Archive for March 25th, 2007
Calligraphy is the supreme art form of the Islamic world; even the other Islamic arts – architecture, metal work, ceramics, glass and textiles – draw on calligraphy as their principal source of embellishment.
This has been true from a very early date. As Islam spread from the Arabian Peninsula, first to Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and somewhat later to North Africa, Spain, Sicily and, in the East, to Iran, Central Asia, China, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia – to say nothing of Africa – Arabic script spread with it. Since the Islamic revelation – the Koran – is in Arabic, and since all Muslims, whatever their mother tongue, must endeavor to learn Arabic, the script in which the revelation of Islam was recorded entered the cultural traditions of a great diversity of peoples. Slightly modified forms of the Arabic alphabet were quickly adapted to the exigencies of languages completely unrelated to Arabic, such as Persian, Turkish, Hindi, Kurdish, Malay and even Spanish to name but a few. The areas that utilized this script were of course co-terminus with the boundaries of the Islamic state.
At a very early date, the characteristics of the Arabic script, which indicates only consonants and to some extent long vowels, were recognized, and a system of indicating – in writing – short vowels, doubled consonants and so forth was developed. This system consisted of a series of short marks placed above or below the consonant, and indicated how it should be pronounced. At an even earlier date, letters with similar shapes but different pronunciations had been distinguished by the addition of one, two, or three dots above or below the consonant in question. Otherwise, letters such as b, y, th, would have been indistinguishable.
The development of these matres lectionis was undertaken in order to fix the canonical reading of the sacred text, to ensure that when recited no variants might creep in and distort the word of God. Calligraphers have always used these marks to enhance the beauty of their compositions.
The earliest form of Arabic script was probably derived from script used by the Nabateans (See Aramco World, September-October 1965). Called Kufic – after the town of Kufa in Iraq where it attained its most developed form – this script, with its square letter-forms, was perfectly suited to inscriptions on stone and metal, and so was widely used for commemorative inscriptions; it is still used for its decorative qualities.
During the late Umayyad and early Abbasid periods, the greatly increased literacy of the Islamic peoples, and the introduction of inexpensive writing materials – notably paper – led to the development of a number of different styles of calligraphy. More cursive scripts were invented because Kufic was unsuitable for quick notation, and the rules for writing these were codified by a series of famous calligraphers, particularly Ibn Muqla, Ibn Bawwab and Yaqut al-Musta’simi. These men, between the 10th and 13th centuries, laid the foundations for calligraphy, both as a tool of government and as an art form, but later – in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries – the great calligraphers tended to come from Ottoman Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and India. In all these places, new developments and styles were created, some for bureaucratic purposes, some for artistic.
It is not surprising, therefore, that even today many of the leading calligraphers of the Islamic world come from non-Arabic speaking areas. One example is Aftab Ahmad, of Peshawar in Pakistan – examples of whose work are presented in the following pages. The son of Muhammad Sharif, also a famous calligrapher, Aftab Ahmad is a man of many talents; an internationally recognized photographer, he is also a well-known ceramicist and calligrapher. Extraordinarily, he is ambidextrous and can write either from left to right or right to left with either hand.
In keeping with the long tradition of Islamic calligraphy, the texts he prefers to inscribe are the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, and short Koranic texts testifying to the unity of God. He is a master of the repertoire of styles, as the panel reproduced on Pages 26 and 27 illustrates: it contains the shahada written 15 times in different calligraphic styles.
The works of Islamic calligraphers, both past and present, are not always easy to decipher: although the form of individual letters must adhere to the rigid canons of whatever style is being used, clarity is not a paramount goal in artistic calligraphy. Part of the pleasure of looking at decorative calligraphy is the slow dawning of recognition, as the eye traces the letters and discovers a familiar text from the Koran. An example of how the words of a famous quotation are arranged by a master calligrapher, and how they must be read to attain their meaning, is given on this page.
Aftab Ahmad, although working firmly within the long-established tradition of Islamic calligraphy, has also added his own sense of color and movement. Each of his compositions is a work of art, and appeals to the viewer across linguistic and cultural boundaries.
This article appeared on pages 22-33 of the March/April 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.Photograph © Calligrapher Ali Toy, Turkey
“You don’t breathe much when you are doing this,” Zakariya comments as he begins to write, his reed pen squeaking on the polished surface of the paper.
As he demonstrates his work, Zakariya explains how many steps are involved before he actually sits down to produce a piece of “beautiful writing.” Ink, made from the soot of linseed oil he burns in his back yard, is combined with gum arabic and water and stirred for hours. Each sheet of paper used is individually sealed and smoothed with three coats of varnish, burnished and then aged for at least a year.
And in order to make the calligraphy pen, or kalem, Zakariya adds, “You have to learn how to be a wood carver.” Woody reeds such as cane or bamboo are preferred, and must be aged for a minimum of four years.
Once the tools, paper and ink are prepared, the next step is choosing the text: preferably a selection from the Qur’an, a quotation from the Prophet Muhammad, a maxim or a poem. Zakariya designs the piece and practices calligraphing the text in order to create a stencil. This stencil, with the outlines of the letters marked with pin-pricks, is called a kalib, or mold. Placing the stencil over the piece of paper chosen for the work, Zakariya lightly dusts it with charcoal powder, transferring the design as a series of dots onto the final surface.
Uttering “Bismillah” (“In the name of God”), Zakariya begins the final stage. “You can do wonderful things when the ink and paper are cooperating,” he notes, as his pen travels slowly and precisely across the page. Depending on the complexity of the design, several pens are generally used for each work.
Finished with the design, he cleans up some of the edges with a scraping knife. “One of the ideas of calligraphy is to make the work so neat when it is finished that it looks as if it grew that way, like a plant,” he says. The writing is then burnished with a smooth agate set in a handle, to bond it to the paper, and decorative borders or gold illumination may be added.
This article appeared on pages 10-17 of the January/February 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
Photograph © Fedai Sait/Istanbul
Mohamed Zakariya is a modern man practicing ancient arts. “In a sense, I am a jack-of-all-trades. I like the stimulation and the variety,” he explains, as he methodically stirs a mortar of ink in his pleasantly cluttered studio. He was preparing his own home-made black ink for his calligraphy, many examples of which hang on the walls of his small studio. Sundials and intricately engraved brass astrolabes, all made by Zakariya, decorate the tops of bookshelves that overflow with titles in Turkish, Arabic and Rumanian.
Old calligraphy exercises from his tutors in Istanbul lie on a others completed by Zakariya’s own students. Above the table, wooden shelves hold brightly colored rows of specially prepared watercolors with names like cadmium red, rose madder and Chinese vermilion. Glass jars of calligraphy pens, carved from bamboo and reed by Zakariya himself, sit neatly arranged on his desk.
Behind the studio, a workshop full of machinery reveals another side of this jack-of-all-trades: Zakariya is as comfortable – and as skilled – working on his 19th-century lathe, or manufacturing his own engraving tools and compasses, as he is guiding a calligraphy pen across paper.
This world of medieval skills is Mohamed Zakariya’s; he entered it through the traditional art of Islamic calligraphy some 30 years ago. Once described by Palestinian-American artist Kamal Boullata as “a medieval artisan led by faith and professional expertise,” Zakariya is an internationally renowned American Muslim calligrapher, with a penchant for handcrafting working reproductions of historical Islamic and early European scientific instruments.
Faith was the catalyst for California-born Zakariya’s introduction to calligraphy. In the 1960’s, while still a teenager, he converted to Islam and began teaching himself Arabic. Zakariya recalls how he discovered, through those early studies, that “calligraphy was an important aspect of both Arabic and Islamic life.” (See Aramco World, September-October 1989.) During the day, he worked as a machinist in a factory. At night, he pursued his self-taught Arabic and calligraphy studies.
Two trips to Morocco in the early 1960’s had introduced him first-hand to a religion that, he says, “attracted me like a magnet.” Hardly the average tourist, Zakariya spent most of his time in mosques. During his second visit, while examining a copy of the Qur’an in a small bookstore, he met an Egyptian calligrapher, Abdussalam Ali-Nour, who was to become his first teacher. This was the beginning of an intriguing path that, years later, led him to Istanbul and master calligrapher Hasan Çelebi.
His native curiosity and wanderlust took Zakariya on an extended two-year journey through Europe in the mid-1960’s. Living by his wits and working at whatever odd job came his way, he occasionally found himself restoring houses and even performing with a British comedy troupe. While in London, Zakariya spent every spare moment in the Oriental Reading Room of the British Museum, studying historical calligraphy texts.
