Zellige Tiles: The Jewels Of Moroccan Design

One of the most cherished art forms from Morocco, Zellige tiles have captured the hearts and imaginations of interior designers, architects, and homeowners around the world.

Zellige Tiles - TheMediterra.com

Key Takeaways

  • Ancient Craft: Zellige tile-making, originating in the 10th century, is a traditional Moroccan art form where clay from the Fez region is meticulously shaped and fired.
  • Handmade Essence: Even with modern adaptations, the unique character of Zellige tiles stems from their handcrafted nature, with each tile showcasing individual imperfections.
  • Color Evolution: While traditional colors like cobalt blue and brass green remain popular, today’s Zellige tiles come in a broader spectrum to suit contemporary aesthetics.
  • Modern Adaptations: To meet global demand, some processes in Zellige tile production have incorporated machine assistance, but the essence of handcraftsmanship is preserved.
  • Versatile Application: Originally adorning palaces and mosques, Zellige tiles now embellish a variety of spaces, from homes to international hotels and restaurants.
Zellige tiles make a great backsplash
Zellige Tiles Make A Great Backsplash

The History Of Zellige Tiles

The roots of Zellige (pronounced zill-ij) can be traced back to the 10th century, though the art truly flourished during the Marinid dynasty. Introduced by the Moors, the tiles draw their inspiration from a mix of Roman mosaics and Islamic art.

Crafted from the rich clay found in the Fez region of Morocco, the tiles undergo a meticulous creation process. After the clay is shaped and fired, it’s glazed with vibrant colors, which, once set, are chiseled into intricate designs.

Uniqueness Of Zellige Tiles Lies in Imperfection

One of the distinct aspects of Zellige tiles is their imperfect beauty. Due to the handcrafted nature, no two tiles are exactly alike.

Green Zellige tiles
Green Zellige tiles. Image: Left | Right

Variations in color, texture, and size are not only common but celebrated. This imperfection, in essence, makes every Zellige tile installation a unique piece of art.

Colors and Symbolism Of Zellige Tiles

Zellige tiles come in a kaleidoscope of colors. Historically, certain colors held significant meanings:

  • Green symbolizes Islam.
  • Blue represented the heavens and water.
  • Yellow stood for wealth.
  • White indicated purity.
Colorful Zellige Tiles
Colorful Zellige Tiles

Today, while the traditional symbolism is still respected, the colors have expanded to include various shades and tones to match modern aesthetics.

How Zellige Tiles Are Made: Then and Now

Zellige tiles, with their glinting colors and unique imperfections, have graced Moroccan architecture and homes for centuries. Behind each tile lies a rich tapestry of history and an intricate manufacturing process. Let’s delve into the journey of Zellige tiles from their inception to their modern adaptations.

Ancient Craftsmanship

The methods of creating Zellige tiles have been passed down through generations, maintaining their essence even today.

1. Raw Material Collection: The process starts with the extraction of raw clay, predominantly sourced from the Fez region of Morocco. This clay has specific qualities that make it suitable for Zellige tile production.

2. Shaping: Once extracted, the clay is kneaded with water, shaped into flat pieces, and then cut into squares. Traditionally, artisans used simple hand tools for shaping and cutting, ensuring each tile had its unique character.

3. Drying: The shaped tiles are then laid out to dry under the sun. This natural drying process is crucial to achieve the desired consistency and durability.

4. Glazing: Once dried, tiles are coated with a metallic glaze. Colors like cobalt blue, brass green, and cedar wood brown have historical significance and were widely used in ancient times.

5. Firing: The glazed tiles are loaded into wood-burning kilns. The intense heat inside these kilns gives the tiles their characteristic hardness and brings out their vibrant colors.

Wood-burning kilns
Wood-burning kiln. Image

6. Crafting Mosaic Patterns: After firing, the tiles are cut into smaller mosaics, often in various shapes like squares, triangles, or stars. Artisans then painstakingly assemble these smaller pieces to create intricate designs.

