A Brief History of Moroccan Zellij and Uzbek Lusterware: From Ancient Egypt to Fes and Samarkand
In the Maghreb, the term “zellij” refers to glazed ceramic, which is, in fact, ceramic coated with glass. In Morocco, the local term for ceramic refers to glazed pottery with painted decoration without the application of mosaic art. This can cause some confusion in understanding the history of this industry. Technically (academically), ceramic is pottery fired at high temperatures, making it resistant to heat and corrosion, regardless of the form of decoration. Moroccan zellij, therefore, is a mosaic made of ceramic. However, the contemporary term zellij carries broader and more profound meanings, encompassing the arts of mosaic, Arabic ornamentation, and Islamic decoration. In the eastern Arabian world, glazed pottery is referred to as lusterware.
The invention of faience (lusterware) first occurred in Egypt around 6000 years ago. Glass and glazing techniques were developed in the Levant region when it was under the rule of the Phoenician Arabs around 3500 years ago, and the Egyptians subsequently applied these techniques to pottery. Egyptian ash-glazing technology then spread to China around 3500 years ago, giving birth to porcelain, the art of Chinese ceramics. Egyptian blue-glazing technology traveled to Samarkand and Babylon between 3500 and 3000 years ago, giving rise to the art of blue Turkish and Babylonian mosaics.
Tunisia introduced Egyptian blue-glazing technology into the Islamic decorative art of ornamentation around 1100 years ago, leading to the creation of Moroccan zellij. During the Almohad Caliphate, schools for zellij were established in the cities of Fes and Marrakesh, where Moroccan zellij, known as Fassi zellij, was developed. Moreover, during the Almohad Caliphate, Fassi zellij technology was transferred to Andalusia, resulting in the evolution of Andalusian zellij.
Between Zellij and Mosaics
Some people from the Arab Maghreb often conflate the history of mosaic art with the history of zellij. Zellij is indeed a type of mosaic, but not all mosaics are zellij. The history of mosaics predates the invention of glazed tiles.
The history of mosaics spans thousands of years and encompasses a diverse range of cultures and traditions. Mosaics are an artistic technique for creating images or patterns by assembling small pieces of colored materials such as stones, glass, or ceramics. The earliest known forms of mosaics date back to the Sumerian period, around 3000 BCE. The people of Iraq in the Sumerian period used colored stones, shells, and pearls to decorate the walls of temples and palaces. These mosaics were relatively primitive and undeveloped compared to later developments.
In later periods of Mesopotamian history, the use of mosaics continued and their techniques evolved. For example, during the Babylonian period (1894–539 BCE), royal palaces were adorned with mosaics made from colored and glazed bricks. Famous examples include the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, now located in Berlin, which was decorated with mosaics of blue and gold glazed bricks featuring dragon and lion statues.
In the Assyrian Empire period (2500–612 BCE), mosaics were used to decorate palaces and portray religious, military, and everyday life scenes. Marble, alabaster, and colored stones were used to create three-dimensional and detailed designs. After the fall of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, the use of mosaics declined in Mesopotamia. However, the influences of mosaic techniques and decorations from that region continued to impact the arts in neighboring areas.
This included the continued development of mosaics in various Phoenician lands, both in the east and west, reaching as far as Britain, where the world’s largest mosaic is located. It is a Roman-era mosaic called the “Great Pavement,” situated at the site of the Roman villa of Woodchester near St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England. Discovered in 1939, this mosaic covers an area of approximately 232 square meters.
Before the Romans, the Phoenician Arabs greatly contributed to the development and dissemination of mosaic arts in the Arab Maghreb, as mosaics were a hallmark of Phoenician architectural styles. Their state, Carthage, made contemporary Tunisia one of the world’s largest mosaic exhibitions. Tunisia is an important site for a vast collection of stunning mosaic works that reflect the region’s history and various dominant cultures, including Phoenician, Roman, and Byzantine.
This vast legacy continued to evolve in African (Maghreb) heritage, leading to the well-known zellij of today, as well as Uzbek blue faience. Both Moroccan zellij and Uzbek blue faience rely on a profound understanding of mathematics and engineering, requiring high levels of expertise in chemistry to transform zircon (zirconium silicate) into ageless ceramic tiles. Here are the details of the story, starting from the beginning.
From Egyptian Pottery to Faience
Ceramics were first invented in Egypt approximately 6,000 years ago. However, at that time, they were not glazed with glass but were made of frit; a mixture of clay and crushed natural glass stones before being fired. Later, when the Phoenician Arabs, who inhabited what is now the Arabian Peninsula, northwest Syria, and southern Turkey, managed to melt sand and produce pure glass around 3,500 years ago. Egypt adopted this technique to glaze pottery dishes and tools with enamel. Thus, faience (glazed ceramics) was born.
Around the same period, approximately 3,500 years ago, Egypt invented the ash-glazing technique. This Egyptian technique was imported by the Shang Dynasty 商朝 in China and developed over five centuries to produce what is now known as Chinese porcelain or porcelain. This technique is still in use in ancient Egyptian kilns today.
Around the same period, between 3,500–3,000 years ago, the Arab glazing technique was transferred along the Silk Road to the city of Maraqanda (Samarkand) when it was the capital of the ancient Sogdian kingdom. This kingdom was possibly established by the Babylonians or the Third Assyrian State in the 8th century BCE and existed for about 1,700 years between the 6th century BCE and the 11th century CE. However, the people of what is now Uzbekistan did not adopt the Egyptian ash-glazing technique; instead, they used the earlier glazing technique, which is now known by various names, including Syrian blue, Egyptian blue, Nile blue, cerulean, and Damascus blue, although it originated in the Egyptian city of Thinis, not Damascus.