The rules have changed now, but in those days, he recalls, “you could put something that was actually made within 100 years of the Prophet’s lifetime right in front of you and touch it, smell it. You could hold it up to see how the light came through it. I learned a great deal about [ink and paper] from handling these things.”
Zakariya returned to California in 1968. Hired by an antiques dealer in West Hollywood, he restored and built reproductions of antiques. “I learned to be a fabulous maker of oddball stuff, like sundials and astrolabes,” Zakariya says. His many creations, from reproductions of Renaissance scientific and musical instruments to illuminated manuscripts and celestial globes, led to what he describes as his “one brush with fame,” when he was named Scripps College’s artist-in-residence in 1970.
Those early years sharpened Zakariya’s skills and revealed his exceptional, and as yet untutored, artistic talent. However, it was not until he moved to Washington, DC. in 1972 that he decided to pursue the art of calligraphy as “a serious business.” In the following eight years, Zakariya built an impressive reputation and notched up several major accomplishments. He completed his first functioning astrolabe – one of his “dream projects” – and published two books, The Calligraphy of Islam: Reflections on the State of the Art and Observations on Islamic Calligraphy.
Professor Walter Denny, an Islamic art historian at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, reviewed The Calligraphy of Islam back in 1980. “This is the first American book I know that has ever been published on calligraphy as art,” he recalls. “As far as I can tell, it is the first book published in modern times by an Islamic calligrapher about his work in any language other than Arabic. I was really quite impressed by the book. I had no idea [the author] was an American.”
Yet while critics praised his work, by 1980 Zakariya felt that his calligraphy had reached a standstill. “You should be able to see improvement in your work from piece to piece until you are too old to see,” Zakariya says, recalling how frustrated he was at that time.
Then fate intervened. Unbeknownst to him, Dr. Esin Atil, historian of Islamic art at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, sent samples of Zakariya’s calligraphy to the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture in Istanbul.
Well acquainted with Zakariya and his work, Atil was convinced that he was “one of the best artists. He not only composes in a traditional manner, using a dozen or more types of script; he does his own illumination, which is extraordinary. Mohamed was the person who started [Islamic calligraphy] in this country way before anyone else showed interest in it.”
Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, director of the Research Center, recalls that Zakariya’s early works “reflected his skill and enthusiasm. However, it was apparent that they were the product of a calligrapher who had not received proper instruction.” He agreed to accept Zakariya at the Center as a student – if Zakariya was willing to forget everything he had previously learned and start again from the beginning. The challenge was eagerly accepted.
In 1982, Zakariya began a correspondence course with Turkish master calligrapher Hasan Çelebi. “Instruction by correspondence was a very difficult task,” Çelebi says. Traditionally, “the teaching of calligraphy requires that teacher and student should be together and should practice visually.”
Nonetheless, the lessons, known in Turkish as meşks, were sent back and forth between Zakariya’s Arlington, Virginia, home and the Research Center in Istanbul. He studied the thulth and naskh scripts with Çelebi, as well as the nasta’liq script with noted calligrapher Ali Alparslan. Zakariya explains that lessons teach one “how to see, rather than how to work.” By reviewing and copying the works of great masters, he says, “one side effect of lessons is that you become a real connoisseur of good calligraphy.”
Heath Lowry, director of the Institute of Turkish Studies in Washington, occasionally carried Zakariya’s lessons to Çelebi when he traveled to Istanbul. “I don’t know of any other Western calligrapher who has gone through a formation like his,” Lowry notes. As Zakariya’s own work developed, Lowry says, “it was inevitable that it would begin pointing him more and more in the direction of Istanbul. The role of the Turks as the last great calligraphers is and continues to be recognized throughout the Islamic world.”
Zakariya devoted himself to his studies with his customary scholarly zeal. The lessons began with individual letters of the alphabet. As he improved, he was given two-letter combinations, and finally, years later, whole sentences to work on. Just as a musician practices scales and exercises, so must a calligrapher repeat his writing exercises again and again to acquire the precision and sureness essential to the art of beautiful writing. One seventh-century practitioner wrote that “calligraphy is hidden in the teaching of a master. Its constancy is maintained by much practice and its continuity is contingent on the religion of Islam.”
“I could have become a surgeon several times over in the amount of time it took me to become a calligrapher,” Zakariya says. With the exception of one month in 1984, when he was able to travel to Istanbul and study daily with his teachers, his lessons continue to this day through the mail.
In the 1980’s, while he continued to labor as a novice under the watchful, albeit longdistance, scrutiny of his teachers, Zakariya’s growing mastery of both calligraphy and the moribund art of astrolabe-making attracted widespread attention. He began to exhibit his calligraphy both in the United States and abroad. In 1983, he traveled for the first time to the Arabian Gulf to exhibit his work in Qatar and teach at the Doha Free Art School.
Several years later, in 1986, under the auspices of the United States Information Agency, Zakariya traveled for the second time to the Gulf region. Visiting Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Abu Dhabi, he both lectured and displayed his calligraphy. In that same year he also won his first calligraphy prize, in a competition sponsored by the Research Center in Istanbul. It was to be the first of many such awards.
In June 1990, a two-year-long, ten-state tour of his work, sponsored by the American-Arab Affairs Council, made its last stop in Minneapolis. Since then, he has designed and produced nine large calligraphy panels, using texts from the Qur’an and from poetry, for the exhibition “Images of Paradise in Islamic Art,” which is scheduled to travel to five states by the middle of this year.
During that period, between his lessons and frequent exhibitions, Zakariya was hard at work reviving the ancient art of making astrolabes. Said to be the invention of the Greek astronomer Hipparchos of Nicaea in the second century BC, the astrolabe – an engraved brass plate on which brass discs and pointers rotate — is in effect an analogue computer which simulates the apparent rotation of the stars around the celestial pole. Ptolemy of Alexandria described the instrument’s principles in his Planispherium, which was translated into Arabic in Baghdad in the ninth century, and Arab astronomers of the following century refined the astrolabe and used it to make extraordinary scientific advances (See Aramco World, March-April 1991, May-June 1982).
Called “the mathematical jewel,” the astrolabe can be used for navigation and surveying, for telling the exact time of day or night – essential for fixing the times of Muslims’ daily prayers – as an accurate calendar for predicting the seasons, and as a calculator to solve many astronomical problems. Such a wealth of knowledge and precision was, and still is, required to build an astrolabe that the skill was often passed from father to son, as in the case of 12th-century artisans Hamad ibn Mahmud al-Isfahani and his son Muhammad.
Over the centuries, Zakariya says, many of the undocumented techniques used to make astrolabes, such as the engraving process, were lost. Searching through old Arabic manuscripts, however, he managed to unearth the basic mathematical and scientific principles for making them.
“I think I am the only person who makes astrolabes consistently,” Zakariya says, and it is little wonder. Depending upon the size and the complexity of its functions, an astrolabe can take from three to six months to complete. With as many as nine parts that move in relation to each other, the design requires extensive geometrical calculations and precision engraving with specially designed tools.
Today one of Zakariya’s astrolabes, as well as a celestial sphere from his workshop, are on display in the Aramco Exhibit in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Another hangs in the terminal of the King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jiddah. Both the National Museum in Doha, Qatar, and the Time Museum in Rockford, Illinois, house his elaborate sundials.
Over the past few years, Zakariya has found himself focusing less on his instruments and machine work and more on his calligraphy, “a living and growing culture. It is so interesting and overwhelming that it becomes something you can’t do without,” he explains. “With me, it has pushed out astrolabes and machine-shop work almost entirely. When I do break the connection and go back to the shop, it’s very hard for the first few days. I want to get that pen in my hand again.”
From carving his own pens to making his own ink and paper and illuminating his texts, Zakariya has become a traditional Islamic calligrapher in every sense of the word. He is, according to Denny, “a genuine hattat” – Turkish for calligrapher. “Mohamed sees himself as being able to work both in the style of the Ottoman and Iraqi 19th-century calligraphers. I am just amazed that he can work in all the major script styles. He can do everything a hattat was always supposed to do.”
Zakariya “has been trained precisely and rigorously in ancient forms,” according to Vicki Halper, assistant curator of modern art at the Seattle Museum. Halper worked with Zakariya during a 1990 exhibit at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, which featured his work along with that of three other contemporary calligraphers. Zakariya, she explains, “particularly identifies himself with the tradition because he works completely within it. He is not trying to push the boundaries of his craft into contemporary American idiom.”
