Morocco: The Art of Zelige

As a design addict, I’ve longed to travel to Morocco for years. I wanted to see textiles, ceramics, lighting and especially zelige –– the hand-chiseled tiles used in mosaics and furniture. I finally had a good excuse for a visit after I got engaged to a wonderful Moroccan man.

Because Islamic art does not feature figures or likenesses, artisans in countries like Morocco instead have developed stunning graphic and geometric shapes and patterns. That’s what makes a centuries-old tradition like zelige look strikingly fresh and modern. To me, the zelige are like super-durable works of art on tile that retain a certain exotic quality, because you rarely find them in the U.S.

Hours after arriving in Casablanca, I visited the majestic Hassan II Mosque, the largest mosque in Morocco and the third biggest in the world.  More than 6,000 master craftsmen came from around the country to create the mosque’s intricate details, including the abundant mosaics made with zelige, the sculpted plaster moldings and extraordinary carved and painted wood ceilings.

Photos by Megan Dempsey

From Casablanca we took a train to Fez, where we stayed at the affordable Riad Alya in the ancient medina, or walled city.  A riad is a mansion built around a large, open central courtyard.  The design allows for natural light and privacy without the need for exterior windows, which would have looked out into the claustrophobic pathways of the medina. Our riad featured a courtyard faced in zelige that had been painstakingly restored over the course of several years.

The helpful owners of Riad Alya arranged for a private guide to show us Fez. The best part: a tour of a zelige factory, called Poterie De Fes. There I saw how workers carefully hand-chisel every single tile into its shape.

If only I could have shipped one of these stunning fountains back to San Francisco.

In Marrakesh, I checked out the gloriously refurbished La Mamounia hotel.  Just reopened after a three-year renovation, this upscale resort did not disappoint with its stunning zelige, restful ambiance and the most beautiful grounds I’d seen in Morocco.

La Mamounia’s mosaics had subtle, contemporary colors that were chic and sophisticated. I’m already planning to spring for a room here on my next visit, when I’m sure my zelige adventures will continue.

A good read: The Villas and Riads of Morocco

  • Paul Neuwirth

    A lovely piece.

    • Laura

      I would like to build one of these fountains myself, but I do not know how the back part of it looks like and don’t find good images of it on the web either. If you had any picture of one of these fountains taken from behind, I would be very grateful if you could send it to me (l.martin.gallardo at gmail.com) so that I can use it as model. Thank you!

  • Great piece!

    I love finding some small aspect of a place I visit to pursue in detail. These tiles are gorgeous–they remind me of somewhat similar work I saw in mosques in Turkey.

  • I own a copy of “Villas and Riads of Morocco” – indeed, a good read! I, too, love design. Moroccan and Islamic art have always captivated me, ever since I visited the Alhambra in Granada, Spain back in 1996. My first trip to Marrakech was last year May, and I enjoyed every minute of it! Love the architectural style of the city…and oh, the colours! Needless to say, I brought home an extra luggage of stuff from the souks – carpets, lanterns, tea kettles, etc. I wish I could bring some zellij tiles home!!!

  • Adriana

    Such a great piece! And I hope many people will be inspired to travel to Morocco.