The Art of Zilij

I was clearing out the cupboard a week or so ago when I came across a twenty-year-old publication in which there was a long and lavishly illustrated article by a much younger me. Having completely forgotten about the piece, I stopped my cupboard clearing, sat down on the sofa and hungrily read it from beginning to end.

Even if I do say so myself, the article was tightly structured, well written and cogently argued. I did not blush with sham or embarrassment at having my name attached to such an eloquent piece. I did have one misgiving, though, which was that I no longer agreed with the main thesis of the piece. The reason for this is that, in the intervening years, new evidence has emerged that has caused me to change my mind on the subject.
Some time or possibly twice during the second quarter of the 14th century, the Great Traveller of Islam, Ibn Battuta, spend time at Qalhat, the large and opulent city situated between Sur and Qurayat that superseded Suhar and preceded Muscat as the principal trading port on the coast of Oman. Ibn Battuta has left us a short account of his visit(s) in his famous Rihla, included in which is this short description of a beautiful mosque he visited at Qalhat:
“Its walls are tiled with qashani, which is like zilij, and it occupies a lofty situation which commands a view of the sea and the anchorage. It was built by the saintly woman Bibi Maryam, bibi meaning in their speech ‘noble lady’.”
The ruins of Qalhat are in Al Sharqiyah North Governorate, not far from Tiwi, though there is little above knee-height left standing in the extensive ruin field. Only one edifice still remains largely intact, a domed chamber (now sans dome) popularly known as the Mausoleum of Bibi Maryam, pictured here. This moniker, though, is a modern construct and is partly based on the fact that this building has a crypt and is therefore assumed to have had a funerary function. Whether or not it was in fact the tomb of Bibi Maryam, the wife of an early 14th century ruler at Qalhat and who herself held sway in the city after his death is a moot, point as there are no surviving inscriptions or records associated with the monument.
In my article of twenty years ago, I argued that Ibn Battuta’s description refers to this building, and not to another, much larger mosque that stood close to the shore at Qalhat but was completely razed by the Portuguese during their devastating raid on the city in 1508 CE. To support my theory, I focused on three elements shared by his description and the so-called Mausoleum of Bibi Maryam, namely its unquestionable beauty, its decoration and its location.
First, anyone with even a modicum of aesthetic sensibility can see that, in its pristine form, the so-called Mausoleum of Bibi Maryam would have been exquisitely beautiful, in terms of its design, proportions and embellishments. Second, we know from fragments found in this ruin that the interior of the building was once lavishly decorated with polychrome lustre tilework from the renowned manufacturing centre of Kashan in northern Iran, commonly known as kashani or qashani. Third, the building is located on the highest periphery of the city, so would have commanded “a view of the sea and the anchorage”.
The fatal weakness in my argument was my failure to address Ibn Battuta’s use of the word zilij. But before I unravel my own argument of yesteryear any further, let’s first remind ourselves what zilij is.
If you have visited the magnificent Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, you will have seen six fine examples of zilij tilework in the north cloister, one of which is shown here. Originating in the area of North Africa today known as Morocco, zilij is a technique of tile decoration which involves cutting pre-fired monochrome tiles of varying colours and laying the cut piece in wet plaster to make elaborate and multicoloured tilework panels. Zilij tilework is quite distinct from panels composed of complete individual monochrome and polychrome tiles typical of qashani.
In the absence of any tilework evidence from Qalhat that could be defined as zilij at the time of writing my article twenty years ago, I foolishly assumed that dear old Ibn Batuta was more ignorant than I of the different techniques of Islamic tilework and had simply just erroneously likened qashani with zilij. Oh, the hubris of some writers!
As it happens, in the interceding years, extensive archaeological excavation has been undertaken at Qalhat under the auspices of the Ministry of Heritage and Culture. One of the sites excavated is that of the Friday Mosque near the seashore that had been destroyed by the Portuguese. Thanks to a dear late friend of mine at that ministry, I was able to visit the dig a few years ago and take a number of photographs. As you can see from one I include here, there is no doubt that the mosque was decorated, at least in part, by monochrome tile fragments set in plaster to form panels of elaborate design, or in other words, zilij.
The likelihood, then, is that Ibn Battuta knew precisely what he was talking about when he used that word in his description of a beautiful mosque at Qalhat, and that the mosque in question was the Jama Masjid by the seashore, not the so-called Mausoleum of Bibi Maryam. Ibn Battuta, I beg your pardon and stand corrected!

Clive Gracey