To the contrary: His work honors and revitalizes the past. Zakariya’s success as a calligrapher is reflected in his knowledge of the Qur’an and classic Arabic literature, and in his mastery of the many details and ancillary crafts of the art of calligraphy.
Several years ago, this success was recognized when he became the first American to receive an icazet, or diploma, from the Research Center in Istanbul. A tradition that dates back to the 15th-century, the icazet is only awarded to those calligraphers capable of duplicating the works of the masters, and who have demonstrated as well that they can write a well-known Qur’anic text or Islamic saying on their own.
On May 23, 1988, in the historic 19th-century Yıldız Palace overlooking the Bosporus, Hasan Çelebi presented Zakariya with his icazet, conferring upon him the right to sign his own works and to teach students. Underscoring his student’s unique talent, Çelebi noted that “even among Turkish calligraphers, there are not many who both write and illuminate their work. Zakariya does. I am proud to know that he is ably representing this branch of Islamic art in the United States.” Research Center director Ihsanoglu added: “It has been a wonderful experience for us to be involved in the making of a great artist who, as far as we know, is the first American calligrapher.”
Today, like the jack-of-all-trades he professes to be, Zakariya is consumed with both his work and his hobbies. When he isn’t busy writing a book – in Arabic – on calligraphy, retooling his machines for some future project, or preparing his calligraphic works for exhibitions around the country, he can be found reading old Islamic law books – for fun – or teaching himself how to play the baritone horn.
In addition, he remains both a devoted student and a dedicated teacher of calligraphy. “The Turks say that when you are learning calligraphy, it is the happiest period of your life,” he says. As his own lessons continue and grow harder, he has taken on six students of his own.
Teaching calligraphy face to face, master to student, he explains, is “the old Islamic method of transferring this knowledge. The axiom is usually, ‘If you can’t do it, teach it.’ But it’s exactly the opposite with calligraphy: ‘Don’t teach it unless you can do it.'” Unquestionably, Mohamed Zakariya does it very well.
This article appeared on pages 10-17 of the January/February 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World. More about the Calligrapher http://www.zakariya.net. Photograph © Fedai Sait/Istanbul and Pedalize (inside view of Söğütlü Mosque in Trabzon/Turkey)
Written by Caroline Stone
“In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful!”
These are some of the most frequently used words in the Arabic language. The Holy Koran—the word of God as revealed to Muhammad—begins with them, and so does every Surah, or chapter, but one. Muslims say these words before beginning any undertaking, before eating, before opening a book and, of course, before beginning to pray. They write them at the heads of letters, inscribe them on coins and print them at the beginning of chapters in books. The Prophet Muhammad said, “He who writes Bismillah (‘In the name of God’) beautifully obtains innumerable blessings.”
These words are so important—not only to every Arabic speaker but to Muslims everywhere—that it is hardly surprising that over the centuries they have come to be written in very special ways. Calligraphy—literally “beautiful writing”—is an Arab art, and in writing the Bismillah and a few other phrases, particularly those invoking the name of God, calligraphers surpassed themselves: such phrases, for example, as In sha’Allah, “God willing;” Ma sha’ Allah, “As God wills;” Huwa Allah, “He is God;” and Al-hamdu li-llah, “God be praised.” Perhaps as important as the Bismillah in calligraphy is the Profession of Faith, or the Shahada: La ilaha ilia Allah, Muhammad Rasul Allah: “There is no God but God, Muhammad is His Messenger.”
Calligraphers also devoted great efforts to writing and elaborately decorating the name of God when it stood alone. Others concentrated on the name of the Prophet or sometimes simply his title, Rasul, “Messenger,” which can be seen carved on one of the columns of the very ancient mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia (Aramco World, Jan-Feb., 1967).
How did decorative writing come to achieve such importance in religion and art? As is generally known in the West today, figurative art—especially sculpture with its connotation of idolatry—was forbidden to Muslims, and so in compensation the Islamic world raised architecture and the applied arts to a very high level of perfection. Ceramics, glass, metal-work, wood and stone carving, carpets, textiles and embroideries were all elaborately developed. But the art of arts was undoubtedly calligraphy (Aramco World, May-June, 1976).
There were many reasons for this. First, of course, calligraphy was inextricably bound up with the Koran, which many pious Muslims did—and still do—copy by hand at least once in their lives. It was also a skill available to anyone, and since many people, including women, could and did write, interest in penmanship was high and it was much cultivated. Many great men of the Muslim world, as well as professional calligraphers, were famous for the beauty of their handwriting. Lastly, calligraphy was also intimately involved with all the other arts. Look carefully and you will frequently see an inscription on a sword blade or a mosque lamp, painted on a bowl, woven into a prayer carpet or, in relief, around a door or minaret. And here again, one of the favourite phrases is Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim.
At the time of the Prophet, Arabic writing was predominantly of a square formal type which later developed into what is known as Kufic. Soon, however, as it became necessary to have a quicker cursive script, nashki evolved, and the older Kufic came more and more to be used only for copying the Koran and for monumental decoration, except in the conservative lands of North Africa, where it was retained for general uses.
As Islam spread, so too did calligraphy. Soon it could be found everywhere, not just in terms of geography, but in new and imaginative forms in art and architecture. Not content with leaving their favorite words running along the line of a page, artists of the Muslim world began to twist them into circles or squares—small to fit a plate or large to decorate a mosque wall. From Kufa in Iraq and from the great pottery centers of Iran came 9th- and 10th-century dishes with the Bismillah shaped like a bird or drawn with one splendid swirl of a brush—so that even to eyes familiar with Arabic script it seems almost illegible. In one particularly beautiful example of the art a bird, whose body is composed of the word baraka, “blessing,” holds the word hamd, or “praise,” in its beak.
The mosque architecture of Iran and Central Asia also gave calligraphy a new dimension—literally. There, architects wrapped vast raised inscriptions many feet high around the domes of mosques and up the minarets, and on the walls and at the gates they made what looked like labyrinths in turquoise, blue, yellow, black and white tiles.
Once again, these inscriptions might be made up of the name of God, the name of the Prophet, the Shahada, or even a Surah of the Koran repeated over and over again in an infinitely elaborate pattern.
Versions of these can be seen today outside many mosques in Iran, including modern ones. For those who know Arabic, part of the pleasure of gazing upon them undoubtedly comes from the “crossword puzzle” element—staring at an apparently abstract arrangement of colors until the words suddenly leap out, or slowly tracing the inscription letter by letter until the sense becomes clear. Small maze-like inscriptions carved in stone or wood are found everywhere in the Muslim world.
The best place for trying calligraphic innovations, however, was on paper. There are marvelous examples from all over the Muslim world, but the Bismillah, elaborately written in countless different shapes, was especially popular in Iraq, Syria, North Africa and Turkey. The sacred words were given a wide variety of forms. Vases, ewers, mosque lamps and candelabra were thought especially suitable and they are represented over and over again in calligraphy, sometimes using one phrase, sometimes another. Kufic compositions shaped like mosques, or even the outline of one of the holy Cities—Mecca or Medina—were particularly popular.
Another favorite form was an apple or pear with its leaves. This was sometimes used for a holy text, sometimes for genealogical trees, of which a particularly fine example is the family tree of the Sa’ud dynasty, which can be seen today framed in homes, offices and schools all over Saudi Arabia. In this design the male issue of the line is represented by an apple containing the appropriate name, and the female issue by a pear.
From fruit it was a relatively short step to animals. As mentioned earlier, birds were particular favorites. Cranes or storks were the most common, but in Tunisia there are also examples of peacocks and parrots painted on glass and in Iraq pheasants or perhaps quail. Lions were not unknown and occasionally an exceptionally imaginative calligrapher would produce al-Buraq, the winged horse on which, according to tradition, Muhammad made the Mi’raj, or Night Journey from Medina to Jerusalem, and thence to Heaven.
Of course these are by no means the only shapes. Sometimes a Surah of the Koran or other pious phrases would be woven into the form of a boat with the waw’s—the conjunction “and” in Arabic—elongated into the oars. Yet another design was the star and crescent of Islam. In one example the star is the Bismillah and the crescent moon the Shahada.
One style was particularly Turkish and derived from the Tughra, or signature of an Ottoman sultan, which was made extremely elaborate to avoid forgeries. The same manner was adopted for the Bismillah, sometimes against a background of flowers.
