Journal of Ottoman Calligraphy

Lectures & Editorials on Calligraphy

Archive for March 22nd, 2007

Calligraphy – A Noble Art

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Written by Kamel Al-Baba

In a broad sense, calligraphy is merely handwriting, a means of recording and transmitting information, sometimes clearly, sometimes not, but in most instances hastily and with little regard for its appearance. In the Arab world calligraphy is something more. It is an art—indeed the chief form of visual art—with a history, a gallery of great masters and hallowed traditions. It is an art of grace and elegance which inspires wonderment for its appearance alone.

What distinguishes calligraphy from ordinary handwriting is, quite simply, beauty. Handwriting may express ideas, even great ideas, but to the Arab it must express, too, the richer dimension of aesthetics. Calligraphy to the Arab is, as the Alexandrian philosopher Euclid expressed it, “a spiritual technique,” flowing quite naturally from the influence of Islam.

For thirteen centuries the dominant influence in the Arab world has been the Islamic religion. Its sacred book, the Holy Koran, as the word of God revealed to Muhammad in the Arabic tongue, has inspired generations of calligraphars who have sought to reproduce its words with a perfection of style worthy of its contents. Islam has exerted also a more subtle, a more indirect influence on the development of calligraphy: by discouraging the graphic representation of human beings and animals it channeled the creative energies of Muslim artists toward other decorative arts, especially calligraphy. Because the Koran itself has always been the most widely owned and widely read book in the Muslim world, the incentive to produce beautiful transcripts of the work has been powerful and constant. And because the final product was portable and relatively durable, the art acquired status among a people with nomadic origins.

Historians disagree on both the birthplace and the birth date of Arabic writing, but the most widely accepted theory is that it developed from Nabataean, one of the many west Aramaic dialects which served as the international language of the Middle East from about the 4th century B.C. until the 7th century A.D. In that period, however, the vigorous tide of Muslim expansion flooded the Middle East, and the Arabic of the Arabian Peninsula quickly supplanted Aramaic as the lingua franca of the area. So thorough was the Arab conquest of the vast Nabataean empire that today only the “rose-red city” of Petra remains, the silent tomb of a city in the Jordanian desert.

Of the two styles of Nabataean script—Early and Late—the Early style is characterized by its angularity and straight strokes; it is the precursor of kufic script. The Late style developed from commercial need. The Nabataean nation, astride the crossroads of the Orient, required a fast, flowing writing style to record its transactions, and the smooth and cursive naskhi was the natural result. The kufic and naskhi styles were the first to be used by the ancient Arabs. For inscriptions on stones, kufic script proved to be at once the easiest to incise and the most majestic in appearance. The impressive style was carried over to record sacred works on parchment.

As the oldest Arabic script, kufic was used during the early Islamic period for copying the Koran. But the Prophet Muhammad’s scribes themselves favored naskhi when they wrote letters and other everyday communications. One of the scribes, a Companion of the Prophet, named Zaid ibn Thabit, who wrote down the first complete version of the Koran, assisted by three members of Muhammad’s tribe, produced another in naskhi during the Caliphate of ‘Uthman. The latter version superseded, throughout Islam, all earlier transcriptions, which were ordered burned. The revision of ‘Uthman, the only standard text of the Koran up to the present day, was immediately copied and distributed in the Arab centers of Mecca, Damascus, Basra, Kufa and Yemen, where regional variations in script in time evolved into other styles.

During the Umayyad era (661-750) of Damascus, shortly after the death of the Prophet, Arabic calligraphy flourished. Late in the Umayyad period the celebrated Katabah—the Scribes—began the modification of kufic script, which became the form employed today in calligraphic decorations. The Katabah are also credited with the invention of thuluth script. Another famed penman, Khalid ibn al-Hajjaj, who was well known for his elegant copies of the Koran, wrote the 91st and subsequent suras (chapters) of the Koran in letters of gold in the prayer niche of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Unfortunately, this work flaked off bit by bit through the centuries, until today there is nothing left.

