Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Ceramic tiles are one of the oldest forms of decorative art. Today, ceramic tiles are all around us – in the floors we walk on and the walls that house us.
Whether plain or decorative, ceramic tiles have a long and colorful history.
The Origin of Handmade Ceramic Tiles
The history of ceramic tiles is a long and rich one, dating all the way back to ancient Egypt in 4,000 BC. Egyptian homes were decorated with stunning blue glazed bricks. The same techniques were used in Mesopotamia, with the Ishtar Door of Babylon being one of the greatest examples. The door, once considered one of the wonders of the world, was built in the 5th century BC, and its glazed blue background was adorned with bulls, lions and dragons.
Even before the Egyptians, Mesopotamian temples were decorated with early forms of mosaics dating all the way back to 3,000 BC. These pieces were made from seashells, ivory and stones, and they served as the foundation for the mosaics that emerged thousands of years later in Rome and Greece.
Romans were responsible for bringing ancient tiling techniques to Europe. Techniques were also mastered by the Islamic Empire, the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The Islamic empire inspired widespread use of ceramic tiles as wall coverings.
The silk routes brought Chinese influence to the art of ceramic tiles. Techniques developed by the Uighur people of northwest China would become the standard for tiles in the Middle East and Turkey in the 13th century.
Early tiles have been discovered in Tunisia from the 9th century as well as Kashan Iran from the 11th century. Mosques in the Middle East during the 12th century used colorful tiles to display Koranic scripts.
The Ottoman Empire was known for a special kind of ceramic tile, which originated from a Turkish city called Iznik. Iznik tiles contained stunning shades of red and layers of quartz that gave them a special glow. These unique tiles contained geometric or floral motifs as well as passages from the Koran etched in beautiful Arabic calligraphy.
Iznik tiles were so special, they were used in mosques because they resonated sounds of prayers.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, tiles were used to line church walkways. Dutch tiles came to prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 19th century, Britain began mass-producing ceramic tiles.
While ceramic tiles have a long history, glazing wasn’t introduced until about 2,000 years ago. Historians believe that the first glazes were created in the Middle East, which has rich deposits of potassium and sodium compounds that melt at lower temperatures.
These early glazes were discovered by chance when potters found some clays developed a shiny surface when placed in the fire. These clays were known as Egyptian paste, but because they are so difficult to form, they aren’t useful for creating household items.
Glazing would become more advanced in 1500 BC with the invention of glass. Egypt and the Middle East developed alkali glazes using ash glaze. In China, they were created using feldspar.
Lead glazing was a common practice in 100 BC.Glazed bricks date back to the 13th century and the Elamite Temple in Iran. In China, glazed bricks were used in the creation of the Iron Pagoda in 1049.Natural ash glaze was commonly used during the Kofun period of Japan.
Later in the eighth century, Islamic artists used tin-opacified glazing and opaque glazes.
Ceramic tiles and glazing techniques have been around for centuries, and we continue to improve on techniques and materials as time goes on. But the stunning beauty of decorative tiles has made this a lasting art form that will continue to enjoy a thriving future.