But these elaborate decorative compositions were not always used exclusively for sacred texts. In Turkey, where calligraphy was particularly popular, a favorite form was a poem of unrequited love written in the shape of an eye weeping tears. All kinds of visual puns of this kind were possible.
Although intricate calligraphy is not practiced as widely in today’s Muslim world as it has been during other periods over the last 1,000 years, it is by no means dead as an art form. It was not uncommon as an educated amusement until early in this century, when it declined with the adyent of printing. Now, happily, it is being revived by a number of young artists who are interested in traditional calligraphy. Undoubtedly, as the Middle East resumes its important role on the world stage, the interest will continue to grow. Perhaps the situation can best be summed up by a modernistic piece of calligraphy in the shape of the Hand of Fatimah, which was designed as a greeting card by Lebanese artist Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui a few years ago. It reads Ma sha’ Allah, “As God wills.”
Written by Paul Lunde
Historians generally credit Napoleon with introducing the printing press to the Arab world when he invaded Egypt in 1798. But though Napoleon did bring printing presses -and Arabic type – to Egypt, the story of Arabic printing is, in a sense, even older than printing. It begins in 1311, when the Papacy established chairs for the study of Arabic and other oriental languages at three European universities and at Rome.
This move – to encourage Arabic studies – was the result of a number of factors: Papal correspondence with the Mongol court (See Aramco World, January-February 1980), close ties with the Crusader states in the Levant, long-standing trade relations between the Italian maritime republics and the eastern Mediterranean and-the Papacy’s prime interest-a desire to propagate the Catholic faith among the Arabic-speaking Christian communities of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.
There were other, less political, considerations, too. Translations from Arabic – the language in which Greek philosophy and science had been preserved – were essential to St. Thomas Aquinas and other Christian theologians in their formulations of medieval theology and philosophy; to properly understand Aristotle, the foundation for much medieval thinking, theologians had to read translations of the great commentaries upon him composed in Arabic by such Muslim scholars as Avicenna and Averroes. But most were unsatisfactory.
It is therefore not surprising that it was in Italy, the European country with the broadest interest in the Arabic-speaking world, that the first Arabic book was printed from movable type, in 1514.
Arabic type had been used sporadically before 1514, but no entire book printed in Arabic was produced until Gregorio de Gregorii, a Venetian, published a Book of Hours entitled Kitab Salat al-Sawa’i, probably for export to the Christian communities of Syria.
The book was not a great success. Though the borders, depicting arabesque flowers and birds, are charming, the type is crude: squarish, ill-formed letters that are unpleasant and virtually unreadable. It was, nevertheless, a bold attempt, as well as the first, to solve the problems of printing in the Arabic alphabet: designing and making – by hand – hundreds of characters and the connections between characters needed to duplicate the cursive nature of Arabic script. De Gregorii s typeface, moreover, was more successful than the Arabic type used by William Postel in his Unguarum duodecim, printed in Paris in 1538 (See illustration 3) or the eccentric face used in Rutgher Spey’s Epistola ad Galatas, done in Heidelberg in 1583.
The man who did begin to solve the problems of Arabic printing was the French type designer Robert Granjon, whose name is still associated with a wide range of unsurpassed Latin and Greek typefaces – and the story of how he came to design Arabic type begins with the attempts by the Papacy to unite the Christian churches of the Levant with Rome. As these Christian minorities – Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Jacobite, Nestorian and Coptic – were strongly represented in the important trading centers of the Levant, Constantinople, Aleppo, and Alexandria, Pope Gregory XIII, in 1576, determined to make this connection spiritual as well as commercial. As a start he focused on the Maronites, who had particularly close commercial links with Italy. In 1584, he founded a Maronite College in Rome to train European missionaries in various oriental languages, and to train oriental Christians in the languages of Europe. Responding enthusiastically, the Maronites threw themselves into the task of editing, writing, and translating books into and from Latin, Arabic and Syriac. But as it soon became obvious that the time had come to seriously undertake the printing of Arabic and other oriental languages, Gregory appointed Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici director of what came to be called the Medici Press. Cardinal de Medici, in turn, sought someone versed in oriental languages to oversee the operation of the press, and was lucky enough to find Giovan Battista Raimondi.
Giovan Battista Raimondi was the archetype of the Renaissance man: an accomplished classicist, a philosopher, a mathematician and a chemist. More to the point, he was also well qualified with regard to Arabic printing. During a trip to the East, he had learned Arabic, Turkish and Persian and collected grammars and dictionaries of those languages. He had also translated books from both Greek and Arabic, and written learned commentaries on Greek scientific works.
To set up an Arabic press, Raimondi rented some buildings on the piazza del Monte d’Oro in Rome, ordered presses, ink, paper and other necessary stocks and through a printer named Domenico Basa, obtained punches with which to cut an Arabic alphabet – punches designed by Granjon. Basa sold the punches to Raimondi and signed an agreement under which they would work together and share materials.
The first books printed under this arrangement – and bearing Domenico Basa’s imprint – were the Liber VII precationum (1584), a book of Christian Arabic prayers, and the Hortus rerum mirabilium (1584), an historical-work by Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn Khalil al-Salihi, the full Arabic title of which is “The Book of the Garden of the Wonders of the World.” This combination of Christian liturgical and Muslim scientific texts was also to be characteristic of the productions of the Medici Press.
Meanwhile, Raimondi had quickly realized that the success of the Medici Press would depend largely on the skill of Robert Granjon and to induce him to stay in Rome, offered a rent-free house, a stipend of 10 gold scudi a month, plus one gold scudo for every steel matrix he cut and a bonus of 300 scudi romani for every completed alphabet. Although he was 72 years old, Granjon accepted these excellent terms and set to work immediately.
In a few years Granjon had cut a large number of oriental characters, following superb calligraphic designs provided by Raimondi. On September 6, 1586, he completed the small Arabic typeface used for the text of the folio of Avicenna of 1593 (See illustration 8 ). Legible and much more “oriental” in feel than those of de Gregorii, Postel or Spey this face was not improved upon until the time of Ibrahim Muteferrika in the early 18th century.
Granjon, who died in 1589, was succeeded by Giovanni Cavaglion, who cut the medium and large Arabic alphabets used in the 1593 Avicenna chapter headings, as well as a small and a large Persian typeface, and a very beautiful Coptic alphabet.
Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici, in the meantime, formed a committee to direct the press and sent two specialists to Ethiopia and the Levant with orders to obtain Arabic, Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopic manuscripts of the scriptures. The manuscripts were to be used to establish critical texts of the Bible.
At the same time, the specialists were urged to collect Arabic scientific texts so that they could be printed and then exported to Muslim countries in order to acquaint Muslims with the advantages of printing. In 1587 two Italian merchants actually received a firman – a royal permit-from the Ottoman Sultan Murad III authorizing them to export Arabic books to the Ottoman Empire.
A copy of this firman was printed as the final sheet in the folio Arabic edition of Euclid printed by the Medici Press in 1594. It is the first printed document in Turkish, and is set in Granjon’s small Arabic typeface, with some modifications
Because cutting the Arabic typefaces took such a long time, establishment of the Medici Press went slowly. Though the contracts formally setting up the press were signed on March 6,1584, the first book to bear its imprint did not appear until 1591: it was a folio edition of 4,000 copies of the four Gospels in Arabic, a large edition for the time. The same Arabic text was reprinted, the same year, this time with an interlinear Latin translation by the Maronite scholar Gabriel Sionita, whose many works, including a short history of the Arabs, were among the earliest to be based on a first-hand knowledge of Arabic sources.
Once underway, however, the Medici Press was very productive. In 1592 it issued a prospectus of its Arabic type faces under the title Alphabetum arabicum – a 64-page masterpiece of design which not only displays Granjon’s beautiful types, but contains a careful Latin Essay on the Arabic writing system (See illustration 5)-two classical works on Arabic grammar, the Caphiah (al-Kafiya) and the Giarrumia, (al-Ajurrumiya) and the abridged edition of al-Idrisi’s famous geography (See Aramco World, July-August 1977), composed, fittingly enough, in Sicily in the 11th century.
The year 1593 saw the appearance of one of the most famous productions of the Medici Press: the folio edition of Avicenna’s famous Canon of Medicine (al-Qanun fi al-Tibb), a beautiful book employing all three of Granjon’s typefaces, the small, medium and large. The book itself had been the standard reference book on medical practice during the Middle Ages, both in Europe and in the Muslim world, and continued to be so through the Renaissance.