In the ‘Abbasid era, which followed the Umayyad dynasty, Vizier Abu ‘All ibn Muqlah (d. 940) achieved great renown by completing the development of kufic from its ancient forms into modern forms, and his elegant new style was copied throughout Islam. After Ibn Muqlah, leadership in the art of calligraphy passed to ‘AH ibn Hilal, better known as Ibn al-Bawwab (”Son of the Doorman”) (d. 1022), who perfected the rules of penmanship and conceived a number of variations of thuluth script. Most calligraphers who followed him carried on his concept of design until the Caliphate fell to the Ottoman Turks and Arab creativity declined in the East.

Three types of contemporary script are thus wholly of Arab origin: kufic, naskhi and thuluth. Of these the kufic style is unquestionably the greatest achievement in Arabic calligraphy. Its beauty and majesty make it ideal for ornamental purposes. With the spread of Arab conquests in the East and West, and the building of new places of worship, palaces and homes, the people felt the need to embellish the structures with ornamental designs. But because Islam discouraged the depiction of the human body, the Arabs turned to other sources of design to decorate their utensils, ceilings and walls. Kufic script supplied artists with another medium of expression, which was and is widely used for the decoration of building spandrels and entablatures.

The Arabs of medieval times used interlaced geometric lines derived from the kufic style to adorn the walls of palaces and mosques, and the name of this decoration—arabesque—is a constant reminder of its cultural origins. Arabic calligraphy forms a central part of the ornamentation of the Moorish palace of Alhambra, in the province of Granada, Spain. This famous citadel, overlooking the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountain range, and the Great Mosque of Cordoba, also in southern Spain, are monumental examples of decoration which combine kufic and arabesque.

The Moors of Spain enlisted the services of their Christian compatriots to apply arabesque designs. Some of these so-called dhimmis, or protégés of Islam, had no knowledge of Arabic and made designs in kufic script without the slightest understanding of what they were writing. As a result, some old Andalusian vases exist today with ornamental inscriptions which make no sense whatsoever. The letters were merely strung together by an artist intent on creating something beautiful, rather than meaningful.

It was during the 17th century, under the Ottoman Empire, that Arabic calligraphy attained its highest development. The Ottoman sultans who acceded to the Caliphate showed high regard for their court calligraphers who, among other commissions, executed the royal insignia. Called the “Imperial Monogram,” it consisted of tiny, exquisite interlaced writing in the thuluth script, denoting the names of the reigning sultan and his father. The monogram was stamped on imperial orders and royal decrees, and appeared on coins of the realm in the same way that, elsewhere, a monarch’s likeness is used. Similar monograms are still in use in Iran today by ordinary citizens.

Two great 17th-century Turkish artists—al-Hafiz Osman and Mustafa Rakim—are especially worthy of mention. Osman received fame for his naskhi writings and for the many copies of the Koran which he penned in ink and gilt. Mustafa Rakim rebelled against the lifeless conventionalism which characterized much Arabic calligraphy up to his time. He was always seeking ways to bring a more dynamic beauty to the art, even to the extent of sometimes drawing his characters to resemble the form or features of a woman. The suggestion of a tall figure could be seen in his alif (ﺍ), the letter in Arabic which corresponds to the letter “A” in the Roman alphabet. His ‘ain (ﻉ) was often drawn to resemble a provocative arched eyebrow.

Happily, Rakim was able to enjoy the appreciation and admiration of his contemporaries. It is on record that Sultan Mahmud II used to stand before him, as a pupil before his teacher, holding his inkstand while the master drew. It is not surprising that the sultan should show such admiration, for he himself was a noted penman—an expert who recognized expert performance.

The Ottomans, however, were not content merely to improve the types of script which they inherited from the Arabs. They also added to the calligraphers’ repertoire the dizaani script, with its two variants, and the ruq’ah script which, because of its stenographic simplicity, is now used by most Arabs for their everyday writing.