Modern Innovations

While the essence of making Zellige tiles remains the same, there have been some changes and adaptations to meet contemporary demands.

1. Expanded Color Palette: The modern era has seen an expansion in the color palette used for Zellige tiles. While traditional colors are still popular, there’s a growing demand for more contemporary shades to suit varied interior designs.

2. Machine Assistance: With the rise in global demand, some steps of the tile-making process have incorporated machine assistance. This aids in increasing production capacity while still preserving the tiles’ handcrafted essence.

3. Varied Uses: Initially, Zellige tiles were predominantly used in palaces, mosques, and other places of significance. Now, their application has spread to homes, restaurants, hotels, and even public spaces around the world.

4. Eco-friendly Practices: Recognizing the global shift towards sustainability, some manufacturers have adopted more eco-friendly practices, from sourcing materials to the production process.

The Timeless Beauty Of Zellige Tiles

Despite the subtle changes over time, the core of Zellige tile production remains in its handcrafted nature. Each tile, carrying with it the spirit of ancient Moroccan artistry, tells a story of tradition, craftsmanship, and cultural richness.

Zellige tiles are suitable for backsplashes floors and outdoor decor - TheMediterra.com
Zellige tiles are suitable for backsplashes, floors, and outdoor decor. Image

Whether you stumble upon them in a historical Moroccan monument or a chic cafe in Paris, Zellige tiles are a testament to the timeless fusion of art, history, and craftsmanship that transcends ages.

Applications Of Zellige Tiles in Contemporary Design

Zellige tiles might have historical roots, but their appeal is timeless. Modern homes and public spaces have embraced these tiles for various applications:

  • Backsplashes: Their water-resistant nature makes them perfect for kitchen and bathroom backsplashes.
  • Floors: With their robust nature, they can be an artistic choice for flooring.
  • Walls & Accents: From accent walls to decorative borders, the tiles add a splash of color and intricate design.
  • Outdoor Spaces: Patios, fountains, and pools can benefit from the vibrant and durable nature of Zellige tiles.

Examples of Zellige tiles in Spain are easily available today to study and enjoy. One excellent example is the Alhambra in Granada, a large complex built by the Moors. 

Colorful Zellige Tiles can be found in fountain and floors
Colorful Zellige Tiles can be found in fountains and floors

Care and Maintenance Of Zellige Tiles

Zellige tiles are relatively easy to care for. Regular cleaning with mild soap and water is sufficient. It’s crucial to avoid abrasive materials and harsh chemicals, as they can damage the glaze.

Where To Buy Original Zellige Tiles?

Buying original Zellige tiles requires a keen eye for authenticity and a little bit of research to ensure you’re getting genuine products. Here are some guidelines and recommendations on where to buy original Zellige tiles:

Buy Original Zellige Tiles Directly from Morocco:

  • Local Artisans: If you have the opportunity to visit Morocco, especially cities like Fez or Marrakech, you can purchase Zellige tiles directly from the craftsmen. This not only ensures authenticity but also supports the local artisans and their craft.
  • Moroccan Exporters: There are several reputable exporters based in Morocco who specialize in Zellige tiles. They often have online catalogs and can arrange international shipping.

Buy Original Zellige Tiles In Specialty Tile Stores:

  • In many countries, especially in Europe and the U.S., there are specialty tile stores that source authentic Zellige tiles from Morocco. A simple online search or visit to local tile stores might yield results.

Buy Original Zellige Tiles Via Online Retailers and Marketplaces:

  • Etsy: Some sellers on Etsy offer genuine Zellige tiles. It’s crucial to read reviews and ask the seller about the origin of the tiles to ensure their authenticity.
  • Dedicated Online Stores: Some websites specialize in these unique tiles and often provide detailed information about the crafting process, ensuring you get the real deal.

Buy Original Zellige Tiles At Trade Shows and Expositions:

  • Architectural and design trade shows sometimes feature stalls or booths dedicated to authentic Zellige tiles. These events can be an excellent opportunity to see the tiles in person and discuss with suppliers directly.