In 1594 the Medici Press published still another important work, the Arabic translation of Euclid with commentary by Nasiral-Din al-Tusi, the famous 13th century mathematician and courtier, thus providing, in the first few years of operation, coverage of medicine, mathematics, geography and grammar, the four subjects particularly cultivated by the Arabs.
Before the press actually published these works, however, the Grand Duke of Tuscany died and Cardinal de Medici, his brother, became the Grand Duke. This was a disaster for the Medici Press because the Cardinal moved to Florence, severed his ties with Raimondi and later, after the Arabic Gospels appeared in 1591, decided to sell the press. Worse, he also decided to sell the books, manuscripts, typefaces and unsold copies of the Medici publications.
Appalled at this, Raimondi bought the press himself, but guickly found he had purchased a white elephant. Books sent to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1593 – then, as now, Europe’s center for the distribution of books – did not do well. And the next year an employee of the press stole a large number of books and sold them cheaply at the fair, thus destroying the market for the remaining copies
After Raimondi died in 1614, everything that remained ofthe Medici Press-paper stocks, type, presses, unsold books and the reference library of manuscripts – was transferred to the Villa Medici at the top ofthe Spanish Steps in Rome. All these materials were later transferred to Pisa, and in 1684 wound up in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. During these moves, some of the type and matrices had found their way to the Propaganda Fide, which used them for its oriental publications.
In the 18th century, amazingly enough, many of the books printed by Raimondi were still in the Palazzo Vecchio stacked in wardrobes. An inventory taken at the time shows that 1,039 copies of the Arabic-Latin Gospels, 566 of the Arabic Gospels, 810 of the Avicenna, 1,967 of the Euclid, 1,129 of the Idrisi, still remained unsold, along with several other titles. But early in the 19th century – the Age of Enlightenment – the government sold the remaining books for a derisory sum to a bookseller who destroyed the bulk of them to increase the rarity of the remainder. The remaining type and matrices wound up in the Pitti Palace, where Napoleon was able to loot them at his ease when he conquered Italy. In 1808 Napoleon ordered the punches and matrices to be taken to Paris, where they were used to print Arabic proclamations for distribution in the Near East Eightyears later, after Napoleon’s exile, they were brought back to Florence
Meanwhile-in 1610, the year the last Arabic book came off the Medici Press – a book in Arabic was printed in the Middle East itself: the famous Quzhayya Psalter -the Bible’s book of psalms.
The Quzhayya Psalter is a small folio containing 260 pages, each divided into two columns, the right-hand column containing the Syriac text, the left-hand column the Arabic translation printed in a smaller Syriac typeface. At the bottom of the page, in the colophon, are clues to the story of the Psalter. It reads: “Printed in the honored monastery of Wadi Quzhayya, on Mount Lebanon, the work of master Pasquale Eli and of the humble Yusuf ibn Amima from Karm Sadde . . .1610.”
Pasquale Eli was an Italian printer while Yusuf ibn Amima had been a student at the Maronite college in Rome, and was a member of a delegation sent to Rome in 1610. Since his name appears in the colophon, it is probable the delegation brought back a press to print the psalter. This psalter was unique – since no other books followed from the press at Quzhayya – and almost a century was to elapse between the printing of the Quzhayya Psalter and the next book printed in Arabic in the East – this time in the Arabic alphabet
Strangely enough, this took place in the Ottoman protectorate of Walachia, now in Romania, where the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Syria, Athanasius Dabbas, set up a press which printed liturgical works in Arabic; they are now among the rarest of printed Arabic works. In 1704 Athanasius returned to Aleppo and established a new Arabic press, at which, it is said, Abd Allah Zakhir, an apprentice goldsmith, with the help of his brother, not only set up the press, but engraved all the matrices, made the tools, and cast the type; all without ever having seen a printing press in operation.
In the story of Arabic printing, Abd Allah Zakhir played an interesting role; his first typeface was used in 1706 to print a Psalter and though the letters are crude, two more books were orinted with it. But then he abandoned it and cut two new faces – both more elegant and closer to the naskhi style of Arabic handwriting – which were used in the edition of the Paracletic published in 1711. Between 1706 and 1711, some nine titles were printed by the Aleppan press.
Inexplicably, after the publication in 1711 of a treatise by the Patriarch himself, the press in Aleppo suddenly ceased operating, but Zakhir later set up another press at Choueir in Lebanon, and once again set about cutting type molds and founding his typeface. The press itself was brought from Europe, and in 1734 he printed his first book; this press continued to be used at the monastery of Saint John at Choueir until 1899.
Like his contemporary Ibrahim Muteferrika, Abd Allah Zakhir had to overcome difficulties which would have proved insurmountable to a lesser man. With no formal training, he mastered a difficult craft without teachers and with few guides. But his true importance is that he was the first man to print books in Arabic with movable type in the Middle East.
The Ottoman Contribution:
Five years before ‘Abd Allah Zakhir set up his own press, a momentous event occurred in Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire. In January, 1729 – the same year Benjamin Franklin’s recently formed printing house received its first government contract – the first book printed in the Arabic alphabet under the auspices of an Islamic government came off the press.
It was momentous because it signaled official recognition of the disturbing decline of Ottoman power-and of the importance of printing in the rise of European power. It also signaled a victory for the man who, more than any other, persuaded the Ottoman Sultan that only wide dissemination of Europe’s scientific and technological knowledge could enable the empire to arrest the decline – and founded a press to do so. This was Ibrahim Muteferrika, the Benjamin Franklin of the Muslim world. Born about 1674, Ibrahim Muteferrika was an extraordinary combination of soldier, scholar, diplomat and writer who, as a child, may have witnessed the long disconsolate retreat of the great Ottoman army from its unsuccessful siege of Vienna-the inescapable sign of the decline in Ottoman military might.
The reasons for the decline were many and complex, but to Ibrahim Muteferrika and other far-sighted men, the solution was not. They believed that unless European military innovations were adopted, the antiquated Ottoman army would be unable to defend the Empire, and that the only route to such reform was rapid and wide dissemination of the scientific ideas which underlay European military power. In short he thought the Ottomans must establish a printing press and translate key European works into Turkish.
These ambitious plans were more easily made than carried out. Aside from the technical problems of obtaining materials, either buying or cutting an Arabic typeface – since Turkish was then written in Arabic script- and learning the craft, there was the problem of the immense conservatism of the Ottoman state. Although Hebrew and Armenian presses had existed in Constantinople for a long time, no one had ever printed with Arabic type. It was perfectly possible that the innovation would be opposed simply on the grounds that no one had done it before.
Fortunately, Ibrahim had two powerful allies. These were Mehmed Chelebi Pasha Yirmisekiz and his son Sa’id, who in 1721, had returned from a diplomatic mission to Paris filled with enthusiasm for various aspects of French culture-among them printing-and had conveyed this enthusiasm to the Sultan and his court. Eventually, therefore, the Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasha, encouraged Ibrahim Muteferrika to address a petition to the Sultan – which Ibrahim did in the form of an essay entitled Wasilat al-Tiba’a, “The Utility of Printing.”
“The Utility of Printing” is a remarkable document. It opens with a closely reasoned warning on the importance of preserving a nation’s laws-and on the difficulties of doing so.
Ancient peoples, Ibrahim argues, engraved their laws on tablets or wrote them down in books, but throughout history both tablets and books have been destroyed – one reason why Muslims carefully guarded the text of the Koran and the Traditions by making copies and circulating them among the believers, who iearned them by heart.
Unhappily, Ibrahim goes on, even the power of the state cannot always protect books from the ravages of war. Genghis Khan and Hulagu, the Mongol conquerors of the 12th century, in destroying the empire of the Abbasids, burned or spoiled all the works of art and science which they found – and the Christians captured thousands of irreplaceable books when they conquered Muslim Spain.
These events did irreparable harm to Muslim learning, Ibrahim writes, because while the Christians retained possession of a great number of Arabic works on the useful sciences, the Muslims were deprived of them forever. “All of these considerations should be borne in mind when considering the utility of the establishment of a printing press in Constantinople.”
Ibrahim goes on to list his specific aims: Arabic is the language of science; Turkish speakers need good dictionaries to acquire the language; printing can produce such dictionaries, as well as works on astronomy philosophy, history and geography cheaply and exactly.
With printed books, Ibrahim argues, scholars and students can be sure of the faithfulness of their text to its original, and will be spared the laborious job of collating manuscripts.
