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Volume 52, Number 3May/June 2001

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Zillij in Fez

Written by Louis Werner
Photographed by Peter Sanders

Dressed in a flowing brown jellaba and peaked gray tarboosh, Abdelatif Benslimane wanders the narrow lanes of Old Fez, his eyes darting from wall to column to fountain, his mouth whispering familiar names. "Fifty points inside eight. Four clasped hands. Spider's house. Empty and full."

This is not the secret patter of a mystic, but rather the precise terminology of a master craftsman. Benslimane is a ceramic mosaicist, a zlayji in Moroccan Arabic, and these are the names of just some of the many patterns he sees in any short stroll through the old city.

His art of glazed and cut tiles arranged in complex geometries, known as zillij, is everywhere in Fez. Its broad range of color, its infinite possibilities of design and its sudden pleasure of discovery—around a corner at eye level or, at a distance, as part of an architectural whole—all contribute to the striking impression the city gives that it wears two faces at once: an ageless beauty masked by a well-worn antiquity.

Titus Burkhardt, a Swiss art historian and one of the first advisors to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on the conservation of the old city, compared Fez in its bowl-shaped valley to an opened geode, "brimful of thousands of tightly packed crystals and surrounded by a silver-green rim; this was Fez, the Old City of Fez, in the twilight; the countless crystals now come more clearly into view; one side of them was light, while the other side had become darkened and weather-beaten."

Burkhardt might have been thinking specifically of the city's crystal-like zillij work, refracting the sun but darkening in the dim, covered suqs and lanes. Throughout the madinah—which is what Old Fez is called locally, using the Arabic word for "city"—small mosaic panels and narrow running bands of zillij decorate otherwise blank walls. They shimmer, hold the eye, and offer release, creating introspective moments in otherwise boisterous public spaces.

Although zillij reached what many consider its apogee in the 16th-century Saadian Tombs in Marrakesh, and a second flowering in the many royal palaces and public buildings built throughout the country between 1961 and 1999 by King Hassan II, it is in Fez that zillij is best appreciated as an ever-present adornment of everyday life.

Outside the madinah, in the sprawling modern city, it graces apartment building lobbies and office façades, café counters and sidewalk flower planters. In the madinah it accents the city's greatest monuments: the 14th-century Attarine and Bou Inaniyya madrasas (Islamic schools), the Qarawiyyin mosque and the tomb of Moulay Idriss II, who founded Fez in the year 809 of the western calendar. Even the donkeys that carry the old city's burdens drink from zillij -faced troughs. And Morocco's 20-dirham bank note is adorned by a fountain designed by a master zlayji from Fez.

Roger LeTourneau, the leading western historian of Fez, said that among all of the city's various craftsmen, zlayjis were most worthy of being called artists, because "their reputation went beyond the city walls. It was not unusual for the sultan or a notable personage from another great Moroccan city to call upon their talent." And among such zlayjis, not a few of them have come from five generations of the Benslimane family.

In the 1920's, at the behest of the newly installed French colonial governor, Abdelatif Benslimane's grandfather Ahmad retiled the well-known 17th-century Nejjarine Fountain, one of the city's best, just outside the Funduq Nejjarine. Abdelatif's father, Muhammad, later repaired Ahmad's jewel, taking apart one by one the mosaic pieces damaged by rough public use and mounting them afresh. "Whenever I walk this way," says Abdelatif, "I bow my head in respect to the masters who preceded me."

His father also repaired Nasrid-era zillij in Cordoba and Granada, Spain and worked five years in Paris. Abdelatif worked as his apprentice in three royal palaces, the tomb of King Muhammed V in Rabat, and on the Palais Jamaï Hotel, one of Fez's finest. He died in 1984, while helping make the private home of the pasha of Marrakesh into a modern masterpiece.

Abdelatif, now 67, learned well from his father. Works of his mature hand can be found in places near and far—the entryway and fountain of the Wataniyya Commercial Center on the new city's main avenue, in five-star hotel lobbies throughout the country, and even in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, in the interior of the Zeinab Mosque. His own son, Muhammad, recently opened a shop in New York selling his father's work and his own, designed especially for the North American market: table-tops, small fountains, decoratively edged mirrors and patterned runners for kitchen and bath.

Mosaic work in Morocco is not unique to the Islamic period, and neither is zillij unique to Morocco. Not far from Fez lie the remains of the Roman city of Volubilis, where intricate marble floor mosaics take on myriad forms.

