find out what went wrong with the video. He describes a wonderful technique and I suspect it is behind some zillij tables I saw at a restaurant a few years back: they looked as good as traditional tables, but were much smoother and lighter.

  4. David Wallis Says:

    This website looks bad on firefox because the first character or so of each line is cut off. Don’t use zero margins in your CSS! Please!!

  5. MoroccanDesign.com Says:

    Thanks for the note. I know I need to “upgrade” the code on the site. Lots of minor adjustments to be made. As this is a labor of love, I have little time of it (I’d rather write than code), but will make the zero margins issue a priority. Best, Sarah.

  6. Mourad Mergaoui Says:

    Really impresive to see our culture, on sitewebs and lets others knows what going on Morocco’s big history!.
    Thank you.

  7. Of Israeili scientist, Islamic art and Nobel prize : Karim's bean bag Says:

    [...] mind when they created infinite patterns of art. Zillij, one of the forms of this art creation is defined as: Zillij is an Islamic art that is based on learning, discipline, and faith. The geometric [...]

  8. Blackwork Embroidery and Moroccan Mosaics « Blackwork Lessons Says:

    [...] the fabric and thread version of the art of Zillijd, or Moroccan Mosaics.  The author of the blog Moroccan Design says that once you’ve learned what zillij is and seen an example you will always recognize [...]

  9. Ali Says:

    Hello Sara…

    We at Media development center in Palestine are working on a radio series about Palestinian villages ,we saw this image which reflect the islamic arts its is wonderfull and we like to use it for making the cover of the CD …

    Just let me know if you dont have any problem to use it in the design

    thank you
    ali

  10. Sarah Says:

    Hello Ali,
    I’m honored you would like to use my photo. You are welcome to use it.

    Best of luck on your project,
    Sarah

  11. I never met a tile pattern I didnt like | Paint+Pattern Says:

    [...] This website has some fabulous information on the history, use, and significance of Zellij patterns in Moroccan decoration. It’s a must read! [...]

  12. I never met a tile pattern I didnt like Says:

    [...] This website has some fabulous information on the history, use, and significance of Zellij patterns in Moroccan decoration. It’s a must read! [...]

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