For centuries, in the Imperial Moroccan city of Fes, mosaic craftsmen have chipped away at ceramic tiles, shaping the tiny pieces that comprise zellij, the art of glazed-and-cut tile pieces arranged in complex geometric patterns. The fruits of their labors can be found everywhere within the 1,200 year old Fes medina: gracing the walled city’s countless water fountains, adorning the tomb of Moulay Idriss II (the founder of Fes) and decorating the Karaouiyine Mosque and University, which vies with Al-Azhar in Cairo for the title of world’s oldest university. About a mile outside the stone walls of the medina is the Poterie De Fes factory, where pottery and mosaic craftsmen continue their work, one small piece at a time.
Late in the 8th century, Fes was founded by Moulay Idriss II, who carried out the wishes of his dying father by moving from the small ancient Roman capital of Volubilis. The new city started as a modest Berber town and grew with the influx of thousands of exiled families from Al-Andalus (southern Spain) and later from Arab families fleeing Kairouan in modern-day Tunisia. The town rose to prominence with the construction of the Karaouiyine University and it emerged as the pre-eminent city in the Maghreb, the North African region comprised by the present day countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. Within Fes is the walled medina, known as the “the city of ten thousand alleys.” It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is believed to be the world’s largest contiguous car-free urban area.
Just outside those ancient city walls is the Poterie De Fes cooperative. The factory is easy to find; look for the kilns producing black smoke fueled by olive pomace. This recycled fuel -- pulpy residue from the olive oil process--is what allows the furnaces to get hot enough to fire the clay. Our tour is led by Abdellah Idrissi, who points out that his name is derivative of Fes founder Moulay Idriss II. Abdellah is one of many craftsmen in the cooperative and he starts his tour by showing us large mounds of clay, all with fresh footprints from workers using their feet to work the clay to the desired consistency. We then move to the pottery wheel and watch a craftsman spin out about seven or eight pieces in 15 minutes. While the pottery is interesting, it is the mosaic process that is really unique. We walked over to the furmah tiles, the raw materials for the mosaic pieces and Abdellah explains that these tiles are molded from a hardy clay from nearby Jebel Ben Jelliq. Once the tiles are fired they can be scored and chiseled to break cleanly along straight lines. From here we move over to the furnaces, two large bi-level clay kilns. “The first floor is hotter–about 1,200 degrees–because that’s what terra cotta tiles need,” says Abdellah. “The second floor is about 980 degrees because that’s what the coloring and glazing require.” The tiles are fired twice; the first time in the hotter, lower furnace after being glazed and a second time in the upper level furnace after one side has been colored. The principal colors are blue from cobalt, green from copper, yellow from cadmium and red from iron oxide. The temperature is increased by feeding the kiln with more olive pomace.
From the furnace we move over to the craftsmen cutting the furmah pieces. Islamic mosaic work is characterized by geometric multiple-point star, medallion and polygonal figures. Start in the center of a multiple-point star pattern and follow one of the lines radiating outward until your eyes land upon a satellite star figure. From there follow any of its lines and you’ll find yourself in the center of yet another multiple-point star pattern and on and on. This subliminal sensation of movement is what gives the geometric designs their sense of life. Islamic art forbids figures or likenesses, so its artisans have focused on creating stunning graphic and geometric shapes and patterns. We watch craftsmen carefully chip away with hammers at tiles pieces, against an iron anvil and occasionally a terra cotta surface for the more delicate and detailed work. The men working are paid by the shape and in a good day they can churn out over a hundred mosaic pieces. Once the tiny pieces are cut and arranged into beautiful geometric patterns, they are placed face down on the ground. The flat surface keeps the faces of fountains and the tops of tables flat as the patterns are held together with a sand-lime or cement mixture and allowed to dry upside down.
The cycles of creation and destruction and re-creation of zellij are time consuming and therefore make it a relatively expensive art form. From the elements of earth, water, and fire furmah tiles are created, only for craftsmen to slowly and skillfully destroy each one. From here it is the zellij designers who re-create, putting the pieces together upside down in brilliant geometric patterns. It is only when the entire process is finished –creating, destroying, re-creating –and the surface has been dried and turned over, can one appreciate the stunning work.
You can purchase zellij tile work and pottery from the Poterie De Fes factory, in the Quartier de Poterie in Fes, Morocco. Their French-language web site is at www.poteriefes.ma