In Iraq, blue-glazed ceramics are known as Karbala’i Kashi, famous in the city of Karbala and used especially in mosques and religious shrines. The name Kashi is derived from the name of a medieval master of this art, Kashani, in reference to the city of Kashan (Kushan) in Uzbekistan. However, this art form in Iraq dates back to the Babylonian era, about 3,500 years ago, and the Ishtar Gate, stolen to Berlin, is evidence of the Iraqis’ expertise in blue-glazed ceramics since ancient times.
The Sogdians used the blue faience technique to decorate temples of lunar worship and Tengri worship, and later for decorating Zoroastrian and Mithraic mosques. After the Sogdians converted to Judaism and then to Islam, blue faience mosaics adorned Jewish temples and Islamic mosques, as well as governmental and educational institutions. Here, the art of tawriq (Islamic ornamentation) was born in Sogdian (or Turkestan or Bukharan) Islamic decoration, parallel to the Maghreb zellij in the Arab Maghreb.
During the Roman and Byzantine periods, the Tunisians developed their own technique for creating mosaics with glazed ceramics instead of stone pieces, calling it Zellij. This was an evolution of the mosaic art that Arabs had excelled at since ancient times, on both the Nabatean and Phoenician banks. This is an important stage in the development of Zellij before the introduction of blue glazing in the Islamic art world.
In the early centuries AD, instead of stone pieces, glazed ceramics began to be used in mosaic works in multiple regions around the world. One of the regions that had a significant influence on the development of glazed ceramics in mosaics was the Roman Empire. This practice spread to various areas under Roman control, such as Italy, Anatolia, the Levant, North Africa, and other Mediterranean regions.
Roman mosaics used glazed ceramics, in addition to colored stones and colored glass pieces, to create intricate and innovative designs. These artworks adorned floors, walls, and ceilings, reflecting the artistic and technical skills of mosaic makers in the Roman era.
One of the sites containing the oldest glazed ceramic mosaic work is the archaeological site of Ercolano in southern Italy, which was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Numerous mosaic works in Ercolano employ glazed ceramic pieces and colored glass pieces.
During the 10th century AD and the life of the Fatimid state in Tunisia, the Arabs introduced glazing techniques in the Islamic ornamentation of the walls of the Mansouriya palaces. The city of Mansour bin Nasrullah Ismail bin Mohammed bin Obaid Allah, and the capital of the Fatimid caliphate. Tunisian architects at the time named this tile Zellij because the foot and hand slide on it and slip quickly.
A baptismal font in the diocese of Béjaïa in central-eastern Tunisia, crafted with Zellij technique, dates back to the 3rd century AD. It is called Zellij in Tunisian dialect as Zliz or Jliz, depending on the region. This is an important stage in the development of Zellij before the introduction of blue glazing in Tunisian art. Updated versions of it can be found in the Mansouriya palaces dating back to 1000 AD.
Tunisian architects widely used the Zellij technique during the construction of the Mahdia city and established schools for its preservation and continuity under the rule of the Zirid princes. Later, the Hammadids in Algeria used the Zellij technique to decorate their fortress in the early 11th century. The Almohad Caliphate also adopted Zellij and established schools for it in the cities of Fez and Marrakesh. The term Zellij no longer referred only to the glazed ceramic surface but also to a specific pattern of Islamic ornamentation based on mosaics, which spread and continued to evolve throughout the cities of the Maghreb, Andalusia, and West Africa.
In the far west of Morocco, new colors began to appear in Zellij decorations, such as red, yellow, and bright green, alongside the colors that arrived from Tunisia, including shades of blue and green. The new Fez colors were sensitive and difficult, only possible to produce with the development of special new furnaces capable of lowering the temperature and maintaining stability to prevent the combustion of the metals in these colors.
Iranian-Turkistan Glazed Tilework
This mihrab, niche, or niche was made in 1354 in the city of Isfahan, Iran, and was located in the Imam University Mosque (University) in the Arabian Jubara neighborhood in the old city. It is made of blue glazed tile interlaced with a stunning geometric mosaic.
The decorations on this exquisite mihrab contain verses from the Surah of Repentance and noble Hadiths in Kufic script, along with inscriptions in an attributed script. The result is one of the oldest and best surviving examples of glazed mosaic art: zellij. The colors used in this mihrab are turquoise blue, cobalt blue, milky white, brownish yellow (which mostly leans towards brown), and dark green. It is crafted in the Eastern Zellij School, which began in the early 14th century in Shem, Tabriz, and Sultaniyeh. This same school was adopted by the Timurid state to develop its architectural styles in Central Asia.
At that time, the city of Isfahan was under the rule of the Turkish Jalayirid dynasty, which ruled most of ancient Iraq from Baghdad, both its western and eastern parts (Arab and Ajam). However, most of the eastern part remained under the rule of the Mongol Chuopanid princes for a period. The Jalayirid era saw a widespread interest in arts and creative industries, particularly architecture, which was state-funded. This family worked to revive the ancient Iraqi-Arab architectural arts (which were disrupted by the Mongols), and their era is considered the true cradle for the birth of what is called today “Iranian Art” or “Modern Persian Art.”
In the late 1920s, the mihrab was moved to Philadelphia in the United States, where it was stored in the University Museum until the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased it in 1939 and moved it to New York.
Both Moroccan zellij and Uzbek blue glaze rely on a profound understanding of mathematics and engineering in their compositions, and require high expertise in chemistry to transform zirconium silicate (zircon) into ageless ceramic tiles. This was a brief story of zellij.