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Zellīj (Arabic: الزليج, romanized: zˈliʑ; also zillīj, zelige or zellige) is a style of mosaic tilework made from individually hand-chiseled tile pieces set into a plaster base. The pieces were typically of different colours and fitted together to form elaborate Islamic geometric motifs, such as radiating star patterns. This form of Islamic art is one of the main characteristics of Moroccan architecture and the medieval Moorish architecture in the western Islamic world. Zellij became a standard decorative element along lower walls, in fountains and pools, and for the paving of floors. It is found commonly in historic buildings throughout the region, as well as in modern buildings making use of traditional designs such as the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca which adds a new color palette with traditional designs.
The word "zillīj" (زليج) is derived from the verb "zalaja" (زَلَجَ) meaning "to slide," in reference to the smooth, glazed surface of the tiles. The word "azulejo", a style of painted tile in Portugal and Spain of the same name, in Portuguese and Spanish derives from the word "zillīj".
Zellij fragments from al-Mansuriyya (Sabra) in Tunisia, possibly dating from either the mid-10th century Fatimid foundation or from the mid-11th Zirid occupation, suggest that the technique may have developed in the western Islamic world around this period. By the 11th century, the zellij technique had reached a sophisticated level in the western Islamic world, as attested in the elaborate pavements found at Qal'at Bani Hammad in Algeria.
During the Almohad period, prominent bands of ceramic decoration in green and white were already features on the minarets of the Kutubiyya Mosque and the Kasbah Mosque of Marrakesh. Relatively simple in design, they may have reflected artistic influences from Sanhaja Berber culture.: 231 Jonathan Bloom cites the white and green glazed tiles on the minaret of the Kutubiyya Mosque, dating from the mid-12th century in the early Almohad period, as the earliest reliably-dated example of zellij in Morocco.: 26
The more complex zellij style that we know today became widespread by the 14th century during the Marinid, Nasrid, and Zayyanid dynastic periods in Morocco, Algeria, al-Andalus, and the wider Maghreb. It may have been inspired or derived from Byzantine mosaics and then adapted by Muslim craftsmen for faience tiles. These are evident in famous buildings of the period such as the Alhambra palaces of the Nasrids and the Marinid madrasas of Fes, Meknes, and Salé. By this period, more colours were employed such as yellow (using iron oxides or chrome yellow), blues, and a dark brown manganese colour.: 336 Geometric patterns and other motifs of increasing complexity were formed this way. This framework of expression within the conceptual framework of Islamic art which valued the creation of spatial decorations that avoided depictions of living things, consistent with taboos of aniconism in Islam on such depictions.
Under the Saadian dynasty in the 16th century and in subsequent centuries, the usage of zellij became even more widespread and ubiquitous as decoration. The complexity of geometric patterns increased in part through the use of even finer (thinner) mosaic pieces for some compositions, though in some cases this came at the expense of more colours.: 414–415 The zellij compositions in the Saadian Tombs are considered one of the best examples of this type. Red pigment 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 Marinids. The cities of Fes and Meknes in Morocco, remain the centers of this art.
Clays for zellīj
Fez and Meknes in Morocco are still the production centers for zellīj tiles due to the Miocene grey clay of Fez. The clay from this region is primarily composed of kaolinite. For Fez and Meknes, the clay composition is 2–56% clay minerals, of which 3–29% is calcite. Meriam El Ouahabi states that:
From the other sites (Meknes, Fes, Salé and Safi), the clay mineral composition shows besides kaolinite the presence of illite, chlorite, smectite and traces of mixed layer illite/chlorite. Meknes clays belong to illitic clays, characterized by illite (54 – 61%), kaolinite (11 – 43%), smectite (8 – 12%) and chlorite (6 – 19%). Fes clays have a homogeneous composition with illite (40 – 48%). and kaolinite (18 – 28%) as the most abundant clay minerals. Chlorite (12 – 15%) and smectite (9 – 12%) are generally present as small quantities. Mixed layer illite/chlorite is present in trace amounts in all the examined Fes clay materials.
Forms and trends
As the colour palette of the zellīj tiles increased over the centuries, it became possible to multiply the compositions ad infinitum. The most current form of the zellīj 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 an area, 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.
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 the mathematics of art.
Zellij paving around the fountain of the Al-Attarine Madrasa (14th century)
Zellij applied to curved surfaces in the Marinid Madrasa of Salé (14th century)
Zellij fragment from Tilemsan, Algeria, from the 14th century.
Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakesh
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, all used for the Hassan II Mosque.
Zellīj 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. In 1993, the Moroccan government abolished the practice of teaching young children starting at ages 5 to 7, when the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was ratified. Now young people learn zellīj making at one of the 58 artisan schools in Morocco. However, the interest in learning the craft is dropping. As of 2018, at an artisan school in Fez with 400 enrolled students only 7 students learn how to make zellīj.
Zellij tiles are first fabricated in glazed squares, typically 10 cm per side, then cut by hand into a variety of pre-established shapes (usually memorized by rote learning) necessary to form the overall pattern.: 414 Although the exact patterns vary from case to case, the underlying principles have been constant for centuries and Moroccan craftsmen are still adept at making them today. The small shapes (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.
Artisan workers chipping zellige pieces, Fez, Morocco.
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