Moroccan pottery Last updated on Thursday 22nd April 2010
Morocco's varied geology and rich mineral deposits make the country one of the world's largest exporters of phosphates. They have also inspired the production of traditional ceramic tiles and pottery -- a craft industry which is still thriving.
There are four main centres for the production of pottery in Morocco. The rich red soil of Wadi Lan in the far north is the raw material for the region's unglazed terracotta pottery, and the prolific pots produced here are much used by the local people as oil lamps, charcoal burners and cooking utensils. The pottery is inexpensive and simple in style, yet completely ovenproof, and large amounts are to be seen on display in tourist areas.
There is a large colony of potters living on the banks of the River Abu Reg Reg in the Rabat region. These potters produce a wide variety of glazed and unglazed ware, from enormous ornamental garden urns to dinner services and coffee sets. Rabat pottery is greatly influenced in style by the French colonists, and this has resulted in a decline in traditional Islamic designs and shapes, in favour of a more contemporary look.
The Atlantic coastal region is known as Al Jorfal Asfar -- "the Yellow Coast", because of the yellowish clay found there. This is used to make distinctive pottery at Safi, where large quantities of bowls and dishes are produced. Decorations are also distinctive -- graceful, curving black lines, with a greenish-blue over-glaze named "turquoise" by the French.
Fez is famous for the production of its typical blue pottery, known as Fakhari by the locals and Bleu de Fez by the French. Today, Fez is one of the most intriguing cities of the Islamic world, celebrated for its prolific output of hand-crafted items -- leather goods, woolen carpets, carved wood, and gold, brass and silver objects as well as pottery.
Fez is situated in a steep-sided valley and its geological setting provides the basic materials for its ceramics industry. The local clay is quarried from the hills at Bin Jelleih, 7 miles/12km east of Fez. Two different kinds of clay are yielded here. The creamy-yellow clay from the upper strata is used mostly for unglazed pottery, such as storage jars and water cups. Pottery made from the lower-strata clay, however, is first left to dry in the sun before being "biscuit fired" in the kilns. The firing process turns the clay white, and it is then ready for decoration.
A wide variety of pots, bowls and dishes are produced in this manner. Their blue-on-white decorations are painted by highly-skilled craftsmen, who have been apprenticed to the trade since boyhood. The youngest apprentices are usually given the simpler painting jobs on the smaller and less expensive objects, such as those destined for hotel use or for the lower range of the tourist trade. Older boys gradually move on to more intricate designs, while the master craftsmen paint the largest and most expensive items with the most intricate designs.
A typical example of these larger vessels is the jebana, traditionally a storage container for cheese, which gets its name from the local soft white cheese known as j'bna. Modern refrigeration has superseded the original use for the jebana, and this dome-lidded vessel has now become a soup tureen, often sold as a set with accompanying small bowls, known as zalafa. During the month of Ramadan, hot soup known as haria is served in these tureens and bowls at sunset, and is used to break the fast.
The predominance of blue in the ceramics and pottery of the Fez region is originally due to the presence of cobalt in the rocks and stones swept down by rivers into the narrow gorge of Wadi Mellih. When ground, certain of these rocks produced beautiful coloured glazes, which were once much prized by the pottery industry. In recent years, however, the traditional and highly-skilled craft of selecting the cobalt-rich rocks has completely died out, and glazes are now imported from overseas, particularly from Germany.
A new government scheme is under way to re-train young Moroccans to find the correct minerals, in a bid to revive this ancient industry.
The bleu de Fez designs are in complex geometric patterns, with strict adherence to the dictates of Islam, which forbids any representation of flowers or animals. Cobalt is used for the blue colouring, yellow is obtained from natural cadmium deposits and copper oxide provides the bluish-green colouring. Artists mix the fine powder ground from these minerals with different amounts of water to obtain different shades of colour. Paintbrushes are made from bamboo and horsehair. Each master craftsman makes his own, buying his own supply of horsehair from the local blacksmith.
In the city of Fez itself, the finest display of pottery is to be found in the Souq Al Henna. Here, visitors can browse and admire a wide variety of bowls, vases, dishes and storage jars, painstakingly crafted and decorated in the age-old tradition of "Moroccan blue".