Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1306, (4 - 10 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Glittering letters

Gamal Nkrumah is dazzled by the magnitude, magnificance and grandeur of Islamic calligraphy

Glittering letters
Glittering letters
Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week at the Cairo Opera House Art Gallery, a large collection of calligraphic works showcased the beauty of Arabic calligraphy, writes Nevine Al-Aref. A white horse’s head created in Arabic letters, a contemporary painting with in Kufi handwriting, colourful bird wings drawn in the Naskh style of writing and blue, yellow and red fish on a seabed in Rekaa all testified to the magic of this art. But this is only a fraction of the work of 115 calligraphers from 15 countries participating in the second Cairo International Biennale of Arab Calligraphy Art (CIBACA) – organised by the Cultural Development Fund in collaboration with the Fine Arts Sector, the Foreign Cultural Relations Sector, and the Arabic Calligraphy Syndicate. The event is a celebration of Arabic writing and its creators, and aims to raise international awareness of its beauty, introducing aspects of Islamic civilisation and forms of expression. Cairo, also known as the City of a Thousand Minarets, is well known for its awe-inspiring Islamic architecture, and it is only fitting that it should host such an event too. 

The Islamic line

seraphic, beatific and sublime, Al-Khat Al-Islami, or the Islamic script, is an ancient art. And, Kufic is the most ancient expression of Islamic calligraphy. The script refers to the Mesopotamian city of Kufa on the banks of the River Euphurates. Kufa, reknowed for its turbulent past, and especially the tragic episode in the history of Islam when the Caliph Ali ibn Abn Abu Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Mohamed, was assassinated iwhile performing the dawn prayer in the Grand Mosque of Kufa in 661 AD. Ironically, it was against this murderous backdrop that the alluring art of Arabic calligraphy first blossomed and the captivating script flourished.

The Kufic script with its variegated diversity of classical Arabic calligraphy is considered an innovative landmark of early Quranic calligraphy. Originally, there were no set rules as to the individual calligraphers’ interpretation of the Kufic script. The common denominator was the angular, linear characteristic features of the characters. The Kufic script has survived down the centuries. Individual calligraphers depict characters in myriad methods, ranging from the square “bannai” with brickwork ingeniously using colored bricks to spell out words inserted between the bricks to create the desired sacred inscriptions invariably spelling out the names of Allah, Mohamed and Ali on mosques and religious shrines to the highly decorative. 

The appellation “bannai” is derived from the Arabic and Persian “builder’s technique” and denotes the origin of this particular style of Kufic calligraphy. Naskh, a cursive script of Arabic calligraphy coexisted with the Kufic varieties. Naskh is the most ubiquitous among other Arabic calligraphic styles of writing the Quran, and eventually emerged as the podium and plinth so to speak of contemporary Arabic print. Closely associated with Naskh is the majestic Muhaqqaq style used by accomplished calligraphers and considered one of the most elegant of Arabic scripts. 

 In much the same manner, Thuluth, derived from Naskh, is characterized by long vertical lines with broad spacing of letters, and is particularly associated with the decorative aspects of scriptural masterpieces. Thuluth contrasts sharply with Riqaah, a script that stresses short strokes.

Diwani is the calligraphical style most favoured by the Ottoman Turks. It was invented by calligrapher Housam Roumi, a Byzantine as his name suggests, and reached its zenith during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–1566).

Nastaliq, a term gleaned from the Arabic and Persian “Taaliq”, or “Hanging Letters” and is believed to be devised for writing the Persian script. Nastaliq calligraphy is characterized by short vertical strokes simultaneously contrasting with broad and sweeping horizontal strokes. Mir Emad Al-Molk Qazvini Hassani (1554-1615) is the most celebrated Persian calligrapher who adapted the Arabic script to suit the Persian language and attune to the Persian tongue. 

Anomalies abound in Arabic calligraphy. Sini calligraphy is an Arabic script heavily influenced and inspired by Chinese calligraphy. Sini calligraphy deploys horsehair brush to replace the traditional Arabic standard reed pen. And, yet another unique and not uncommon Arabic mode of script is zoomorphic calligraphy portraying patterns employing animal imagery in a most intriguing stylistic genre. 

The origins of the Arabic script are rather obscure. Ancient Canaanite and Aramaic Nabatean inscriptions dating back to the 14th Century BC. This particular script was first developed in the Levant and the northern reaches of the Arabian Peninsula. It differs considerably from the South Arabian script. Yet, it was under non-Arab peoples that the Arabic calligraphy bloomed. 

The fanfare surrounding this oddity was most obvious during the Persian Safavic Dynasty in contemporary Iran (1502-1736) and the Turkish Ottoman Dynasty (1444-1923 AD). Safavid and Ottoman calligraphy masterpieces have haunted the Arab world’s image of itself ever since the inception of Islamic calligraphy. 

Yet, the we-are-there immediacy and tenacity of the Arabic speaking world’s calligraphy lingered on. Egypt’s first museum of Arabic calligraphy was officially inaugurated last year, on 22 August 2015 to be precise, in Egypt’s second largest city, the Mediterranean port of Alexandria. The Museum of Arabic Calligraphy, Alexandria, is located in the port-city’s scenic seaside Muharram Bey district. The museum was conceived as an integral part of the Hussein Sobhy Museum of Fine Arts, Muharram Bey. 

Designed as a depository of the arts and aesthetics of Arabic calligraphy with the onus on the contribution of Egyptian calligraphers, the museum is home to an idiosyncratic and unique collection of Arabic manuscript masterpieces of different ages, medieval and modern. 

Last, but not least, was Muhammad Kamal Hosni Al Baba (1894-1969) was an exceptionally talented Egyptian calligrapher of Kurdish origin who surpassed the medieval Thuluth pioneering masters of calligraphy. One cannot but end with one of most outstanding contemporary calligraphers of all time, the Egyptian master calligrapher Khudair Al-Borsaidi. 

add comment

  • follow us on