Moreover, he goes on, the ink used for manuscripts is effaced by dampness, while printer’s ink, which is oil-based, is impervious. As printed books are cheap, both poor and rich can now devote themselves to study without worrying about the costs. Since public libraries in the provinces can be supplied with printed books, learning will thereby be spread throughout the Empire.
Ibrahim also points out that there are many Muslims throughout the world who are not Ottoman subjects and printing could supply them with books by which they might instruct themselves.
“The famine of books will be at an end. All nations will be able to acquire books at low cost. What glory for our Empire, and what prayers for its perpetuity will be made, when they see so many good books which communicate knowledge to them, of which till then they had been destitute. This motive alone should suffice for our Invincible Emperor to protect and permit the establishment of printing.”
In the course of his enumeration of the advantages of printing, Ibrahim also casts a critical eye on the products of European presses which had printed Arabic books.
“European rulers have recognized the importance of works written in Arabic, Persian and Turkish, and have printed books in all languages… but… the books are filled with errors and the type is ugly….”
But, he goes on, this too is an argument for setting up a printing press in Constantinople. “If these European presses should cut type based upon a good oriental hand, the trade in their books will prove detrimental to our interests, for money will flow from us to them.
“It is therefore vital for the Muslims,”he concluded, “formerly in advance of the West in the sciences, not to let themselves be eclipsed by them.”
When the Sultan Ahmed III received Ibrahim Muteferrika’s petition, he submitted it to the Mufti, Shaikh Abd Allah, the leading authority on Islamic law, with this question; “A certain man has cast metal letters in order to print the classical works of literature and science, such as dictionaries, works on logic, philosophy, astronomy, and so on, and has offered to undertake to print them. Can he, in accordance with the rules of justice, execute his design?”
Shaikh ‘Abd Allah’s response-very like a Supreme Court decision – was yes, he could: “If such a one has mastered the art of printing the aforesaid works correctly with metal characters, providing a sure means of saving work and of making multiple copies at low cost, thus making their acguisition easy and less costly, then I rule that this art, because of its great advantages, must be encouraged. In order to avoid misprints, able and intelligent men must be chosen, who, before the books issue from the press, shall correct them, by comparing them with the best available manuscript texts.”
Far from opposing the innovation, then, the religious authorities welcomed it. But as they naturally stipulated that every effort should be made to avoid misprints, the government appointed four eminent qadis as proof-readers – the first in Islam to undertake this laborious and thankless task. The authorities also ruled that only secular works might be printed – to protect the more than 4,000 professional copyists of Constantinople, whose work consisted almost entirely in copying the Koran, the collections of canonical traditions, and legal texts.
Shaikh ‘Abd Allah’s decision was issued in 1726, but it was more than two years before Ibrahim was ready to print; he first had to gather materials, learn how to print and design and cut the type.
Some historians assume that Ibrahim imported his Arabic typeface from Europe, but Ottoman documents unequivocally state that Ibrahim designed and cut his type himself-and it is certainly different from European Arabic typefaces of the same period. It is closer to naskhi, the standard book hand of the Muslim world, very similar to typefaces used in the Middle East today, and, for several reasons, a remarkable achievement.
Printing with the Arabic alphabet involves a number of difficulties which are not found with the Latin alphabet, or even with other Semitic alphabets. One is that each Arabic letter has four different forms, depending upon its position in the word, and another is that Arabic is a cursive script-that is, most letters are linked to the preceding and following letter by a ligature, which varies in both length and direction. A third problem is that since calligraphy is the supreme Islamic art, (See Aramco World, July-August 1977), readers tend to be critical, even of legible type faces, on esthetic grounds. Today for example, few readers are entirely happy with the computerized type in Arabic newspapers. Yet Ibrahim, working with no training or technical background, not only produced a legible type face, but one that pleased his readers. When the first book rolled off the presses in 1729, the Mufti who had authorized its printing wrote, “This book must be regarded as a pearl.”
The book referred to was a Turkish translation of an Arabic dictionary, in two volumes, the first containing 666 pages, the second 756. Known as the Sahah (“The Correct”), it was composed in the 10th century by al-Jawhari, and is one of the classics of Arabic lexicography. It contains more than 22,000 root words, and each usage is illustrated by quotations from the poets. The second book, a maritime history of the Turks by the great Ottoman writer Hajj Khalifa, was less formidable: only 150 pages long. But like the two volumes of the Sahah, it was issued in an edition of 1,000 copies – a large printing for the time – and contained five illustrations: one showing the two hemispheres, another showing the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, another the islands under Ottoman rule, the fourth a map of the Adriatic and its islands, and the fifth a double mariner’s compass, beautifully engraved, with the names of the winds in Turkish, Persian and other languages. These illustrations testify to Ibrahim Muteferrika’s skill as a map maker and engraver.
The Maritime Wars also contains information on cities, ports, borders, islands and sites of important naval battles; it gives an account of Ottoman naval battles in the Archipelago, the Black Sea, the Red Sea, Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Venice, lists famous Ottoman admirals, including Piri Reis, (See Aramco World, January-February 1980) and describes different methods of navigation.
Another interesting book published by Ibrahim Muteferrika was a history of the discovery of America. Printed towards the beginning of April, 1730, it is the first Islamic printed book with figural illustrations. Based partly on Latin sources, the History of the West Indies contains an introduction on the geographical views of ancient writers -showing their ignorance of the New World -and then gives an account of the Spanish discoveries, including fabulous stories of the flora and fauna of the New World, illustrated by 13 prints (See illustrations 9 and 10), and four maps (See illustration 11 ), engraved by Ibrahim.
One of the most important books which came off the press in Constantinople was written by Ibrahim Muteferrika himself, and was devoted to the decline of the Ottoman Empire which had led Ibrahim to found the press in the first place. Called the Nizam al-Umam, (“Ordering of the Nations”), this book was written to convince the Sultan and the court to introduce European tactics and organizational methods into the Ottoman army.
This book was both bold and innovative. By stressing the need for order and written legislation in the governing of a nation, and in discussing political and military geography and European military arts, tactics and weapons, Ibrahim, in effect, was criticizing the Ottoman’s proud and powerful military complex. Although the book seems to have had little effect, it marks one of the first stages in the modernization of Turkey.
Ibrahim’s press also published the Jihan-Numah, (“Mirror of the World”), by Hajji Khalifa, the same man who wrote “The Maritime Wars of the Turks,”- probably the most beautiful book in its catalog, as well as the most ambitious. Published on July 3,1732, it contains 698 pages, and 39 illustrations (See illustrations 1 and 12 ), among them 24 maps.
It also includes the first discussion in the Islamic world of the ideas of Galileo, Copernicus, and Tycho Brahe. Based on both European and Islamic sources, it gives the latitudes and longitudes of many Asian towns with greater accuracy than any previous work, and for this reason was much esteemed by European cartographers. In the Preface, Ibrahim Muteferrika makes a plea for printing up-to-date maps. “Otherwise”, he says, “we will make no progress in the science of geography.”
The last book printed by Ibrahim, like the first, was a dictionary, this time Persian-Turkish. It was printed in 1742,13 years after the foundation of the press. Three years later, in 1745, Ibrahim Muteferrika died and the press virtually ceased production until 1783, when, with the help of two old men who had worked with him, printing in Turkey was revived, this time to stay.
Napoleon in Egypt:
In 1798 Napoleon, fresh from the conquest of Italy, decided to invade Egypt-to gain naval control of the eastern Mediterranean and cut Britain’s route to India – and in May the French fleet set sail from the port of Toulon for Alexandria.
Two months before the departure of the fleet, Napoleon gave orders to pack the Arabic, Greek and French type of the Imprimerie Nationale and ship it to Toulon, and on April 3 also arranged to send the famous press of the Propaganda Fide and its oriental typefaces to Egypt. So by one of history’s curious coincidences, one of the presses intimately associated with the birth of Arabic printing in Europe was destined to introduce Gutenberg’s art to the land of the Pharaohs.
Napoleon took a personal interest in packing and shipping of the presses and the type and in recruiting 34 printers, translators, and typesetters. His correspondence is full of urgent requests relating to all these matters, and no detail was too small to escape his attention. It may seem odd that the commander of a military operation, beset with thousands of details, should have been so concerned with printing. The answer is that Napoleon was one of the first modern leaders – for better or for worse – to systematically make use of printed propaganda, which he had used for the first time during his Italian campaigns. He planned to use the same methods in Egypt, and quiet the fears of the populace by distributing pamphlets and proclamations assuring the Egyptians that he came not as their conqueror but as their liberator.
