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Zellige terracotta tiles decorating a fountain with elaborate Islamic geometric patterns, Place El-Hedine, Meknes, Morocco

Zellige, zillij or zellij[pronunciation?] (Arabic: الزليج‎) is terra cotta tilework covered with enamel in the form of chips set into plaster.[1] This form of Islamic art is one of the main characteristics of Moroccan architecture. It consists of geometrically patterned mosaics, used to ornament walls, ceilings, fountains, floors, pools and tables.


The art of zellige flourished at the Hispano-Moresque period (Azulejo) of Morocco. The art remained very limited in use until the Merinid dynasty who gave it more importance around the 14th century and introduced blue, green and yellow colours. Red was added in the 17th century. The old enamels with the natural colours were used until the beginning of the 20th century and the colours had probably not evolved much since the period of Merinids. The cities of Fes and Meknes remain the centers of this art.

Patrons of the art used zellige historically to decorate their homes as a statement of luxury and the sophistication of the inhabitants. Zellige is typically a series of patterns utilizing colourful geometric shapes. This framework of expression arose from the need of Islamic artists to create spatial decorations that avoided depictions of living things, consistent with the teachings of Islamic law.

Forms and trends[edit]

The colour palette of the zellige increased, making it possible to multiply the compositions ad infinitum (see picture above). The most current form of the zellige is a square. Other forms are possible: the octagon combined with a cabochon, a star, a cross, etc. It is then moulded with a thickness of approximately 2 centimetres. There are simple squares of 10 by 10 centimeters or with the corners cut to be combined with a coloured cabochon. To pave the grounds, bejmat, a paving stone of 15 by 5 centimetres approximately and 2 centimetres thick, can also be used.

"An encyclopedia could not contain the full array of complex, often individually varied patterns and the individually shaped, hand-cut tesserae, or furmah, found in zillij work. Star-based patterns are identified by their number of points—'itnashari for 12, 'ishrini for 20, arba' wa 'ishrini for 24 and so on, but they are not necessarily named with exactitude. The so-called khamsini, for 50 points, and mi'ini, for 100, actually consist of 48 and 96 points respectively, because geometry requires that the number of points of any star in this sequence be divisible by six. (There are also sequences based on five and on eight.) Within a single star pattern, variations abound—by the mix of colors, the size of the furmah, and the complexity and size of interspacing elements such as strapping, braids, or "lanterns." And then there are all the non-star patterns— honeycombs, webs, steps and shoulders, and checkerboards. The Alhambra's interlocking zillij patterns were reportedly a source of inspiration for the tessellations of modern Dutch artist M.C. Escher."[2]

Themes often employ Kufic script, as it fits well with the geometry of the mosaic tiles, and patterns often culminate centrally in the Rub El Hizb. The tessellations in the mosaics are currently of interest in academic research in mathematics.

These studies require expertise not only in the fields of mathematics, art and art history, but also of computer science, computer modelling and software engineering,[3] all used for the Hassan II Mosque.

Zellige craftsmanship[edit]

Zellige making is considered an art in itself. The art is transmitted from generation to generation by maâlems (master craftsmen). A long training starts at childhood to implant the required skills.[4]

Assiduous attention to detail is needed when creating zellige. The small shaped (cut according to a precise radius gauge), painted and enamel covered pieces are then assembled in a geometrical structure as in a puzzle to form the completed mosaic. The process has not varied for a millennium, though conception and design has started using new technologies such as data processing.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ L'Opinion (May 6, 1992)
  2. ^ Werner, Louis. 2001. "Zillij in Fez." Saudi Aramco World. May–June 2001. Volume 52 (3). Pages 18-31.
  3. ^ From Form to Content: Using Shape Grammars for Image Visualization, Source IV archive Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Information Visualisation (IV'05) - Volume 00, IEEE Computer Society Washington, DC, USA
  4. ^ beton-decoratif.com
  • Some of the content of this article comes from the equivalent French-language Wikipedia article, accessed January 3, 2007.
  • Moroccan Ceramics and the Geography of Invented Traditions, Journal article by James E. Housefield; The Geographical Review, Vol. 86, 1997
  • The Elements of Unity in Islamic Art As Examined Through the Work of Jamal Badran, By Fayeq S Oweis
  • Engineering and fine arts research collaborations sprout from seed grants, By Scott McRae, Concordia's Thursday Report, Vol. 29, No.1, September 9, 2004
  • Technical Glossary, Islamic Art Network, Thesarus Islamicus Foundation, Islamic Art Network 21 Misr Helwan al-Ziraa‘i St., 9th Floor, Al-Ma'adi, Cairo, Egypt

External links[edit]