The use of Arabic script continued in Turkey until the last days of its Ottoman rulers, but lost status with the demise of the Empire at the end of World War I. During the presidency of Kemal Atatiirk, father of modern Turkey, Arabic characters were replaced by the Roman alphabet, slightly modified, which continues in use today. The magnificent calligraphic legacy of the scribes of former times can still be seen in the mosques, museums and palaces of Istanbul, and even now calligraphers throughout the Middle East regard Istanbul as the spiritual home of their art.

When the great days of Ottoman calligraphy passed, Egypt fell heir to the role of protector and preserver of the art of Arabic writing. In 1921, King Fuad I called the famous Turkish calligrapher, Muhammad ‘Abd al-’Aziz ar-Rifa’i to Cairo, where he transcribed the Koran and gilded the result. Soon afterward King Fuad founded a school to pass on the learning and artistry of the finest calligraphers of our time. This school is still in existence. Urdu, Kurdish and Persian are among the languages which still use an Arabic script, even though genetically they are more closely related to English than they are to Arabic. Yet there is little likelihood that these language groups, or the Arabs, will exchange their writing system for the Roman alphabet, though this has often been urged for the sake of uniformity, simplicity and adaptability to printing devices such as typewriters. With four forms possible for each of the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet, any mechanical means of printing is relatively costly and complicated. But cultural as well as religious pressures argue against the adoption of any such system. Not only is the Holy Koran written with a script which is, for all practical purposes, the same as that used in daily life, but the vast treasury of Arabic poetry, which every Arab reveres, is inseparably associated with the script in which it was originally written.

This article appeared on pages 1-7 of the July/August 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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March 22, 2007 at 9:50 am

Posted in Editorials


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prepared by Mohammed Tamimi
Istanbul, 1999 (in Arabic, preface in English and Turkish)

The exercise book prepared by calligrapher Mehmed Şevki Efendi (1829-1887) for the thuluth and naskh calligraphic:sfj useful tool for those who wish to upgrade their sfcij This publication will be followed by exercise booji other styles of calligraphy.

ISBN 92-9063-087-6


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March 22, 2007 at 9:43 am

Posted in Book Reviews


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prepared by Necati Aktaş, İsmet Binark;
translated by Salih Sadawi Salih;
edited and preface by Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu,
published in cooperation with the University of Jordan, Centre for Archives and Manuscripts,
Amman, 1986 (in Arabic)

This book contains a brief history of the Ottoman Archives, a description of the present classification systems used in the archives, explanations of archival regulations and procedures of research.
Out of stock (available on CD-ROM)

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March 22, 2007 at 9:40 am

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The Turkish National Library, Ankara/ Turkey

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The Turkish National Library is one of the youngest national library in the world. The works of foundation was laid in a small office in the Ministry of National Education,Directorate of Publications on April 15,1946 and a collection of 8000 works were accumulated in a short time. On April 1,1947 the library was temporarily moved to another building and during this period the collection reached 60,000. The building in the above picture was allocated in order to put the collection into service and the TNL was opened to users on August 16,1948. With the enactment of the Establishment Law on March 29,1950, the TNL assumed a legal identity. Foundation of a Bibliographical Institute working under the TNL was ensured the “Supplementary Law to the Establishment Law of the Turkish National Library “dated May 18,1955. Considering that the first building would not meet the future needs, planning of a new building was started in 1965. The construction work began after a long period of planning during 1965-73, and the building was completed in 1982. The TNL started serving its users in the new building on August 5,1983 The Library is built on a space of 39.000 square meters, and is large enough to enable the addition of new modules. The TNL building consisting of three modular blocks, shelters the administrative offices, general and special purpose reading rooms, group study rooms, staff rooms, study rooms for fine arts, and ventilated stores equipped with fire alarm systems. Here are also an exhibition hall and two multi-purpose meeting and concert halls. New activities have been initiated in the new building including Data
Processing Center, Talking Books Department, Atatürk Documentation Center and Biography Archive, Map Room, Microfilm Archive, fully equipped Printing House using off-set printing techniques Microfilm and Photography Laboratory.

Collected catalogue of Printed Works of Turkey, Arabic Lettered Turkish Works (1729-1928)

Up till now five volumes have been published by the presidency of National library and preparations continue for volume VI.