He had other, more elevated motives, too. Like Alexander the Great, another famous conqueror of Egypt, Napoleon took with him a large group of savants-historians, geographers, engineers, linguists, orientalists, astronomers and physicians-whose mission was to prepare a complete description of the climate, flora and fauna, antiquities, architecture and languages of ancient and modern Egypt. The result was the Description de I’Egypte (See Aramco World March-April 1976). By doing so, Napoleon perhaps sought to justify his invasion in the eyes of Europe. The reports of the various savants were to be printed in Egypt, and perhaps translated into Arabic to acquaint the Egyptians with European science. These plans were only partially fulfilled, for the French stay in Egypt was short, and it was not until long after the armies of Napoleon had left the banks of the Nile that the Description de I’Egypte was printed.
Two men were put in charge of the presses. One was the orientalist Jean Joseph Marcel, grandson of a former French Consul in the Levant, and the other was Marc Aurel, an old friend of Napoleon, who met him as a young man in Valence where his father printed a newspaper.
French scholars have sought to determine which of the two men should be credited with introducing printing to Egypt. In fact, the first Arabic printed document of the French expedition was not printed on Egyptian soil at all, but on the high seas – on board the aptly-named Orient under the supervision of Marcel, the expedition’s official printer.
This first document was a proclamation by Napoleon intended to reassure the inhabitants of Alexandria; it was read aloud to a number of Egyptians who were forcibly taken on board the flagship in the harbor of Alexandria the day before the debarkation of the troops, and the city’s capture, on July 1.
Copies were also distributed throughout the city, and on July 7, the day Napoleon left Alexandria for Cairo, he left explicit instructions that the press be set up in the house of the Venetian Consul, who was expelled for the purpose.
Meanwhile, Marc Aurel, the expedition’s private printer, accompanied Napoleon to Cairo, and soon began printing the first journal in the Arabic speaking world, the Courrier de I’Egypte, a political journal, published every 10 days, in French, for the occupying troops. The first number appeared on August 28,1798. Later Marc Aurel also began printing the more interesting La Decade Egyptienne, a literary journal, until Napoleon, dissatisfied with the number of typographical errors it contained and its poor style, decided to bring the presses in Alexandria to Cairo, and to replace the discredited Marc Aurel with Marcel.
It was not until October that the presses arrived in Cairo. The delay, oddly enough, was caused by the difficulty in hiring enough camels to carry all the cases of type and the presses. Finally, Marcel decided to send everything by boat, and the press was set up in Azbakiyah Square, in the same building which housed the Institut d’Egypte, the headquarters of the scientific expedition. But it was still some time before printing could begin. Towards the end of November, we find Napoleon writing once more to Alexandria, asking for “forty cases of type” to be sent on to Cairo. Eventually, though, on January 14, the press was ready and the new Imprimerie Nationale began to turn out both the Courrier and the Decade .
Under Marcel, La Decade Egyptienne presented articles on art, architecture, antiquities and medicine, as well as chronicling the cultural life of Egypt during the French occupation. The most interesting articles are those by Marcel himself. He printed his own translations, accompanied by learned notes – which gave him a chance to show off the variety of oriental typefaces he had brought from Rome – of Arabic texts relating to Egypt and other scholarly topics. In 1799 he published a small edition of the fables of Luqman (See Aramco World, March-April 1974) in Arabic, one of the few full-length Arabic books to be printed by the French expedition. Another was a treatise on smallpox by a French doctor, which the contemporary Egyptian historian al-Jabarti described as “not bad of its kind.”
What impression did printing make on intellectual circles in Egypt? It is commonly assumed that the presses of Napoleon were the first ever heard of in Egypt. This is not so. Al-Jabarti’s detailed history of the French invasion, of which he was an eyewitness, often mentions the printed announcements distributed by the occupying power, but he evinces little surprise at the process itself. The Coptic communities had been using printed Arabic liturgical works sent from Rome since 1738, and there is little doubt that Ibrahim Muteferrika’s pioneer experiment was well known in Egypt.
Still, there was a difference between knowing of a new process and actually seeing it in operation. An article appearing in the Courrier for February 13,1801 gives some information of how printing struck educated Egyptians: “Of all the things which have excited the astonishment and admiration of the inhabitants of Egypt since our arrival in their country, the thing which has made the most impression upon them… was the art of printing. Last year, the principal members of the government, among them the Shaikhs al-Muhdi, al-Fayyumi, al-Sawi and others, came many times to the Imprimerie Nationale and there saw with a mixture of pleasure and surprise … the various processes of printing, both in French and in oriental languages. Shaikh Muhammad al-Fasi, who had already seen printing in Constantinople, and several Syrians who knew the press established in… Kisruwan (Choueir) among the mountains of the Anti-Lebanon, were also astonished at the speed and precision with which the French printers worked… Shaikh al-Bakri, who had not yet seen the Imprimerie Nationale, came several days ago to visit the establishment. After having satisfied his curiosity… he asked several questions about the art of printing. Among other things, he asked if France had many printing presses, and whether they existed in other European countries as well, and if so, in which were they most numerous? When his questions had been answered, he asked if printing existed in Russia, and was astonished at the answer that that country had not begun to become civilized until the introduction of printing. He then asked what influence printing had on the civilization of a people, and seemed to understand, and approve of, the answer that was given him, above all: (1) the “ease of multiplying many copies of good books, which in manuscript could only be known to a few and (2) the impossibility that all these copies should be lost or destroyed under any conceivable circumstances – a thing which can easily happen to manuscripts. He then said that there existed a great number of good Arabic books whose publication would be infinitely useful to the country, where most people were unaware of them, and that he sincerely desired that they reach a wider audience through printing. He left saying that all the sciences came from God, and that if God wished, there was nothing men undertook that they could not succeed in.”
Those officials, it turned out, were not the only Egyptians to see the utility of printing. Four years later-after the French forces had left – a young military officer came to power and, realizing the importance of education, began to put printing in Egypt on a firm foundation. His name was Muhammad Ali.
The Bulaq Press:
In the history of modern Egypt, few men have contributed more than Muhammad Ali. Ayoung officer when Napoleon came, Muhammad Ali seized power in 1805 – four years after the French left-eliminated the Mamluk aristocracy, asserted his independence of Ottoman rule and, perhaps more important, established the Bulaq Press, a symbol of modernization for the Middle East.
Though poorly educated himself, Muhammad Ali soon saw the need for massive reform if Egypt was to successfully oppose both the might of the Ottoman Empire and aggressive European adventurers like Napoleon. He also realized that the key to the modernization of Egypt lay in education along Western lines, particularly in practical, technical subjects like shipbuilding, engineering, mathematics and medicine, and in 1809 he sent the first of what were to be many missions of Egyptian students to Europe.
Little is known of this first mission except the name of one of the men who was sent-‘Uthman Nural-Din, who later became the first director of the Bulaq Press. ‘Uthman spent five years in Italy, mainly in Pisa and Leghorn – both at the time ruled by the Grand Duke of Tuscany-whose ancestors had done so much for Arabic printing in the 16th and 17th centuries – went on to Paris, and returned to Egypt in 1817 with huge orders of books on technical subjects.
Meanwhile, it had become obvious to Muhammad Ali that the system of schools he had established could not function without printed textbooks, and in 1815 he sent Nicolas Musabiki to Rome and Milan to study type-founding and printing. Muhammad Ali also ordered three presses from Milan – along with the necessary paper and ink from Leghorn and Trieste – and, when Musabiki returned, made him manager of the Bulaq Press, working under ‘Uthman Nur al-Din. The press itself, in the meantime, had been established in the old Nile port of Bulaq, now a suburb of Cairo, and shortly afterwards, the second, and largest, student mission – it numbered 44 students – had returned from Paris. These men, under the leadership of Rifa’a Bey Rafi’ al-Tahtawi, had studied French with a view to the translation of technical books into Arabic. The most prolific of these translators turned out to be al-Tahtawi himself.
Al-Tahtawi had been educated atal-Azhar University, then and now the most prestigious center for the study of the Islamic sciences in the Muslim world. There was apparently no opposition by the Shaikhs of al-Azhar to the innovation of printing; we have already seen how enthusiastic Shaikh al-Bakri had been about the Imprimerie Nationale of Napoleon. Muhammad Ali attached several professors from al-Azhar to the Bulaq Press to learn the art of printing; one became head of the foundry, another printer-in-chief, and others worked as compositors and proofreaders.
