The Moors, a Muslim group, conquered the Christian nation of Spain, and put down roots in the Iberian Peninsula in A.D. 711. The growth of distinctive artistic designs was influenced by both the Islamic and Christian cultures.
While the Christians eventually removed or converted the Moors after the fall of the Moorish Empire in the 15th century, Moors continued to call Morocco home, and North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula (where Spain and Portugal are located) remain excellent places to find examples of Moorish tile and art. As Europeans explored and inevitably brought their culture with them, Moorish tile even found a home as far away as Latin America.
The Iberian Peninsula and Morocco developed their own unique Moorish tile styles, known as zellige tile and azulejo tile. These tile designs drew heavily from older artistic styles but have become well-known in their own right.
The Iberian Peninsula was the center of zellige — a type of tile that drew heavily from Islamic, Roman, and Byzantine tile patterns. The tile first appeared sometime in the 10th century. Zellige means “little polished stone” in Arabic and is characterized by glazed tiles with irregular surfaces generally used to create mosaics with geometric patterns.
Zellige tiles were originally just white and brown, but eventually incorporated blue, green, yellow, and red as their use became a representation of luxury and style.
The Purpose of Zellige Tiles
Pitoreska, a Slovak tile distributor that specializes in culturally traditional tiles, explains that zellige tiles were likely first produced to be used as decorative coverings, as were Greco-Roman mosaics. However, zellige tiles did not depict living creatures because Islamic teachings prohibited doing so. This limitation is believed to be what prompted Muslims to express themselves through the complex geometrical patterns found in zellige tile mosaics.
Each color, shape, and pattern in zellige tile installations had symbolism and meaning to create a composition understood by the Moors. Zellige mosaics were used to cover tombs, baths, fountains, patios, and even entire mosques.
How Zellige Tiles Are Made: Then and Now
Traditional zellige manufacture is considered an art and requires great experience, precision, and patience. Master craftsmen called “Maalam Ferach” pass down the technique from generation to generation, with training beginning in early childhood.
The traditional manufacturing process begins with predrying the clay in a rectangular or square form. The clay is then adjusted and trimmed to the desired shape, dried, hand-glazed, and fired. Only when this process is complete are the distinct shapes cut from the finished tiles.
The mosaics are then assembled upside down as a puzzle, supported using cement, and covered with plaster or mortar so that they can be attached as whole sheets.
This process has remained largely unchanged over centuries, but modern manufactucturing does incorporate some newer practices and technologies. For example, modern manufacturers cut the distinct shapes out of the predried clay rather than the finished tiles, and fire the tiles a second time after glazing for added strength. Modern zellige tiles are also often mounted using a mesh backing.
Zellige Tile Examples
Zellige tiles were particularly common in Morocco. For example, the Madersa Ben Youssef, a Marakesh-based college founded in the 14th century, is richly decorated with zellige tilework, sculptures, and stucco.
Because of tile’s resilience, examples of zellige tiles in Spain are easily available today to study. One excellent example is the Alhambra in Granada, a large complex built by the Moors. Tilework contained the same yellow, green, blue, white, and black colors found at the Medersa Ben Youssef.
Azulejo tile, although a unique kind of tile, was originally an extension of zellige tile. “Azulejo” comes from the Arabic term “az-zulayj,” which (like “zellige”) means “polished stone.” The travel guide, Culture Trip, explains that the Moors brought this term to Spain, and some sources date the use of azulejos as far back as the 13th century, but it wasn’t until after the Christian conquest in the 15th century that azulejos as we know them today were born.
Azulejo tile that was distinct from zellige tile originated in Portugal. When King Manuel I of Portugal visited Spain, he was amazed by the zellige mosaics in the Alhambra and decided to decorate his palace in Sintra in the same fashion. To that end, he imported zellige tiles from Seville.
The first azulejo tiles depicted the same geometric patterns as zellige tiles, but Portuguese painters gradually began incorporating life forms into the designs. The Portuguese have historically used art to tell stories, and so they used azulejo tile to portray historical events and Chritian legends.
Go Lisbon, a guide to Portugal’s capital city, explains that the Great Discoveries (or the “Age of Discovery”) influenced the development of azulejo tile as well. China began exporting its Ming Dynasty porcelain to Europe, causing its blue and white colors to become fashionable in Portugal. As a result, blue and white became the dominant colors of azulejos in the 17th century, replacing the original blue, yellow, green, and white colors.
Large blank walls were common during the Gothic period in Portugal, and as this style became less popular, azulejos were used to cover these bare surfaces. The popularity of azulejo tile peaked in the 19th century, when mass production allowed it to be used for everything from palace and temple walls to residential buildings and staircase risers. Not only decorative, azulejos also served to protect against noise, heat, and damp.
Azulejo Tile Examples
The São Vicente de Fora Monastery in Lisbon, built in 1582, had azulejo tile panels added to its interior and cloisters in the 18th century. Some of those panels depicted scenes from La Fontaine’s “Fables.”
Fronteira Palace is considered one of the best places to see Lisbon tilework, including azulejo tile within the palace and also in the formal gardens. The palace’s Room of Battles, in particular, has been called “the Sistine Chapel of Tilework.”
Stretching Beyond the Atlantic
By chance, the rise of azulejos and zellige tiles coincided with a significant moment in European history: the discovery and settlement of the New World. By the time azulejos reached the New World, additional colors were being implemented, and azulejos began to resemble zellige tiles.
Because azulejos are native to Portugal, the tilework is most common in South American nations that had an early exposure to Portuguese settlers. San Luis, Brazil, for example, is known as “the City of Azulejos” and is home to the largest set of Latin America’s Portuguese architecture, most of which is covered in tiles.
Residents discovered that the tiles help protect the buildings’ facades from damage by the tropical climate and erosive sea air. Tiles in Brazil are also used in other architectural elements, such as water wells.
The influence of Moorish tile in Latin America isn’t limited to Brazil; another famous example is found in La Casa de los Azulejos (The House of Tiles) in Mexico City, Mexico. La Casa de los Azulejos is an 18th-century Baroque palace that used to be the home of the Valle de Orizaba counts, and is covered in multicolored azulejos on three sides. The building has housed a Sanborns restaurant since the early 20th century.
Moorish tile also reached Peru, specifically the Convent of Santo Domingo in Lima. The convent contains five cloisters that are decorated with Sevillian style tiles imported from Spain (the city of Seville was one of the country’s most prominent azulejo manufacturing centers).
Modern Moorish Tile Inspiration
Many zellige and azulejo tile influences can be seen in today’s contemporary home decor, showing limitless options for tile pattern and color combinations that range from simple to complex. Explore our Design Gallery for some ideas for incorporating Moorish style in your home.