Türkiye Basmaları Toplu Kataloğu Arap Harfli Türkçe Eserler (Collected catalogue of Printed Works of Turkey Arabic lettered Turkish Works) 1729-1928 Vol. I, Part I (A-Ali el Karî ) Ankara 1990

Türkiye Basmaları Toplu Kataloğu Arap Harfli Türkçe Eserler (Collected catalogue of Printed Works of Turkey Arabic Lettered Turkish Works) 1729-1928 Vol. I, Part 2 (Ali Kâzım Aznavur) Ankara 1990

Catalogue of Manuscripts of National Library

Publishing has started in 1987 under the name of Milli Kütüphane Yazmalar Kataloğu (Catalogue of Manuscripts in National Library). Initial corrections of volume VI named Milli Kütüphane Divanlar Kataloğu (Catalogue of the manuscripts of collected Poems in National Library) has been completed and preparations are going on.

Volume I: (General topics, Metaphysics, Secret Sciences) Ankara 1987

Volume II: (Secret Sciences, Psychology, Logic, Philosophy) Ankara 1988

Volume III: (The Religion of Islam, Sciences related with Koran, Commentary (for Koran)) Ankara 1992

Volume IV: (The sayings of Prophet Muhammad) Ankara 1994

Volume V: ( Religious precepts and study of Koran,Akaid ve Kelam) Ankara 1997

Collected Catalogue of Manuscripts of Turkey

National Library is responsible for specifying the bibliographical identities and publishing catalogues; of the manuscripts existing in libraries and museums connected to Ministry of Culture firstly and later on, those existing in the libraries of some state institutions and some persons.

The following activities have been completed within the scope of the project being implemented since 1978:

1- TÜYATOK 1- The first catalogue covers the manuscripts in the libraries of; Atatürks Mausoleum (16 works, Presidency of the Republic (34 works),Turkish Grand National Assembly of Turkey (104 works) and Public Library of Adıyaman Province (132 works). In
this volume there are bibliographical introduction of totally 286 manuscripts /pamphlets. (Ankara 1979).

2- TÜYATOK 2: The Second catalogue includes the manuscripts belonging to the Public Libraries of Giresun, Ordu and Rize provinces. In this volume there is bibliographical introduction of totally 619 manuscripts/pamphlets.

3- TÜYATOK 3 (34/I): In this catalogue that covers the books belonging to Istanbul Süleymaniye Library – Ali Nihat Tarlan Kolleksiyonu (Collection of Ali Nihat Tarlan) there are bibliographical introduction of 425 manuscripts in total (Ankara 1981).

4- TÜYATOK 4-8 (07/l-V) : This catalogue consists of volumes 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and five separate fascicles and covers manuscripts from the districts and province of Antalya (namely Antalya Province Museum, Alanya District Museum, Akseki Yeğen Mehmet Paşa Library Elmalı and Tekeli District Public Libraries. Totally 4.042 manuscripts / pamphlets are introduced in this catalogue (Istanbul 1982 -1984).

5- TÜYATOK 9 (34/II): İn this catalogue covering the collection Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Paşa Kolleksiyonu in Istanbul Bayezid State Library totally 467 manuscripts are introduced. (Ankara 1984).

6- TÜYATOK 10-12 (01/I-III): In this catalogue, consisting of 3 values, totally 2592 manuscripts belonging to Public Library and Museum of Adana Province are introduced. (Ankara 1985 – 1986)

7- TÜYATOK 13 (34/III): İn this catalogue (volume 13) that covers the manuscripts in the collection, Amca Zade Hüzeyin Paşa ve Hekimbaşı Musa Nazif Efendi Kolleksiyonu in İstanbul Süleymaniye Library totally 630 manuscripts are introduced (Ankara 1987).