Between 1822 and 1842, the press at Bulaq published 243 titles. A glance at these is the quickest way of seeing where the interests of Muhammad Ali and his reformers lay. By far the largest number of books – 48 – were on military and naval subjects. Muhammad Ali had seen both the French and the English fleets in action, and realized how vulnerable Egypt was to invasion from the sea. He had also noted how successful the modern arms of the French had been against the antiquated weapons of the Mamluks.
Interestingly though, the next largest category of books published by the Bulaq Press was poetry. Twenty-six works of poetry in Turkish, Persian and Arabic were published in the first 20 years of the press’ operation; clearly the men associated with the Bulaq Press were as interested in traditional Islamic literature as they were in translations of European works on military tactics. After poetry comes grammar, with 21 titles, mathematics and mechanics, with 16, medicine with 15 and veterinary medicine with 12. The rest of the books published by the press were on religion, botany, agriculture, political administration and so forth (See illustration 15).
In 1836 Muhammad Ali opened his famous School of Translation in the Azbakiyah quarter, not far from where Napoleon’s Imprimerie Nationale had been set up. The following year al-Tahtawi was appointed director, and over the next 20 years he wrote or translated at least 38 books, on everything from mining technology to the history of ancient Egypt. Many of these were published by the press in Bulaq.
The School of Translation was faced with almost insurmountable linguisitic problems. The translators had to find Arabic equivalents for western technological terminology, and in many cases their informants – Italians, Frenchmen and Turks – did not speak Arabic. Some books were first translated from French into Italian so that an Italian-speaking doctor could help prepare a rough Turkish translation that could then be turned into Arabic and revised by the professors from al-Azhar. Under these conditions, one can only marvel at the productivity of these pioneers of the Arabic linguistic revival.
The only book produced by the Bulaq Press which tells us anything of what the men who took part in the modernization of Egypt under Muhammad Ali thought and felt is al-Tahtawi’s engaging account of his stay in Paris. This is much more than a simple travel book; it tells us a great deal, both implicitly and explicitly, about the impact of 19th century European society on a traditionally educated Muslim. Al-Tahtawi was enthusiastic about many aspects of French society, less so about others. He was impressed by printing, education and public works, but found much to criticize, particularly in the sphere of morals. He liked the intellectual ferment of France, and the openess of the people to new ideas: “The Parisians,” he says, “are distinguished among the Europeans for the subtlety of their intelligence, their vivacity and the depth of their understanding. They love to know things in depth, and are only convinced in argument by definite proof. Even ordinary people know how to read and write. They think deeply about things, and every man forms his own ideas. They compose books on all subjects, even the most mundane, such as cooking, which means that even craftsmen must know how to read in order to acquire a complete knowledge of their craft. Every craftsman seeks to create something never thought of before or to perfect another’s invention… The Parisians are curious, and have a passion for novelty. They love change in all things, particularly fashion, which changes all the time.”
In 1862, the Bulaq Press passed into private hands and by the end of the century its monopoly of printing in Egypt had been broken as a number of privately owned presses were established. Its importance, however, cannot be exaggerated. The Bulaq Press was at once a symbol of modernization in the Middle East and a concrete source of the books – technical translations as well as famous classics of Arabic literature – that spread literacy, speeded development and paved the way for the development of modern Arabic literature.
An American Contribution:
While the Bulaq Press was being founded in Egypt, another important Arabic press was set up on the island of Malta by a group of American Protestants, and that press, in turn, spawned what would become the most influential Arabic press after the Bulaq Press: the American Press of Beirut.
The press in Malta was in operation for 20 years – during which it published some 20 titles, both secular and religious, including a book by Abd Allah Zakhir, the first Arabic printer in the Middle East, and involved a man called Faris al-Shidyaq, later a key figure in the renaissance of modern Arabic literature and the first newspaper editor in the Middle East.
In 1833 Eli Smith, the assistant director of the press in Malta went to Beirut and installed a printing press in his home near Bab Ya’qub. This press – the American Press of Beirut -was to become one of the most productive and important Arabic presses in the Middle East. Under the directorship of Dr. Cornelius van Dyck, who succeeded to the directorship in 1857 the American Press of Beirut probably reached the widest audience of any in the Middle East by publishing writers in the forefront of the Arabic literary revival like Ibrahim al-Yaziji, whose Arabic translation of the Bible won a gold medal at the Paris exposition of 1878. By 1922 the American Press had turned out the unbelievable total of 1,240,000,000 printed pages in Arabic, English, French, Turkish, Armenian, Persian and Kurdish.
The Lithographed Book:
The 19th century also witnessed another innovation in printing technology that greatly affected Arabic book production – the introduction of lithography in the 1820’s. Because lithography allows the exact duplication of handwriting, it was of particular importance in the Muslim world, which was never very happy about the look of Arabic type. It is no accident that it was in areas of the Muslim world which did not habitually employ the script called naskhi -such as India, North Africa and Iran – that lithography was most popular; it permitted the reproduction of the visual nuances of calligraphy
Some of the lithographed books produced in the 19th century are very beautiful indeed. They were often written out on the lithographic block by famous calligraphers, and some of them, with their hand-colored title-pages and decorative borders, are almost indistinguishable from manuscripts. Lithography was thought particularly suitable for printing the Koran, for many pious Muslims felt that since the Koran was in every sense “scripture” it should be written out by hand.
In India and Iran, where Arabic printing had been introduced in 1814 and 1817 respectively, the lithographed book almost became a traditional craft. Abdul Halim Sharar, the noted Urdu author, has preserved some details of early 19th century lithography in his fascinating book Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture: “At first printing was not undertaken on a commercial basis but purely as a private pursuit. The finest quality paper, highly appropriate for lithography, was used and the best calligraphists were employed at high salaries. They were shown great favor without any stipulations as to working conditions or how much they wrote in a day or even whether they wrote anything at all. In the same way the printers were never asked how many pages they had printed in a day. For the ink, thousands of lamps of mustard-oil were lighted to produce fine-quality lampblack. Instead of acid, fine-skinned lemons were used and sponges took the place of cloth. In short, only the finest materials were employed. As a result, Persian and Arabic educational and religious books in the days of the monarchy could not have been printed anywhere else but in Lucknow, where they were produced, irrespective of cost, for discriminating eyes. Books printed at that time represent a fortune to those who possess them. People search for them but cannot find them.”
Charmingly illustrated popular romances produced in Iran and India, where lithography practically eclipsed printing after 1824, are collector’s items today illustrations 17,19 and 20. A number of very beautiful lithographed books were also produced in North Africa in the late 19th century, particularly in Fez
Today, of course, printing with movable type, rather than by the lithographic process, has taken over in most of the Middle East, and computerized typesetting is absorbing the energies and talents of typographers and graphic designers. Yet the new typographers are still grappling with the same problems that faced Granjon, Zakhir, Muteferrika and others: how to marry the beauty of calligraphy to the efficiency of printing, a process that, in the history of the world, ranks with the alphabet-and the computer- in importance and was a vital factor in the modernization of the Muslim world.
This article appeared on pages 20-35 of the March/April 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
Abdullah of Yedikule was the favourite pupil of the celebrated calligrapher Hafiz Osman Efendi, and we know from the register of calligraphers that he received his icazet in 1102 H. He achieved great beauty and perfection in his use of Thuluth and Naskhi and was awarded both praise and protection by Sultan Ahmed Ill. He produced twenty-four Qur’ans as well as a number of Enams, Evrads, Kit’as, Murak’kas and Hilye-i Serifs. He had a large number of pupils. Most of his works are preserved in the Nuruosmaniye Library. Abdullah Effendi was greatly loved and admired by his teacher. He used the name Seyyid to indicate that he was descended from the family of the Prophet. He bid farewell to this transitory world in 1144 H.
Mustafa Izzet was the son of the great master of calligraphy Esad Yesari. His date of birth is uncertain. He learned the art of calligraphy from his father, from whom he also received his icazet. He wrote a very beautiful Ta’Iiq script. Very fine inscriptions by Mustafa Izzet are to be seen on a large number of mosques, tombs, fountains and other public buildings in Istanbul. The great calligrapher All Haydar Bey was one of his pupils.He died in 1266 H. and was buried in the cemetery at Gelenbevi.