Unless you have been fortunate enough to visit the exotic Kingdom of Morocco, you probably have not heard the names zellige and bejmat. That, however, is set to change, as these extraordinary handmade tiles are becoming one of the most popular styles of tiles on the market. Zellige tiles have an irresistible charm due to their uniqueness. No two tiles are exactly the same, and when laid together they have an exquisite irregular texture and feel. The colours are vibrant, yet subtle, and the slight variations in the hues create a warm and welcoming overall effect.
Where are zellige tiles from?
Zellige and Bejmat tiles are both handcrafted traditional Moroccan tiles. The name Zellige comes from the Arabic word, and these tiles are also known as zelige or Zellij. In Morocco, the fabulous mosaic work that decorates many of the mosques and palaces are made of zellige. They can also be seen on walls, floors, ceilings, pools, fountains, and entranceways of other important buildings. Zellige tiles date from the 10th century. Each of these tiny tiles is individually hand-cut from a terracotta tile. This intricate Islamic art form is characteristic of traditional Moroccan architecture, but now, zellige tiles are gracing and embellishing modern homes around the world. From backsplashes to bathrooms, zellige and bejmat tiles are appearing in the most discerning homes.
Zellige can come in many different forms to create traditional geometric designs. Making and laying this type of zellige requires great expertise and skill. The art of making zellige tiles is passed on by master craftsmen called maâlems. Sadly, the young people enrolling in the artisan schools to learn this ancient art form has dropped in recent years. Hopefully, the current increase in the interest and demand for these beautiful tiles will see a resurgence of interest in youngsters to learn the trade.
What makes zellige tiles special?
Modern zellige is still made in the same traditional way. Small squares are now the most commonly found form, but zellige can be cut into any shape desired. Natural clay is mixed with water and shaped by hand into tile moulds. These then dry in the sun before being fired in a kiln. Olive pits are frequently used in the firing as wood is scarce around Fez where the best clay is found. The clay for zellige tiles should not contain iron or lime as these could damage the tile. After firing, a shiny, coloured enamel glaze can be applied by hand to the font of the tiles. Zellige tiles measure 10 cm by 10cm and are 1.1cm thick. Bejmat tiles are a sturdier form of zellige tile which can be used for flooring. Bejmat tiles are oblong in form and measure 14cm by 5cm and are 2cm thick. Bejmat tiles are frequently left without glaze or have a less dense layer of glaze applied.
Each zellige tile is a unique individual, and together they create an almost living effect. The edges are not completely straight, the surface is not totally flat, some corners may be rounded, there are colour variations and other charming unique irregularities. In these modern times where everything is mass-produced and “perfect,” these traditionally handcrafted Moroccan zellige tiles are like a breath of fresh air. For some, these quirks may be seen as imperfections or even flaws, but, for more and more people the charm of Zellige tiles is becoming irresistible.