Journal of Ottoman Calligraphy

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History of Ottoman Calligraphy

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A Brief History of Ottoman Calligraphy


When, in the tenth century, the Turks migrated to the West from their original home in the steppes of northwest China, they came into contact in Turkestan, Afghanistan and Iran with the religion and culture of the Islamic world. The mass conversion to Islamic, which resulted from this migration, was accompanied by the abandonment of the old Uyghur alphabet they had formerly employed and the adoption of the Arabic script they were to use for nearly a thousand years until the introduction of the new Turkish alphabet in 1928. But the inherently artistic nature of the Turks inspired them with deep love for the Arabic script, which they themselves greatly improved by the introduction of a number of changes in form.

It was the Ottoman Turks who produced and perfected several varieties of this type of script. All the various branches of the art of calligraphy, an art greatly loved and respected by the Ottoman Turks, flourished particularly in the city of Istanbul, the administrative center of the Ottoman State, and it was in Istanbul that the finest and most mature works were produced.

The earliest texts written in the Arabic script date back to some fifty years before the Hegira, i.e. to about 568 A.D. The forms of the letters to be found in this script clearly derive from the ancient Syrian script and are reminiscent of the forms in the Nabati script employed by the earlier inhabitants of Syria and Mesopotamia in the northern section of the Arab peninsula.

The type of Arabic script in use at the time of the first emergence of Islam was a slightly modified form of the old Syrian script and became known as Kufic on account of its first being taught and used in the city of Kufe in Iraq.

Literate members of the Kureys tribe, to which the Prophet Muhammad belonged, included the future Caliphs Omer, Osman and All. After the revelation of the Qur’an, scribes copied it down in kufic script on leather or on a kind of parchment made from the leaves of the date palm. This type of script was later followed by other types of script known as Thuluth and Naskhi.

Kufic script was transformed into Thuluth and Naskhi by Mehmed bin Mansur, one of the Abbasid caliphs, and by “lbni Mukle”, who had served Mutasam as vizier. lbni Mukle had taken lessons from “Ahval”, a pupil of Ishak bin Hammad, and achieved fame at the beginning of the fourth century of the Hegira. He died in 328 H. (910 A.D.). After his death, Ali bin Hilal, who became famous under the name of lbni Bevvab, improved the scripts invented by lbni Mukle and gave them greater regularity of form, and at the same time developed the scripts known as Reyhani and Muhakkak. The Ta’liq script used in writing Persian texts is said to have been developed from Kufic script and elements of the Pehlevi script used in Iran by a calligrapher of the name of Hoca EbulAI. Nevertheless, it was Cemaleddin Yakut-Mustasami, a slave of Elmusta, sam the last AbbasidCaliph in Baghdad, who raised the script to the highest level of perfection. The calligrapher achieved fame i n the first half of the seventh century of Hegira and died in 698 H. (1280 A.D.). He was the first calligrapher to give an oblique cut to the point of the reed pen used in calligraphy. He was also the finest writer of the time in Muhakkak script. He had a number of pupils, including Abdullah Ergun, Nasireddin Mutatabbip, Mubarek Sah Kutup, Yusuf of Khorasan, Mir Haydar, Ahmed Suhraverdi and Abdullah Sayref, each one of whom was a calligrapher of very great remown.

One of the finest pieces of calligraphy of the Fatih period can be seen in the inscription panel in Jeli Thuluth script on the outer face of the Bab-i Humayun, the first gate leading into Topkapi Saray on the side facing Ayasofya, is the work of Ali Sofi, one of the most celebrated calligraphers of the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror and son and pupil of Yahya Sofi, a student of Abdullah Sayrefi.

Towards the middle of the fifteenth century, Istanbul, now the capital of an Empire that had arisen after the decline of the Seljuk States and the Anatolian Emirates, became the center of a highly developed art of calligraphy. Sheikh Hamdullah (1436-1520 A.D.), a calligrapher encouraged and protected by Sultan Bayezid II, succeeded in creating a new style and character in Thuluth, Naskhi and Muhakkak from a close examination of the writings of Yakut and other members of this school, and left specimens of calligraphy that were to constitute models for the calligraphers that succeeded him.

Sheikh Hamdullah was a native of Amasya. He had taken lessons in Thuluth and Naskhi from Hayreddin of Maras, a member of the Yakut school of calligraphy. The beauty of his script attracted the attention of sehzade (Prince) Beyazid, who was at that time governor of Amasya. The sehzade asked him to give lessons in calligraphy to his sons, and this subsequently resulted in a very close friend ship between the two men. After Bayezid became Sultan he invited the calligrapher to Istanbul to write the inscriptions in the mosque he was building and which was to bear his name.

Sheikh Hamdullah’s arrival in Istanbul was destined to give rise to a new school of calligraphy. The Sultan gave the Sheikh his own collection of calligraphy; including all the examples he possessed of the works of Yakut, and asked him if he could produce a new, individual calligraphic script. After a careful examination of the six different types of calligraphic script used by Yakut, Sheikh Hamdullah succeeded in creating a quite original type of his own.