Beginning in the mid-llth century, North Africa's Almoravid rulers, and later the Almohads, introduced zillij to the buildings of their imperial cities in Morocco and Spain. It can still be seen on important dynastic landmarks such as the minaret of the Kutubiyya Mosque in Marrakesh, the Hassan Tower in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville.

Near-cousins of the art form are also found in lands east of the Mediterranean. In the 14th century, Tangier-born Ibn Battuta favorably compared the zillij of his homeland to the eastern mosaics called qashani. Thirteenth-century Seljuk Turkey and 12th-century Persia knew the beauty of cut tile work in floral patterns, and the Egyptian Mamluks made extensive use of mosaics, marquetry and other patterns in polychrome stone.

About Fez, at the beginning of the 13th century, a survey of the city ordered by the Almohad ruler al-Nasir Muhammad (1199-1213) counted 188 ceramic workshops. In the 14th century, historian Ibn Khaldun noted the desire of wealthy merchants there "to build great houses and decorate them with ceramics, mosaics, and arabesques."

In later years in Muslim Spain, or al-Andalus, zillij reached artistic heights that have never been surpassed, evident especially in the Alcazar and Alhambra palaces. As Arab historian Leo Africanus noted, the eventual expulsion of the Muslims from Spain in 1492 benefited Fez: It provided the city with an influx not only of great craftsmen, but also a new class of patrons.

Today, private patronage is still the key to sustaining labor-intensive zillij, which—though an unusually expensive art form—is considered indispensable by Moroccans of all social and economic stations. Benslimane's clients range from Shaykh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, who owns several houses in Morocco, to businessmen and countless others of more ordinary means. New homeowners on even the most limited budgets often yearn for a traditional Moroccan reception room, or salon, which means zillij halfway up walls whose upper portions are finished by elaborately carved stucco and topped with an inlaid wooden ceiling—and if they can't afford all of it at once, it is commissioned piecemeal, over years.

A typical job for a zlayji starts with a call from an architect whose client has asked for a mosaic panel measuring, let us say, two meters (78") square, to decorate a new home's salon. Any traditional design and color scheme are possible, but the space and its proportions impose certain overall constraints: A 50-point star, for example, needs room for its 24- and 12-point satellite stars, a common Islamic pattern that Burkhardt called "a shimmering planetarium, in which each line starts from a center and leads to a center."

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.

The more commonly used of the 360 different furmah, according to one scholar's exhaustive count, run the geometrical gamut from star medallions, which are used as the center of the star patterns, to chevrons and triangles, hexagons and octagons, lozenges and diamonds, and curvilinear and rectilinear strapwork. Organic shapes go by the names of the objects from which they are abstracted—bottlenecks, ducks, combs, bracelets, cups and hands. "There are many, too many for me to remember, but I have almost surely used them all," says Benslimane.

For one of his current private commissions, a wall-mounted fountain decorated with a 24-point star pattern on a square-meter panel (39" square), Benslimane figures about 5000 furmah will be needed, consisting of 32 different shapes in eight colors. He works backward from these numbers to calculate how many square, glazed "mother tiles," each 10 centimeters (4") on a side, he must order from the kiln in order to cut this combination of furmah.

The pottery quarter, where smoke always lingers on the slopes of the Fez River below the madinah, is located just inside the 18th-century gate called Bab al-Ftouh. Bi-level, beehive-shaped ovens are fueled with faytour, or olive pomace, the pits and dry pulpy material left after olives have been pressed for oil. Faytour burns at an extraordinarily high temperature. Tiles are molded of a special, fine-bodied clay from nearby Jebel Ben Jelliq, which, after being fired, can be scored and struck to break cleanly along straight lines.

The glaze too contains a key local ingredient. A sandy red soil from Meknes is added to recycled battery lead and kiln-baked for two days. Then it is milled into a powdered glazing compound and mixed with water and a pigment. Some pigments are made locally, such as green from recycled copper and dark blue and black from mineral ores, while other, modern colors unknown in older work, such as turquoise, rose and yellow, are imported.

The tiles are fired twice, first in the kiln's hotter lower level before being glazed and again in the upper story after one face has been dipped in a color bath. A single finished square costs the zlayji about 10 cents, but broken pieces, bought at discount prices, will often suffice when the furmah to be cut from the mother tile are small.

The next step is to cut the furmah, and this is a two-stage process. Ahmad Burqadi is an independent tile cutter, or nqaash, who frequently fills Benslimane's larger orders. His workshop is in the old city's busy Bab al-Khokha quarter, and on this day he and his assistants are cutting furmah called qamarshun, whose shape is a Greek cross with tapered ends, that measure about one centimeter (3/8") end to end.

