Moroccan Mosaics: The Art of Zillij
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Zelige Applet
An applet that let’s you construct your own zelige pattern.
- Zillij in Fez
Article about the art and history of zillij in Fes.
- Origin and Meanings of the Eight-Point Star
- Advanced geometry of Islamic art
- 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.