Morocco’s Traditional Ceramic Crafts: Pottery and Zellige Tilework
Fes: Center of excellence for many of Morocco’s best known handicrafts
Morocco is well-known for the variety and quality of its traditional arts and crafts. Fes in particular is renowned for the craftsmanship of silver teapots and trays, leather, copper and embroidery. As you visit the medina of Fes, each specialty is housed in individual ‘souks’ (a marketplace or bazaar), each leading to the next. Fes is also famous for Moroccan ceramics, both as pottery and ‘zellige’ (handmade Moroccan tile). Originally located near the other souks, the Potters’ Quarter of Fes was moved to an area known as Ain Nokbi, just outside the medina of Fes and near the southern ramparts, due to the smoke from the kilns’ firing process.
A visit to the pottery district of Ain Nokbi is a must for any trip to Fes!
Admission to the pottery village of Fes is free. There are several pottery co-operatives in Ain Nokbi, highlighting the art of Moroccan pottery through workshops, apprenticeship centers and showrooms of finished products. Take a tour of the Pottery Village in Fes, and you will see firsthand the entire process of the craft of Moroccan pottery and zellige. It starts with first soaking the clay in water for a week, then kneading it first by foot (think “stomping grapes”) then by hand in order to release any bubbles and create a soft, pliable material.
Fassi Pottery: Refined and distinctive blue and white geometric designs
The most prized pottery in Morocco comes from Fes. While the most common type of clay is earthenware, Fassi pottery is crafted from fine, light-colored stoneware clay. Only the most traditional methods are used to throw pottery in Ain Nokbi. Fassi pottery is shaped by hand, the pottery wheel is turned by foot for complete control, and a fine thread or piece of wire is used to cut the shape from the wheel. Once the desired shape has been formed, it is set out in the sun to dry.
Moroccan craftsmen use fine horsehair brushes to paint geometric designs on the pottery. Though available in a variety of colors, the most traditional Fassi pottery is easily recognizable by its cobalt blue and white designs. Pottery from Fes is still fired in traditional kilns which are primarily fueled by ground olive pits, a by-product of the olive oil industry in Morocco. Olive pits allow for an extremely hot yet “clean” burn and are also an economical and ecologically-friendly alternative fuel source. Stoneware clay can be fired at a high temperature, resulting in a light grey and durable, non-porous finished product. This makes it the ideal clay for products for home use, such as vases, plates, jars, tagines, mugs, bowls and ashtrays. Other popular finished products from the Potters’ Quarter in Fes include mirrors, chargers, oil diffusers, candlestick holders and egg cups. Along with the paint and glaze work, traditional pottery from Fes is virtually scratch-resistant.
Zellige: the art of handmade Moroccan tile
Inspired by Roman and Byzantine mosaics, Moroccan zellige first made its appearance in the 10th century and evolved during the Merenid Dynasty. Originally used to illustrate luxury and sophistication in the homes of wealthy art patrons, zellige tilework remains the hallmark of Moroccan architecture and design. Zellige craftsmanship can be found gracing floors, walls, columns, staircases, fountains, hammams and swimming pools throughout Morocco: not only in historical palaces such as Dar Batha in Fes, Bahia Palace in Marrakech, and the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail in Meknes, but also in more modern structures such as riads and restaurants. Zellige is a key design element in the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca.
The first step for any Moroccan mosaic tilework is to mold and calibrate the square tiles, using the same fine stoneware clay as for Fassi pottery by tiles. Each zellige square is then glazed of a single color and fired according to a specific temperature for each hue. Once the zellige tiles are fired and cooled, they are ready to be shaped and cut by hand. This is a unique characteristic of Moroccan tiles and a shining example of Moroccan craftsmanship: shapes are cut out of hard tiles, rather than being molded in the desired shapes before being fired. More often than not, it is the apprentices who ”cut” zellige tiles by quickly tracing a model piece of zellige onto the tile, and then chipping away the extra. A steady and careful touch is needed to chisel out the individual pieces of zellige; the size and weight of the tool is disproportionate to the width of the tile and ultimately, the delicacy of each small shape which emerges. Each craftsman will make his specific shape from the tile, from which the expert craftsmen will ultimately create their masterpieces.
In the case of free-standing Moroccan tilework, such as tabletops or fountains, these are created face-down. The Moroccan artisan takes piece by piece of each design element, then “glues’ them into place. In this case, the “glue” is actually “Black soap”, also known by its French name, “savon noir” or “savon bildi”, another by-product of the olive oil industry in Morocco. After all of the zellige are in place, cement is poured over the back, and once dry, the piece is turned over to discover the beauty.
Moroccan zellige tiles are not only sturdy but also water and oil-resistant. This makes them an ideal material for both indoor and outdoor use, such as tiled tabletops, plunge pools, staircase steps, fountains and fireplaces, along with the more traditional use of zellige as wall coverings or floor work. Once you see the process of the traditional Moroccan craft of zellige, you cannot help to be in awe of the splendor and intricacy of Moroccan design.
Note: you will find spelling variations for virtually any Arabic word transcribed into English. Some Arabic letters have equivalent sounds in English, others are unique. For our articles, we try to use the most popular transcription for each term, but in order to avoid confusion, you may also see the following terms spelled as below:
- Fes / Fez
- souk / souq / suk / suq / sook / sooq
- Ain Nokbi / Ain Noqbi
- zellige / zellij / zillij
- tagine / tajine
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