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Written in Istanbul: Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy Sheets at the Library of Congress – Part 3

(The following is a post by Muhannad Salhi, Arab World Specialist, Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division. This is the third installment of a three-part series. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.)

One vast area of the Islamic world where Arabic calligraphy would experience the heights of refinement was the Ottoman Empire, which covered wide swaths of the Muslim world. Experiencing a golden age of calligraphy hitherto unknown since the Abbasid era, Ottoman calligraphers adopted Ibn Muqlah’s six styles and elevated them to new peaks of beauty and elegance. This would give rise to the saying that the Qur’an was revealed in Mecca, recited in Egypt, and written in Istanbul. One of the most famous Ottoman calligraphers whose school would prove highly influential with these refinements was Shaykh Hamd Allah al-Amasi (1436-1520). Primarily influenced by the style of the master calligrapher Yaqut al-Mu’tasimi (himself influenced by Ibn Muqlah and Ibn al-Bawwab), Shaykh Hamdullah would go onto refine Ibn Muqlah’s six styles and develop his own style for their execution which became known as the Shaykhi style in differentiation to the Yaquti style of al-Mu’tasimi.

Arabic calligraphy written in gold on blue, red and gold background.

Surat al-Nas and Du’a. c. 1550-1600. Ottoman Naskh. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Often referred to as the father of Ottoman calligraphy, Shaykh Hamdullah would go on to develop his unique spacious and effluent style of naskh, which came to be favored throughout the Islamic world, particularly for copying Qur’ans. Another calligrapher, Hafiz ‘Uthman, (1642-1698), an admirer of the work and style of Shaykh Hamdullah, went on to develop his own improved style of Naskh and Thuluth, which would gain wide acclaim and would even rival the style of Shaykh Hamdullah in the centuries to come. Hafiz ‘Uthman is also credited with developing the template for the ornamental hilyah (or hilye in Turkish) which, among other things, would become the classical approach to page design.

Hilye or calligraphic panel mounted on a wooden panel, with a physical description of the Prophet Muhammad.

Hilye mounted on a wooden panel by Dihya Salim al-Fahim. 1130/1718. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

While elevating the six standard to scripts to new heights, distinctly Ottoman styles would develop in the Ottoman Empire; examples include Jali, Diwani, Diwani-jali, and Tughra’i.

Jali: Initially used by the Anatolian Seljuks, this script would be refined by the Ottomans in the 15th century, acquiring a distinctive uniquely Ottoman form. Jali would eventually be superseded by other more refined scripts.

Diwani: As the name would suggest, this script refers to the official Ottoman chancery and was therefore favored for writing official court documents. A highly structured, extremely cursive, stylized script, Diwani was written with undotted letters often unconventionally joined together. Somewhat difficult to read, let alone forge, this script proved perfect for official and confidential documents. Its invention has been attributed to the well-known Ibrahim Munif in the 15th century, himself influenced by the Persian Ta’liq style. This script would also be refined by the famous Shaykh Hamdullah.

Diwani-jali: Unlike Diwani, however, this style is highly ornamental and the spaces between the letters are excessively sprinkled with dots, diacritics, and other flourishes, most of which do not serve any real orthographic purpose. The famous Hafiz ‘Uthman is credited with its development and its popularity. Like Diwani, Diwani Jali is also known for the unconventional joining of letters, its beautiful curved script allowing it to form a variety of decorative designs thus rendering it perfect for ornamentation.

Tughra’i: Unlike the other scripts, this highly embellished style was used exclusively for tughras (Sultans’ seals or signatures). Since Orhan I (1284-1359) – the second ruler of the Ottoman Empire, tughras bearing each sultan’s individual signature with its own unique flourish, were used as the sultan’s official seal and coins were minted with it proclaiming his rule. The tughra would continue to evolve until it reached its peak under Sulayman the Magnificent (1494-1566) thus acquiring what was deemed its classical form.

Ottoman Turkish script written on manuscript.

Tughra of Sultan Ahmed III, c. 1700-30 A.D. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

The evolution of Arabic calligraphy under the Ottomans would therefore have a tremendous influence on the style and use of calligraphy in the Islamic world for centuries to come. The Library of Congress has an extensive collection of calligraphy sheets in which most of these styles and others are represented.  This calligraphy sheet collection has been digitized and is available for viewing at the Library of Congress website.

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One Comment

  1. Prof Dr Muhammad Subhan Qureshi
    May 26, 2021 at 2:45 am

    Great service of the Library of Congress in preserving the calligraphy of Ottoman Empire. In fact, the calligraphy mostly represent the holy Qur’anic verses,a source of spiritual inspiration for the Muslim in particular and a common cultural heritage of the Humanity at large.

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