Suitcase and World: Zillij. الزليج

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Zillij. الزليج

Zillij (("zuh-leej") is the geometric tile mosaic work that is characteristic of Morocco.
Though zillij can be found in the art traditions of other North African and Middle East countries, Moroccan zillij is unique in the Muslim world. The lines in Moroccan geometry are straight as opposed to the curved lines used everywhere else.

"The beauty of Islamic art "  Zillij is an artform that reflects Islamic belief and tradition which believes that depictions of living things lead to the misguided worship of idols.  So, zillij design is typically a series of abstract  patterns utilizing colorful geometric shapes.  Zillij reflects a disciplined approach to space, line, and color and is intended to encourage the observer to reflect on the perfection of God’s creation. I'm not a Muslim so I can't appreciate the religious perspective but I can admire the art.  In my eyes, zillij is just simply beautiful.

"Eight pointed star A common design element in zillij is the star, in particular the eight pointed star which is a simple shape made by overlapping two squares.  Called khatam it represents the seal of the prophets, as in a signet ring. The phrase “seal of the prophets” is also used in the Koran and has particular ideological meaning for Muslims.

It is thought that the design of the Muslim khatam was likely inspired by Jewish version, which is the Seal of Solomon which is a six point star formed by overlapping two triangles.

When you first start looking at zillij designs, it's hard to spot the eight pointed star but after a while, you easily trace its outline with your eyes.

"The early years "  The practice of zillij dates back to the 11th century.

I've read different accounts of who the artform is attributed to.  Some say the credit goes to the Romans who decorated the ruins at Volubilis with spectacular mosaics.  I saw similar ones at the Roman ruins at Ephesus in Turkey.

Others say it was the Moors who gave birth to the artform, first introducing it to Spain and then Morocco.

And there are those who give credit to  North Africa's Almoravid rulers, and later the Almohads who introduced zillij to the buildings of their imperial cities in Morocco and Spain.

The earliest examples of Moroccan zillij were rendered in shades of white and brown.  The art remained very limited in use until around the 14th century when the Merinid Dynasty gave it more prominence. Blue, red, green and yellow made their way into zillij in the 17th century.

Back in the day, zillij was the decoration of choice for the rich and wealthy.  Today, it can be seen everywhere in Morocco as as ornamentation for walls, ceilings, fountains, floors, pools, tables, etc.  It even graces the reverse face of the 20 dirham note that was issued in 1996.

Then as is still true today, Fes and Meknes remain the centers of this art form and there are still highly skilled artisans making zillij.

Photo by worldwidewandering
"It takes skill, a lot of skill Making zillig is extremely labor intensive and time consuming and it takes a highly skilled craftsman and a team of apprentices to do it properly.

The process begins with glazed pieces of tile being hand chipped into geometric shapes to match what is needed for the design.  The tile chips are set into the pattern using the indirect method meaning that the tile chips are laid, a form, in pattern, right side down.  I can imagine that a lot of care is taken to make sure the right tile chip is in the right because you can't see the pattern as you lay down the chips.  Plaster is then spread on top of the piece, cementing all the tile chips together.  Once the plaster sets, the piece is turned out so the pattern is revealed. 

I found this YouTube video that describes the process of making zillij.  I'm in awe and if I can afford it, I will bring a real handmade zillij tile back with me.