8- TÜYATOK 14-18 (05/I-V): It was foreseen to publish this catalogue in five volumes, in the published first four volumes (14-05/I, 15-05/II, 16-05/III and 17-05/IV) namely, Amasya İl Halk Kütüphanesi Yazmaları Kataloğu(Catalogue of Manuscripts in the Public Library of Amasya Province), totally 2994 works / pamphlets are introduced. (Istanbul 1990 -1995). By the last fifth volume (TÜYATOK 18-05 / V) which is being published at the printing house of Faculty of Literature Istanbul University 1190 more books / pamphlets will be introduced.

9- TÜYATOK 19 (34/IV): This catalogue, in which 1155 works / pamphlets are introduced, covers the manuscripts in the collection Mustafa Aşir Efendi Koleksiyonu in İstanbul Süleymaniye Library (Ankara -Printing house of National Library, 1994).

10- TÜYATOK 20 (03): In this volume published under the name of Afyon ili Yazmaları (Manuscripts of Afyon Province) totally 1952 works / pamphlets, (1938 works from Afyon Gedik Ahmet Paşa Public Library 12 works from Afyon Province Museum, 2 works from Dinar District Public Library) are introduced under 1185 principal titles (with catalogue serial numbers) (Ankara, Printing house of National Library 1996).

11- TÜYATOK 21 (10): In this catalogue, published under the name of Balıkesir İli Yazmaları Kataloğu (catalogue of the Manuscripts of Balıkesir Province) totally 2715 works / pamphlets i.e 2439 works in Balıkesir Province Public Library, 185 works in Dursun Bey District Public Library, 91 works in Edremit. District Public Library, are in traduced under 1246 principal titles. (With catalogue serious numbers) (Ankara, Printing-house of National Library, 1997).

12- TÜYATOK 22 (18) : In this catalogue published under the name of “Çankırı İl Halk Kütüphanesi Yazmaları kataloğu” (Catalogue of the Manuscripts in Çankırı Province Public Library), totally 1076 works / pamphlets are introduced under 683 principal titles. (Ankara, Printing-house of National Library, 1998).

13- TÜYATOK 23 (32) (Ankara, Printing House of National Library, 2000).

14- TÜYATOK 24 (15) (Ankara, Printing House of National Library, 2000).

Valuable manuscripts, previously in the province and district Libraries of Isparta and Burdur and later handed over to Konya Bölge Yazmaları Kütüphanesi (Library of Regional Manuscripts in Konya) in 1994 are catalogued within the scope of TÜYATOK and published under the names of Türkiye Yazmaları Toplu Kataloğu Burdur I, II and Türkiye Yazmaları Toplu Kataloğu Isparta (Collected catalogue of Manuscrupts of Turkey, Burdur I, II and Collected catalogue of Manuscripts of Turkey, Isparta). These catalogues were published within the scope of activities related with Osmanlı Bilim ve Kültür Mirasının 700. Yıldönümü Anma Etkinlikleri i.e Activities for Commemoration of the 700th Anniversary of Ottoman Empire´s Cultural Inheritance). The content of the catalogues covers the following works.

1687 volumes of manuscripts and 3100 books / pamphlets in Burdur Province Public Library,
795 volumes of manuscripts and 1263 books / pamphlets in Isparta Halil Hamit Paşa Public Library,
474 volumes of manuscripts and 1080 books / pamphlets in Uluborlu District Alaaddin Keykubat Public Library.
247 volumes of manuscripts and 516 books / pamphlets in Yalvaç District Ali Rıza Efendi Public Library,
109 volumes of manuscripts and 260 books / pamphlets in Şarkikaraağaç District Public Library,
3 volumes of manuscripts and 11 books / pamphlets in Senirkent District Public Library.
1 volume of manuscript and one book / pamphlet in Aydoğmuş District Public Library.

All these catalogues cover totally 3316 volumes of manuscripts, 6231 books / pamphlets and 3594 principal titles.