Topkapi Palace contains a calligraphic album by Sheikh Hamdullah with examples of Thuluth, Naskhi, Muhakkak, Rik’a, Tevki and Divani scripts, together with a very beautifully written copy of the Qur’an.

As the founder of a new school of sixteenth century calligraphy the Sheikh had every right to the title of Kibletül Kuttab (paragon of scribes), which he was generally given. This school succeeded in perfecting the Naskhi script in copying books, thus making possible the production of the thousands of exquisite manuscript books contained in our libraries and museums.

In the same period another great master of calligraphy, Ahmed Karahisari (1468-1556), introduced a completely original calligraphic style, thus opening a new era in the art of calligraphy. Karahisari, a pupil of Esadullah Kirmani and very much influenced by the work of Yahya Sofi, continued the tradition of the Yakut school, which was later continued by Karahisaris son Hasan Celebi, another very great calligrapher.

Karahisari was recognized in his own time as a calligrapher of outstanding merit, and two very beautifully illuminated copies of the Qur’an, one large and the other of medium size, are now preserved in Topkapi Saray. The larger copy of the Qur’an is written in Muhakkak, Thuluth, Naskhi and Reyhani, and each page is decorated with four koltuks. This Qur’an is a masterpiece of calligraphy, decorative illumination and binding.

The superb inscriptions in the mosques of Süleymaniye in Istanbul and Selimiye in Edirne, built at the height of Ottoman power and magnificence, are the work of these masters. But this school proved to be short-lived and came to an end with the inscriptions by Demirci Kulu Yusuf in the mosque of Kilic All Pasha in Istanbul.
The school of Sheikh Hamdullah, on the contrary, was to continue its development right up to the present day, the greatest and most famous Turkish calligraphers being products of this school. The script developed by these calligraphers was of such beauty and perfection as to give rise to the following saying, which is tube found quoted throughout the Islamic world and is undoubtedly an accurate reflection of the truth: “The Quran was revealed in Mecca, read in Egypt and written in Istanbul”. The following are some of the most celebrated calligraphers trained in the Sheikh Hamdullah tradition: Sheikh Hamdullah’s son Mustafa Dede, his son-in-law Sükrullah Halite, his grandson Dervish Mehmed Said, another grandson Mehmed Dede, Abdullah Kirimi, Hasan Usküdari, Halid Erzurumi, Mehmed Beigradi, Dervish All “Eski”, small Zühdi, Hüseyin Habli, and Mustafa Kutahi.

A very important place in the history of Turkish calligraphy is occupied by another member of this school, the great calligrapher Hafiz Osman, who gave Naskhi script its finest form and was rightly known as “Seyhi-Sani” or the “second Sheikh”. He died in 1110 H. (1698 A.D.) after having trained a number of very great masters of calligraphy, the most famous of these being Seyyid Abdullah of Yedikule. Another two great calligraphers belonging to the same school are small bin All of Agakapi and the court tutor Mehmed Rasim Efendi of Egrikapi who gave lessons in calligraphy to the Sultans Mustafa II and Ahmed III. In the second half of the twelfth century of the Hegira (eighteenth century AD.) and throughout the thirteenth century there were a number of brilliant calligraphers who achieved particular tame for their use of Thuluth, Jell Thuluth, Naskhi and Ta’liq. The most outstanding of these were Katipzade Mehmed Refi Rodosi Ibrahim, Ebubekir Rasid of Konya, Saray Hocasi Yusuf, Sekerzade Mehmed Effendi, Yahya Fahreddin, Gebecizade Mehmed Vasfi, small Zühdi yeni, his brother Mustafa Rakim, Mahmud Celaleddin, Kazasker Mustafa Izzet, Mehmed sefik, Muhsinzade Abdullah, Abdullah Zühdi, Vahdeti, Esad Yesari, Yesarizade Mustafa Izzet, Yahya Hilmi, and Mehmed Sevki. Cf these, Mustafa Rakim was absolutely unsurpassed in his command of Thuluth and Jell Thuluth. The perfection he attained in these scripts are illustrated by the Jell Thuluth frieze inscription in the Nusretiye Mosque at Tophane and the inscription over the door of the same mosque, the inscriptions on the on the tomb and fountain of Naksidil Valde Sultan in the vicinity of Fatih Mosque, and by the inscriptions carved on tombstones in various Istanbul cemeteries. It was also Rakim who gave the tughra of the Ottoman Sultans its definitive form, so that although the actual name of the Sultan might change the form of the tughra remained constant.

