Travel . . . Passport to Our World
Nilanjana Bose is a market researcher and a bi-lingual writer. She has published a collection of short fiction, and is working on her second book. Her pieces have also been published in Anandalipi, a US based journal. She is from India, but has lived and worked in various locations in the Middle East and Africa, as well as traveling beyond.
Moors and Mosaics
see a world in a grain of sand
~ William Blake.
On a riverbank in North India is the resplendent marble mausoleum of an important Mughal courtier, the father-in-law of a Mughal Emperor and the Lord Treasurer, “the Pillar of the State”. Designed by the legendary Nur Jahan for her parent, it is said to have inspired the Taj Mahal a few years on. The tomb is embellished heavily with marble inlays and mosaics, in the characteristic geometric, recurring patterns that have surrounded me in one way or another for years now, all my life really. I honestly can’t recall visiting that monument, though I have been to that city several times. Decades later however, I come across an entrance flanked by double symmetrical arched alcoves in an old Mamluke era merchant inn in Cairo, the Wikala al Raba’a; the niches are clad sumptuously with Moorish zellije mosaic-work. It does more than ring just one bell. Turns out that the Moroccan zellije is a close descendant of the Persian mosaic-work the Mughals favored so much that they got special craftsmen from there to execute the designs on their buildings.
All Islamic art and architecture and design-craft build upon a couple of core religious principles – shun portrayals of faces and forms that might have even a whiff of idolatry; and secondly, use art as a tool of mysticism and spirituality. Art for its own sake, painting or sculpture say, is not considered the noblest form of art in Islam. The noblest is that form which exalts the absolute unity of God, the principle of tawhid, and expands the collective human understanding of the Infinite. The rhythms of nature, the balance of the universe, the cycles of seasons, day and night, birth and death, are each a divine sign. And so the Islamic artforms in general, and zellije in particular, are abstract and/or repetitive - lines combine to form patterns, patterns combine into modules, modules repeat and morph into motifs that seem to endlessly recur even after they physically end, mimicking and extolling the infinite. Sufism in particular has had a connection to these artforms as a way both to express and explore mystical thought in physical terms. The geometry of the circle - “the music of the spheres” - has always had a tantalizing fascination for all cultures from the earliest times. Abstract geometric patterns had already existed in Greek, Roman and pre-Islamic Persian civilizations, Islamic artisans came along and cherry-picked for their own certain elements and gave them a special, superbly creative twist. Literally.
The Pot Names the Culture Black
The richly decorated and sophisticated Islamic ceramics essentially developed out of the need to replace gold/silver drinking and dining vessels used by the elite in ancient Rome and Persia, as the Hadiths (Islamic code of ideal practices) forbid the use of precious metals. Note that unglazed pottery containers outnumbered the fine ceramics by vast quantities at all times in all ancient civilizations. As items of daily use by common people; as containers for oils and wines and cheeses. Pottery – glazed or plain, vessels, tiles or figurines – have a special place in understanding history as they are the most common objects found in archeology. Pots were cheap, throwaway packaging of olden times; unlike metals and glass, they couldn’t be melted down and reused, so there the broken shards remain; underground or on it, as quiet witnesses to how people ate and drank and decorated their homes, with whom they traded what products. So much so that the type of pottery lends its name to ancient cultures all over the world – “Black and Red Ware Culture”, “Linear Pottery Culture”, “Banshan Pottery Culture” are just few examples among many.
continued . . . .
Moroccan zellije was first developed around a thousand years ago – the Almoravid rulers introduced these mosaic tiles to embellish their palaces and state buildings in their capital Marrakesh as they established their newly formed empire in mid-11th century. The use of zellije remained limited for the next two centuries, barring small changes, as dynasties rose and fell in Morocco/Andalusia. The color palette was broadened under Merinid rulers in the 13th century and the zellije mosaics reached unsurpassed artistic heights in Moorish Spain, in the buildings of Granada and Cordoba, by the mid-14th century, broadly mirroring the changes in Islamic art and architecture elsewhere. In this respect, the zellije is a historical and architectural record of the ruling dynasties and Moorish culture. Moorish architecture also retained its non-Arab, North African nomadic Berber antecedents. Unlike the rest of the Islamic world where the architecture is more rounded, Moroccans have retained the harder, straighter lines. The mosque minarets for instance are based on straight line flat façade cuboids rather than cylindrical towers that are common elsewhere.
