The art of zellij first appeared in the 8th century in Al-Andalus during the Umayyad Khalifa Abderuhman Adakhil. It was introduced to Morocco in the 10th century with two colors only: black and white. As a matter of fact, the use of zellij was very limited during the first Moroccan dynasties and only during the Merinids did this beautiful decorative art reach a high level of creativity in design as well as the use of new colors such as the blue, the green and the honey color. Both Al-atareen and Al-buanania historical schools in Fes testify to this particular period. Zellij was further developed after the Merinids with the creation of new gorgeous patterns and the use of new colors such as the red in the 17th century. Nowadays, the number of creative zellij patterns cannot be limited and the number of colors used is more than twenty.
The production and the assembly of zellij in Morocco is mainly concentrated in Tetouan and Fes. Fes is considered to be the capital of zellij par excellence and from which this industry spread to other parts of the country. In so saying, this section focuses on how the zellij is made in Fes and pointing out to the slight differences which distinguish it from Tetouan.
The production process begins with bringing lumps of clay from nearby quarries and putting them in specific basins called ezouba where they will be immersed in water for, at least, 24 hours. Ezouba can be rectangular or circular in shape and it is usually paved with cement. The 24-hour bath is followed by the process of cleaning the clay from the impurities until it becomes smooth and wieldy for kneading. After kneading, the clay takes a sunbath in small rectangular pieces which are formed in a mold. When dried, the clay is cut into square pieces of 10 cm x 10 cm, called laajoura, using traditional tools such as lkala, jalada and jenwi before they are put in the oven for the first time. This process is slightly different in Tetouan; the kneaded clay is cut into cubes and then into various geometric or floral forms and patterns using iron or wood molds. These pieces are naturally dried up for about two days in the warm weather and seven days in the cold weather before putting them in the oven under a very high temperature which reaches 1500 degrees Celsius. After taking them out of the oven, the forms and patterns are painted and become ready to be installed unlike the zellij in Fes which undergoes a slightly different process, which I will continue to describe in the next paragraph.
The oven constitutes of two levels: Essgen or the lower level, where the fire is, and the upper level where laajouras are laid out in a way that allows heat to reach all of them. This process is called etedwar. After etedwar, the square pieces are taken out of the oven ready for the next phase; that is to say, painting. The process of painting takes place at the house of leekama where a person called zuwaak prepares the needed colors, especially the white, the blue, the green and the red from which other colors can be derived. The colors of zellij in Tetouan are characterized by the strong presence of the dark green in comparison with the light one in Fes. It is important to point out that the process of preparing colors is still performed in a traditional manner which involves mixing lead and an alloy called esbeeka under a very high temperature that reaches 2000 degrees Celsius. When painted, the square pieces are put back in the oven and their name changes from laajoura to lemzehri. All the aforementioned techniques which start with cleaning the clay and ends with paining the square pieces are performed by the fekhar who hands on the torch to zlayji.
Zlayji, derived from zellij, is a forte which constitutes of three sub-specialties; namely, nekash, ferash and feragh. The nekash, or the carver, takes the square pieces and carve or sculpt out small pieces of different forms and sizes using a sharp tool called lmenkhash. There are about 300 carved forms each of which is called ferma (pl. lfrem) and each ferma has its own name and its own place in a particular pattern. The ferash takes these frem and lays them out on the ground before placing each one in its exact place within the specified pattern. The feragh does the same job but the only difference is that this latter needs to produce the designated pattern in the workshop first before installing it elsewhere. To do so, he builds a very smooth and flat area using cement, plaster, or marble on which he draws the exact pattern with the exact dimensions, which he has to prepare before on a cardboard. He then proceeds with placing each ferma in its place in the pattern; Interestingly enough, the placement process is done upside down; that is, the painted face of each ferma is placed facing the ground from the center to the margin. After laying out all the pieces, the feragh starts spraying water and cement as a first step and then a mixture of cement and sand or other sticky substances in order to get a final panel ready to be installed.
The installation process is performed in two-steps. The first is temporary and aims at balancing the wall or the floor with the panel which is going to be installed. This should be done with utmost precision using a special ruler called rkaab. In the second step, the zlayj ifixes the panel on the wall or the floor with cement in between. The last process is called etenbal which aims at finalizing the pattern when installed and remedying the lapses that might have occurred during the process of laying out the frem upside down.