Art of Moroccan Zellij

Moroccan tile, Moroccan Zellige, or Moroccan Zellije, Moroccan Zellij also known as 'azulejo' in Spanish and Portuguese, refers to painted ceramic tile work.

This form of art flourished during the Hispano-Moresque era during the Marinid dynasty around the 14th century. Moroccan Zellige is still prevalent in Spanish and Portuguese architecture and it can be seen in many Moorish monuments, mosques, churches, houses, and palaces in and around Spain and Portugal .

The process of making Moroccan Zellige, or zellije, in Morocco has not changed that much since its birth. The baking of the tile along with the ancient art of cutting by hand, using nothing more than a basic hand chisel and many basic and complex mathematical formula, remain the same as it has for centuries. The tile cutters, or "Maalam Nakach," even start their long training journey at a young age, and by their mid-twenties become unparalleled skilled artisans. Since the tile production process is all manual from start to finish and is a craft unto itself, it is time consuming and laborious making it a labor of love.

Sahara Designs remains true to this heritage and is determined to keep the art form of zellige alive by sustaining as many artisans as possible. Whether it is a fountain, a back splash or an entire house or palace, our master tile artisan, "Maalam Ferach," starts by determining the right colors and scope of work. The process outlined below is the same for all of our mosaics.

Making of the raw materials for Moroccan Zellige, or Zellije also known as 'azulejo' in Spanish and Portuguese

Once colors are chosen, the raw materials are produced by a potter, or "Fkhar," who handles the hand mixing of the clay, the sun drying, the color mixing of the glazes, and the baking of the raw materials in a traditional "beehive" style kiln. The tile pieces are typically 5"x 5" square tiles that are rough around the edges, called "lajoura," before they are hand chiseled.

Cutting of the basic ceramic tile into small intricate mosaic pieces

After the ceramic tile is kiln baked and sorted out, the raw materials are given to our master cutter, "Maalam Nakach," who hand chisels the desired pattern by cutting small geometric pieces called "ferma" from the 5"x 5" ceramic tiles. This step is very important since it is crucial that the "ferma" line up perfectly with each other in order to create top quality mosaic patterns. Once the master sample is made, "Maalam Nakach" distributes the "ferma" to be cut among the cutting team which is made up of ten to fifteen cutters. The cutters then use hand chisels to cut thousands of small geometric pieces that make up the mosaic design. The prototype created by "Maalam Nakach" is as important to mosaic work as architectural drawings are to construction.

Assembly of the mosaics

After the chiseled mosaic pieces have been given to the master tile artisan, the "Maalam Ferach" and his team start assembling the tile by laying the small geometric mosaic pieces face down to ensure an even surface on the face of the mosaic. This is very laborious work since "Maalam Ferach" has to grind a majority of the pieces, "ferma," into predetermined sizes based on the repetition of the mosaic pattern, "tarbiaa," to produce perfect geometric harmony of the desired pattern. This process is called "slaka." "Maalam Ferach" then disperses cement and lime powder on the back side of the mosaic and sprinkles a small amount of water on top to hold the "ferma" in place. This assembly process makes the mosaic ready for the final assembly stage which involves covering the back of the mosaics with a secret family mixture.

Cleaning and quality control

Cleaning is the last step of the mosaic tile making process. After letting the assembled mosaics dry for 24 hours, the mosaic panels are carefully lifted and cleaned before packing. This is the stage where quality control is done and not one piece of tile leaves our factory unless it meets our standards of quality.