Buy Original Zellige Tiles Through Recommendations from Interior Designers or Architects:

  • Professionals in the design and architecture industry often have trusted suppliers for specialized materials like Zellige tiles. If you’re working with a designer or architect, or even if you’re not, reaching out to them for recommendations can be beneficial.

Tips for Ensuring Authenticity of Zellige Tiles

  • Documentation: Authentic suppliers will often provide documentation or certification verifying the origin of the tiles.
  • Texture and Imperfections: Original Zellige tiles are handcrafted, so they have a distinct texture, and no two tiles are exactly alike. Beware of machine-made, overly uniform tiles.
  • Price: Genuine Zellige tiles, given the craftsmanship involved, might be more expensive than imitations. While price alone isn’t a determinant of authenticity, a deal that seems too good to be true might warrant caution.

While there are many avenues to buy original Zellige tiles, it’s essential to do thorough research, ask the right questions, and rely on trusted sources. Authentic Zellige tiles are not only aesthetically superior, but they also carry a rich history and tradition that adds depth and value to any space they adorn.

Our Favorite Zellige Tile Brands

Here are some of my favorite Zellige brands around the world.

FAQ – Gorgeous, Traditional Zellige Tiles

Zellige Tiles

What are Zellige tiles?

Zellige tiles are handcrafted tiles made in Morocco. They are traditionally made from the clay found in the Fez region and are known for their unique patterns, vibrant colors, and slight imperfections due to their handmade nature.

Zellige Tiles

How do Zellige tiles differ from regular tiles?

The primary distinction is their handmade nature. Each Zellige tile is unique, with variations in color, texture, and size. This results in a mosaic-like effect when they are assembled, in contrast to the uniformity of machine-made tiles.

Zellige Tiles

What is the historical significance of Zellige tiles?

Zellige tiling is an art form that dates back to the 10th century in Morocco. It flourished during the Marinid dynasty and was heavily influenced by Roman mosaics and Islamic art. These tiles were often used to decorate palaces, mosques, and other significant buildings.

Zellige Tiles

Why are there imperfections in Zellige tiles?

The imperfections are a hallmark of their authenticity. Since each tile is handcrafted, slight differences in shape, color, and texture are inevitable. These differences are embraced and celebrated as they give each installation its character.

Zellige Tiles

Are Zellige tiles durable?

Yes, Zellige tiles are known for their durability. They are suitable for various applications, from wall installations to flooring and even outdoor use. However, like all tiles, they should be treated with care to ensure longevity.

Zellige Tiles

How do I maintain and clean Zellige tiles?

For everyday cleaning, use mild soap and water. Avoid abrasive materials and harsh chemicals, as they can damage the tile’s glaze. Regular maintenance will ensure the tiles retain their beauty and luster over time.

Zellige Tiles

Can I use Zellige tiles in my bathroom or kitchen?

Absolutely! Zellige tiles are an excellent choice for bathrooms and kitchens due to their water-resistant nature. They can be used for backsplashes, shower walls, and even floors, adding a touch of Moroccan charm to these spaces.

Zellige Tiles

How do I ensure I’m buying authentic Zellige tiles?

When purchasing, look for documentation or certification of authenticity. Familiarize yourself with the unique characteristics of Zellige tiles, such as their texture and slight imperfections. Trusted sellers, recommendations from professionals, and direct purchases from Moroccan artisans can also ensure authenticity.

Zellige Tiles

What colors are most common for Zellige tiles?

While Zellige tiles come in a myriad of colors, traditional shades include blue (symbolizing the heavens and water), green (representing Islam), yellow (indicative of wealth), and white (symbolizing purity). However, modern adaptations have introduced a broader palette to cater to various design preferences.

Zellige Tiles

How are Zellige tiles installed?

Zellige tiles can be installed similarly to other tiles using mortar or tile adhesive. Due to their handmade nature, it’s essential to consider their slight size variations during installation. It’s often recommended to seek a professional with experience in Zellige tiles for the best results.

Main Image: Floor & Decor


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