What’s incredible about Morocco (that perhaps people don’t realize) is that the stunning mosaics and expertly carved wall accents you find in many Riads aren’t just reserved for upper-class homes or tourist-y hotels. These incredibly detailed artworks cover the surfaces of everyday homes that people have lived in for millennia. Most homes, which look humble and can seem rather unwelcoming from the outside with their big, bulky metal doors and bolted locks, open up to provide passers-by with small glimpses of shockingly well-preserved tile. Tile work like this, called zellij in Arabic, originally dates back to 711, with a huge surge in popularity in the 1400s, when the Moors of Al-Andalus (modern-day Spain) were churning out marvelous tile-work pieces all over the region. Eventually, the style traveled South to Morocco, where the cities of Fes and Meknes are heralded as the top sites to see this work. The art of making zellij has been passed down through families generation by generation, and it often takes maalems (tile masters) decades to master the precise art form.
There are three main types of zellij:
Romi or Fayons zellij is simple in style, consisting of square and rectangular pieces that are often used to tile bathroom or kitchen walls and floors. It is made by machine and a cheap way to tile larger spaces on a budget.
Bejmat zellij is made up of square or rectangular-shaped tiles that are placed on the floor or walls. This style may appear modest at first glance, but each tile is expertly hand cut and pieced together.
Beldi zellij is the traditional style of zellij that uses intricate Moorish and Islamic designs to create mesmerizing patterns. There are dozens of shapes that the individual tiles can be made into, and infinite possibilities for the design of the final piece. This style can be incorporated into all elements of design, from pottery to flooring, fountains, pools, etc.
Luckily for us, Marrakshis have access to Fessi tiles made of the traditional Kaolinite clay that has been used to make zellij for centuries. Tiles not only provide decoration but a sense of ease to living in Marrakech’s old buildings. Once walls have been tiled there is no need to keep repainting them anymore, and if a wall begins to crack it can be simply tiled over and no longer worried about!
Right down the street from our very own Riad Papillon is the home of an ex-military colonel. The place is so large that there are three separate doors from which you can enter onto its property. It is doubtful that you will get invited in, but with luck, you’ll be passing by on your way home from Henna Cafe one day, and you’ll happen to walk by a door left ajar. With a peek inside, a miraculous assortment of brightly colored tiles, engulfed in rich green foliage, is easily visible. The sight is astonishing.
We happened to pass by as Arabic music was softly playing from the stereo, which you could hear along with the sweep of a broom and the chirp of a bird.
You don’t need to step indoors to see these works of art, magnificently adorned mosques and intricately carved wooden doors are around every corner.