I challenge any traveler to return from their holiday in Morocco without at least one piece of Fez pottery. It is impossible not to be drawn to the graphic lines and colorful arabesques. The careful craftsmanship of this pottery and its decoration is happily on display — seemingly on every corner.Of all the ceramics found in Morocco, Fez pottery really stands apart in terms of both quality and design. In most medinas you will find shops that sell ceramics and then you will find shops that sell Fez (or perhaps more properly, Fassi) ceramics. This distinction will be pointed out as a matter of pride and will be reflected in the price. No visit to Fez is complete without a trawl around a pottery workshop where you can see the production and decoration process firsthand. There is a sort of sensory overload that most people experience when shopping in Morocco. There is often just so much on display! As you step over a pile of poufs to nimbly sift and sort your way through a teetering tower of those mini tajines, it is too easy to forget that all of the pottery you see is still handmade, on the wheel, by a master potter. Methods and machinery have remained unchanged over the generations. Just to make a single bowl, someone had to take the time to prepare the clay, throw the bowl, dry the bowl in the sun, and then painstakingly hand paint the entire thing before firing it not once, but twice!
A Short History of Fez Pottery
Pottery and ceramics in Fez trace their influences and origins to as early as the Phoenicians. However, the ceramic tradition that we identify as most typically from Fez today has clear roots in the period around the late 15th century during Spain’s Reconquista. This was a period when Arabs and Jews were forced out of Andalucía. Many of the artisans and craftsman who had worked on projects like the Alhambra in Granada and learned the craft of glazed ceramics in Cordoba, gravitated to Fez, a bustling, wealthy city. The combination of the skill and techniques of Andalusian Arab artisans along with a wealthy merchant class with disposable income, all led to the establishment of the ceramic tradition of Fez pottery that remains there to this day. Fassi ceramics are shaped as much by the local geography as by Fez’s rich history. The local clay found around Fez is fine in texture and predominantly grey (as opposed to the terracotta tones found further south). The color and texture of the clay has directly impacted the design. As it dries, the natural grey tones of the clay lighten in color making it the perfect blank canvas for the white glaze and cobalt decoration. The natural mineral content of the clay surrounding the city, along with a relatively low amount of impurities, means it is suitable for finer work and is more durable once fired. The high firing temperature also means it can usually withstand the more modern rigors of microwaves and dishwashers – always a bonus! Fez pottery is covered with a white glaze and decorated in a cobalt blue once the clay has been processed, thrown, and dried in the sun. It is this rich cobalt blue — an oxide of cobalt and copper — that has become known as le Bleu de Fès. This characteristic blue also has its roots in the geography of the region. It can be found in local stones and mineral rocks in the surrounding riverbeds. While commercial glazes are now far more easily available and imported, it is nice to know that the tradition is firmly rooted quite literally in the earth around the city. The addition of a double firing process brought to Fez during the Reconquista resulted in stronger, brighter colors. Le Bleu de Fès ceramics quickly became the “must have” items for any fashionable 15th century household in Fez… and beyond!
Fez Pottery: Design and Decoration
Design and technique tends to be regional for all of the crafts you’ll find in Morocco. You can tell where a carpet is made, a blanket woven, and a pot thrown by looking at colors, techniques and motifs. In addition to regional variations, there is a clear urban and rural divide. Rural ceramics, such as the famous green pottery of distant Tamegroute, are often a lot more utilitarian while urban designs more decorative. Rural designs are often more influenced by Berber and Amazigh traditions while urban designs by Arab and Andalusian motifs. Fez pottery clearly falls into the urban category with intricate shapes, designs and decorative flourishes. It is a wonderful example of the heritage of Islamic art in Morocco with its Moorish-Spanish influences. Although the tradition of decoration in Fez pottery is clearly influenced by the intricate motifs and arabesque patterns of Andalucía, there are also elements of a crossover where you see the lines and patterns of traditional Amazigh decorative design being included in the vocabulary of the potters surface design, with refined cross-hatching and repeat patterns using diamonds and triangles, zigzags and crosses in the surface pattern. Tall storage urns, a staple of Fez pottery with utilitarian origins in design, are now seen as purely decorative pieces. You will also find highly decorated tajines, used for serving this mouthwatering Moroccan staple, but notably not used for cooking. Traditionally, Fassi potters were known for their highly decorative tableware so you will see every bit of available space in a shop adorned with plates, with bowls, mint tea cups and tajines filling in the gaps. But like all businesses, the potters have also been influenced by contemporary design (and maybe just a bit of Pinterest!) so you will find bolder shapes and designs in the mix as the traditions evolve and respond to the market. Once painted the artist often signs his work. In addition to his name, he will generally write some form of the city name of Fez. Depending on the artisan, you can find Fès or Fas or Fez or the Arabic — ??? — beneath most piece of Fez pottery. So if you want to check to see if your piece of pottery is from Fez, simply turn it upside down!
Fez Pottery: A Living Tradition
Both the throwing of the ceramics and the intricate hand painting and design knowledge are skills that are handed down from generation to generation, with the art of ceramics being traditionally a family affair. Although this is changing as options and opportunities open up to young Moroccans and the lure of a different career path is brighter than that of the potter’s wheel. However there is also more recently a recognition of the value of these skills with schools in places like the Royal Artisan School in Tetouan ensuring that a younger generation is taught the complex geometry and design that is hand painted in fine brushstrokes across the surface of a bowl or a tajine. So remember, when you are packing your bags to go home, leave a little space for some Fez pottery . . . And on a more practical note, in my experience a leather pouf and a kaftan or two make the perfect wrapping to ensure that these pieces of pottery reach their destination intact! Many shops are happy to ship directly to your home, as well. This is perhaps the safest, securest way to make sure your new dish set gets home in one piece. Not to mention is will save more than just a little bit of weight and room in your luggage! These are both viable solutions for you as you go about adding a touch of Moroccan design to your home. Pauline de Villiers Brettell is a freelance writer and designer who lives between the UK and Morocco. When in Morocco she is based in the small seaside village of Asilah, and spends time working with local weavers and sourcing textiles in between attempting to grow enough olives for an annual supply of olive oil! She writes about all of these things — the olives, the carpets, and other elements of design inspiration on her blog Tea in Tangier: www.teaintangier.com.