Burqadi uses a finished qamarshun as a template to ink outlines onto a square mother tile. Striking it with a chisel-headed hammer against his anvil's steel tongue, he scores lightly along the drawn lines and snaps out the rough shape with his hand. He has cut along sixteen separate edges, and not one has fractured other than where he intended.

He hands the piece off to the finish cutter sitting cross-legged beside him before an anvil with a tongue of terra cotta, which provides the softer striking surface required for the finer end-work. The finisher cleans up the shape and bevels the back side so that only the furmah's glazed edges will touch when set against another piece.

Burqadi and his helper can make several hundred of these shapes per day. More delicate furmah, such as triangled strapwork pieces, take longer and break more often, so about 80 of these is considered a good day's output. Because many lengths of strapwork are required in any design using that motif, a simple 10-point star pattern—the same one found in the Bou Inaniyya madrasa—would today cost more than $1500 for a single square-meter panel.

The entry wall to the prayer room of the Attarine madrasah, built by the Marinid Sultan Abu Said in 1325, displays a tour de force of the art of tile cutting. A master nqaash has cut the calligraphic word Allah (God) less than two centimeters across, the size of a dime, from a green tile, and also a space in which to inlay it within a white tile medallion. The curving edges of the inset and its background match perfectly. From that center, the pattern expands infinitely to cover the wall or, potentially, the universe.

The Attarine also boasts fine examples of another specialty of the nqaash that is called taqshir, or "peeled work," in which glaze is scraped off negative areas of the mother tile to leave behind a shiny pattern in low relief. This serves best to highlight the calligraphic and floral borders at waist height that top off the zillij work on walls, most often in black glaze. The effect is striking, as the exposed terracotta base of the tile weathers irregularly, setting off the glistening glaze all the more.

After the furmah have been cut and bagged by shape and color, they are sent to the worksite for mounting. This last stage is the job of the fraash, or layout artist. Benslimane's most experienced fraash is Muhammad Rashidi, who first apprenticed with his boss at the age of 13 and is now in charge of the wall-mounted fountain project.

Rashidi takes a pencil to draw a partial diagram of the 24-point star pattern on the floor and gradually fills it in, placing each piece glazed-side down. At dead center is the twelve-pointed star medallion. From each of its tips sprout two elongated diamonds, thus giving the pattern its full count of twenty-four. Radiating around this center is a burst of evenly spaced eight-pointed star pieces called dirhams.

Starting with the dirhams, Rashidi lays out all the furmah of each shape and color in turn, slowly connecting the star piece coordinates with interspacing elements until the puzzle is complete. Because the back side of each furmah is monochromatic and irregularly beveled, the overall pattern is almost impossible to discern.

On this particular project, Rashidi has been at work for three days. He is confident that the nearly 5000-piece layout, looking from the blind back side like nothing more than an irregular relief map, is exact in color and design, down to the last fingernail-sized furmah.

He laughs when asked why he cannot adhere individual pieces directly to a wall. "Stars are the idealized shapes among all of God's works. Their symmetry is perfect and their spacing is precise. Such perfection is not reached by creating them piece by piece."

After a final firming of the pattern, which he accomplishes by gingerly walking over the layout to push the pieces toward the center, Rashidi sprays a powdery cement over the design. The next day he will apply a seven-centimeter-thick (3") concrete backing that, when dry, will allow the mosaic to be attached to a wall as a single panel. Only then will the brilliance and complexity of the design join the artistic firmament of the zlayji's universe.

Benslimane speaks of zillij as being more than simply a combination of glaze, tile and concrete. "Truthfulness—sidq—is in everything I make," he says. By this, he means being true to his metier and faithful to the traditions of his craft. On one occasion, after a client was late in paying, Benslimane sold his new car to help his assistants—with whom he had just completed a particularly fine piece of work—buy sheep for the annual 'Id al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice. To this day he drives the old clunker that replaced that car.

This act of generosity towards fellow zlayjis underscores what historian Roger LeTourneau meant when he noted that Fez's craftsmen feel so well compensated by the respect accorded them that they are unashamed of their otherwise modest economic status. "Fez is not," he wrote, "the city of mystery, as has often been said, but rather the city of good sense and good living"—values that are embodied in the art of zillij.

Louis Werner (werner [email protected]) is a writer and filmmaker living in New York.

Peter Sanders
(www.petersanders.com) has photographed throughout the Islamic world for more than three decades, and lives near London.

This article appeared on pages 18-31 of the May/June 2001 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 2001 images.