Fez Mozaics

May 27 2014

Dressed in a flowing brown jellaba and peaked gray tarboosh, Abdelatif Benslimane wanders the narrow lanes of Old Fez, his eyes darting from wall to column to fountain, his mouth whispering familiar names. “Fifty points inside eight. Four clasped hands. Spider’s house. Empty and full.” This is not the secret patter of a mystic, but rather the precise terminology of a master craftsman. Benslimane is a ceramic mosaicist, a zlayji in Moroccan Arabic, and these are the names of just some of the many patterns he sees in any short stroll through the old city. Almost erery ceramic and mosaics found in Morocco are produced in Fez. Mosaic work in Morocco is not unique to the Islamic period, and neither is zillij unique to Morocco. Not far from Fez lie the remains of the Roman city of Volubilis, where intricate marble floor mosaics take on myriad forms. Beginning in the mid-llth century, North Africa’s Almoravid rulers, and later the Almohads, introduced zillij to the buildings of their imperial cities in Morocco and Spain. It can still be seen on important dynastic landmarks such as the minaret of the Kutubiyya Mosque in Marrakesh, the Hassan Tower in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville. The pottery quarter, where smoke always lingers on the slopes of the Fez River below the madinah, is located just inside the 18th-century gate called Bab al-Ftouh. Bi-level, beehive-shaped ovens are fueled with faytour, or olive pomace, the pits and dry pulpy material left after olives have been pressed for oil. Faytour burns at an extraordinarily high temperature. Tiles are molded of a special, fine-bodied clay from nearby Jebel Ben Jelliq, which, after being fired, can be scored and struck to break cleanly along straight lines.

The glaze too contains a key local ingredient. A sandy red soil from Meknes is added to recycled battery lead and kiln-baked for two days. Then it is milled into a powdered glazing compound and mixed with water and a pigment. Some pigments are made locally, such as green from recycled copper and dark blue and black from mineral ores, while other, modern colors unknown in older work, such as turquoise, rose and yellow, are imported. The tiles are fired twice, first in the kiln’s hotter lower level before being glazed and again in the upper story after one face has been dipped in a color bath. A single finished square costs the zlayji about 10 cents, but broken pieces, bought at discount prices, will often suffice when the furmah to be cut from the mother tile are small. The next step is to cut the furmah, and this is a two-stage process. Ahmad Burqadi is an independent tile cutter, or nqaash, who frequently fills Benslimane’s larger orders. His workshop is in the old city’s busy Bab al-Khokha quarter, and on this day he and his assistants are cutting furmah called qamarshun, whose shape is a Greek cross with tapered ends, that measure about one centimeter (3/8″) end to end. Burqadi uses a finished qamarshun as a template to ink outlines onto a square mother tile. Striking it with a chisel-headed hammer against his anvil’s steel tongue, he scores lightly along the drawn lines and snaps out the rough shape with his hand. He has cut along sixteen separate edges, and not one has fractured other than where he intended.

He hands the piece off to the finish cutter sitting cross-legged beside him before an anvil with a tongue of terra cotta, which provides the softer striking surface required for the finer end-work. The finisher cleans up the shape and bevels the back side so that only the furmah’s glazed edges will touch when set against another piece. Burqadi and his helper can make several hundred of these shapes per day. More delicate furmah, such as triangled strapwork pieces, take longer and break more often, so about 80 of these is considered a good day’s output. Because many lengths of strapwork are required in any design using that motif, a simple 10-point star pattern—the same one found in the Bou Inaniyya madrasa—would today cost more than $1500 for a single square-meter panel.

© Mazalien 1999 - 2014

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