A Fiddly Science and Art
There is of course nothing novel about mosaics nor are they exclusive to Moroccans. The first mosaics were made millennia ago in the ancient world, in fact there are complex Roman mosaics in Volubilis itself, the ruined site of a Roman settlement not too far from Fez. But the Moorish tradition of zellije has elevated mosaic making into simultaneously spectacular and self-effacing. It’s a demanding craft requiring years of training and skilled, complex execution; lessons begin in childhood, tile-making is still very much a skill and livelihood passed on from one generation to the next in the workshops. These masterpieces of endlessly repeated geometrical pattern of eye-popping intricacy are made jointly, with no one artist claiming ownership, nor is it hugely rewarding materially for the craftsmen, though skilled craftsmen are appreciated and sought out by aficionados of the art. The end-product however, remains a relatively expensive luxury item limited to affluent clients. The work is risky, glazes as well as the kilns fired with the traditional olive press waste, generate hazardous effluents; there are attempts afoot to change to more eco-friendly options. All in all, it doesn’t seem such a glamorous way of earning a living as something this beautiful should be.
The process of mosaic making itself is long and incredibly fiddly, science, art and inspiration combined in equal measures. The base tiles are made, glazed and fired in a range of colors, and then shaped into the polygonal tesserae with a tool called menqash, a hammer-chisel hybrid which the master cutter (the nakash) uses. It demands an incredible level of skill with the menqash, a large and heavy cutting tool wielded with the dexterity and lightness of touch as though it were a paintbrush to precisely cut out exact shapes the size of a fingernail. The tesserae or furmah in Arabic are unevenly beveled so that the back surface is smaller than the front to allow for grouting space. There are thousands of shapes and sizes of the furmah that are used, their evocative names taken from the number of points that form the “star” or, for the organic shapes, from objects of close resemblance. So we get names like ithnashari or 12-pointer, ashrini or 20-pointer, mi’yini the 100-pointer which is a misnomer – it actually has only 96 points, as the number of points in this sequence must be divisible by 6 for the pattern to be symmetrical. There are star sequences based on five and eight as well. Then there are the non-stellar shapes - the triangles, lozenges, bottleneck, duck, comb, bracelet, hand and a million others of mind boggling variety. A small, wall mounted fountain for instance might require 5000 pieces, in 3 dozen different shapes and a dozen different colors. Once the furmah are cut and bagged, the actual mosaic is built up piece by single piece.
Each piece is placed face down in a frame, starting from a central star/polygon and radiating out to form the pattern. The tile-layer or designer (the ferash) assembles the whole design if it is small, or in parts if the zellije is required for something large like a fountain, using suitable moulds to shape the curved sections. The mosaic is worked without the artisan being able to perform any visual checks on the progress or accuracy of pattern, the pieces must be laid face down to ensure the front face is smooth and level. Not a single mismatch in color, not one wrong placement, otherwise the pieces don’t fit, not the slimmest margin for error. Takes the phrase “working blind” to a whole new level, doesn’t it? Once the mosaic pattern is assembled, it is moistened, overlaid with hemp fibers for grip, and then a proprietary mixture of backing material – cement, gypsum, or some other secret combinations of stuffs unknown, is poured into the frame and left to set. When set, the mosaic or zellije is removed from the frame and taken for installation at the final site. The finished mosaic patterns have delightfully mystical names as well, the Spider’s Den, Clasped Hands, Empty and Full – all seemingly loaded with an evocative meaningfulness for vaguely spiritual gorging.
Reminder of the bigger picture
Many attempts have been made to untangle and get to the basic mathematics involved in the tiling patterns. To figure out if the master craftsmen of ancient times left some kind of written manual, some secret formula that the artisans could follow to generate and innovate on the layouts. The 15th century Topkapi scroll is the only document that has been found which gives partial clues; it outlines some 114 Islamic architectural patterns, some among them the zellije tiling. If other instructions ever existed, they have been lost without trace. Even the most accomplished zellije maalems (masters) base their work on a vast but nevertheless limited empirical knowledge committed only to memory, no one person, however erudite or experienced, has the grasp of the entire range.
Recent, 20th century research has shown these Islamic designers and artisans creating geometric tiled architecture were actually using mathematical concepts half a century before the geometry was formally understood and stated. Roger Penrose, an eminent British mathematician, developed the theory of Penrose tilings in the 1970’s – the way two diamond shaped tiles can combine in patterns to fill up a plane without any single module being repeated. This partially explained the geometry behind zellije mosaic. Much later work has been done based on this to develop tiling, and computer-aided design (CAD) used to innovate on centuries old patterns, even as the tradition of handmade zellije carries on in Morocco. There are modern designers who now use CAD to produce and innovate on the zellije patterns on a huge scale for Islamic themed buildings elsewhere in the world, using robotics to support the execution of what was once done exclusively by hand.
Back at the Wikala, a star radiates into eight points, the strapwork weaves under and over, and leads the eye out from it. And so into the center of another star. The joins swim in and out of view like an optical illusion, like a barely there mirage. The design stands out bold and endless, seems to spill over beyond the niche walls. The outlines of the tiles are lost in the repetitive geometry of starpoints and polygons. The physical object recedes, only the pattern stands out, in bright reds and greens and browns. Indeed a dazzling reminder to overlook the cracks and joints and see the bigger picture. A metaphor for the Infinite, created by a master craftsman one small piece at a time.
01 Barefoot on The Beach.mp3
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