Milli Kütüphane Baskanligi
Bahcelievler son durak 06490
Tel : + 90 312 222 41 48 / + 90 312 222 38 12
PBX : + 90 312 212 62 00
Fax : + 90 312 223 04 51

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March 22, 2007 at 9:38 am

Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyya (Egyptian National Library), Cairo/Egypt

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The manuscript collection in Dar al-Kutub is regarded as one of the largest and most important in the world. The total number of manuscripts in this library are 50,755 out of which 47,065 are in Arabic, 996 in Persian and 2,150 in Turkish. It contains priceless and rare manuscripts from the Islamic heritage, especially from the first four centuries of hijra, as well as extremely rare illustrated manuscripts unmatched anywhere else in the world. There is a high proportion of manuscripts copied in the early centuries of Islam. It holds two of the earliest dated Qur’anic manuscripts dating from dating 102 AH / 720 CE and 107 AH / 725 CE.

Dar al-Kutub has 50,755 manuscripts from which 47,065 are in Arabic, 996 in Persian and 2150 in Turkish. The manuscripts cover nearly all subjects. A complete reference of catalogue of the manuscripts can be seen in:

[1] G. Roper (ed.), World Survey Of Islamic Manuscripts, 1992, Volume I, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, p.p. 212-218.

[2] B. Moritz, Arabic Palaeography: A Collection Of Arabic Texts From The First Century Of The Hidjra Till The Year 1000, 1905, Cairo, See Pl. 31-34 and Pl. 1-12 for 102 AH / 720 CE and 107 AH / 725 CE, respectively.

[3] T. W. Arnold & A. Grohmann, The Islamic Book: A Contribution To Its Art And History From The VII-XVIII Century, 1929, The Pegasus Press, p. 22.

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March 22, 2007 at 9:35 am

Âstan-i Quds-i Razavi Library, Mashhad, Iran

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This library has one of the oldest (established in 861 AH/1457 CE) collection of Islamic manuscripts in the Muslim world and the most important in Iran.It has about 29,000 manuscripts in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Of the 29,000 manuscripts it possess, 11,000 are manuscripts of the Qur’an, thus making it the largest Qur’anic manuscript collection in the world. It is also important in that it contains a large number of magnificent, old and illuminated Qur’anic manuscripts, including several old Kufic Qur’anic manuscripts written on deer skin, other with marvellous illuminations from 3rd century hijra (9th century CE) onwards, and some written by famous calligraphers. The manuscripts are catalogued in various publication as can be seen in the reference below.

[1] G. Roper (ed.), World Survey Of Islamic Manuscripts, 1992, Volume I, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, pp. 481-486.

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March 22, 2007 at 9:35 am

Islamic Museum of the Temple Mount

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This museum was established in 1923 by the Islamic Legal Council in Palestine. The manuscript collection of the Islamic Museum consists entirely of masahif of the Qur’an, numbering 644, donated over centuries to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Some were presented by rulers and private individuals, and others have been donated by such Palestinian cities as Hebron and Nablus.

The Qur’anic manuscripts vary in type, age and size. Many are rab`at (i.e., they were copied in thirty fascicles and stored in a chest, or rab`a). The oldest is Kufic, from the end of the second century after hijra, while the most recent is a copy from the thirteenth century after hijra. Sizes range from 16 x 11.5 cm. to the massive second volume of the Qur’an of the Mamluk Sultan Qa’t Bay (r. 872-901/1468-1496), which measures 110 x 90 cm. and is 15 cm. thick. The majority of the Qur’anic manuscripts are splendidly illuminated and decorated , the exceptions being for the most part the copies of the late Ottoman period.

One of the most important manuscript in this collection is the Kufic copy of the second half of the Qur’an, the transcription of which is attributed to Al-Hasan b. Al-Husayn b. `Ali b. Abi Talib. The pages in this manuscript are beautifully illuminated, with each surah heading bearing its own distinct style of decoration; the covers are also decorated on both sides, but are of the Mamluk period.

The museum also hold an important collection of 883 documents (855 Arabic; 28 persian) from the the 8th/14th century. The complete reference of catalogue of the manuscripts in this museum can be seen in:

[1] G. Roper (ed.), World Survey Of Islamic Manuscripts, 1993, Volume II, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, p.p. 579-581.

Written by calligrapher

March 22, 2007 at 9:32 am