Ta’liq was a type of script invented in Iran and which always remained very closely associated with that country. It began to be used in Turkey in the second half of the eleventh century of the Hegira (sixteenth century AD.) following the arrival in Istanbul of Dervish Abdi of Bukhara, one of the pupils of mad-i Hasani, the great Iranian master of Ta’Iiq. Dervish Abdi introduced a smaller and finer version of Ta’liq known as Nesta’liq, and his influence led to a great increase in the number of calligraphers who developed an interest in Ta’Iiq and, consequently, in the number of works produced in this script. When he died in 1057 H. (1647 AD.) he left behind him many calligraphers who had taken lessons from him.
Nevertheless, it was in the twelfth century of the Hegira (eighteenth century AD.) that Ta’liq achieved its ultimate perfection. A large number of great calligraphers in Ta’liq script emerged at this period, one of them being Katipzade Mehmed Refi, who had been a pupil of Kazasker Abdulbaki Arif Effendi and Durmuszade Ahmed Efendi. Mebmed Refi was undoubtedly one of the most outstanding masters of Ta’Iiq script at this period. Other important masters who played a part in the development of Ta’liq script were calligraphers like Sheikh-uI Islam Veliyy’uddin Effendi and Mehmed Dedezade, who made their name through their use of this type of writing. The development of Ta’Iiq reached its highest peak of achievement in the work of Mehmed Esad Yesari, who received his icazet from Dedezade Mehmet Effendi in 1167 H. (1753 A.D.). Mehmed Esad Yesari was paralyzed down one side of his body and could write only with his left hand.

Ottoman Ta’liq differed in several respects from Iranian Ta’liq, and one is immediately struck by the difference in the formation of certain letters as well as in the general appearance of the script as a whole. The various slight modifications made first by Katipzade Mehmed Refi and then by Yesari resulted in this creation of what could well be described as a clearly distinctive Ottoman Ta’Iiq script.

Mehmed Esad Yesari’s son Mustafa Izzet Effendi followed in his father’s footsteps as a master of Ta’Iiq script. A number of inscriptions by both father and son are to be found carved in stone above the entrance doors of a number of mosques, tombs, medreses, imarets, fountains and schools in Istanbul.
The Turkish Ta’liq developed by these two calligraphers, which differs slightly from Iranian Ta’Iiq, served as a model for the Turkish calligraphers who succeeded them and a large number of very fine works were produced in line with the principles they themselves had laid down. The greatest of the calligraphers in this tradition was Sami Effendi, who was succeeded by Kemal Batanay and by his own pupils Necmeddin Effendi and Hulusi Effendi. Sami Effendi was also a master of Jeli Thuluth and produced some very fine compositions in this type of script. As for Thuluth and Naskhi scripts, the style and character developed by the great master of calligraphy Mustafa Rakim was carried on with great meticulousness by Mehmed sevki Effendi, who was succeeded in the same tradition by his own pupil Fehmi Effendi, as well as by “Bakkal” Ahmet Arif Effendi of Filibe and Aziz Effendi.

The style developed by Mustafa Rakim was continued right up to the middle of the twentieth century by Mehmed Nazif, a pupil of the great calligrapher in Jell Thuluth, Sami Effendi, Mehmed Nazif’s pupil Hamid Aytac Bey, the tughrakesh small Hakki Bey, the then Reis-ül Hattatin Ahmed Kamil Akdik and his pupil Mustafa Halim Ozyazici.
Other great masters of Turkish calligraphy in the Naskhi script include Hasan Riza Effendi, who made very beautiful copies of verses, murakkas and Qur’ans in the style developed by Kazasker Izzet Effendi, his pupil Omer Vasfi Effendi and Kazasker Mustafa Izzet’s pupil Mehmed Arif Effendi of Carsamba. At the present day the tradition of Turkish calligraphy is being carried on by Hasan lelebi, a pupil of Hamid Aytac, the greatest master of recent times, who died in 1982, Mahmud Oncü, a pupil of the Besiktas calligrapher Nun Korman, Bekir Pekten, a pupil of Mustafa Halim, and All Alparsian, a pupil of Necmeddin Okyay.

Great admiration has been aroused both at home and abroad by the varied and highly original compositions created in a contemporary adaptation of Kufic and Jeli Divani scripts by Professor Emin Barin, who took lessons in calligraphy from the Reis-ul Hattat in Haci Ahmet, the greatest calligrapher of recent times. We may sum up by saying that Turkish calligraphy has shown a continuous development in strict conformity with tradition, without any deterioration in its essential character, that various original types of script have been invented, such as Divani, Siyakat, Tevki and Rik’a (these will be treated in detail in the section of the book dealing with types of script), and that a large number of works were produced over the years, each one surpassing those preceding it in beauty and maturity.

A very important role in the ordered and regular development of Turkish calligraphy was undoubtely played by the encouragement and protection given by the State, the Sultans and the Palace, and by the opportunies offered by the arts of architecture and decoration. In every period the Enderun School in the Ottoman Saray, in which future administrators of the State were trained and educated, had teachers of calligraphy on its staff, and several the Sultans took lessons from these. The great respect in which these teachers were held is illustrated by the story describing how Sultan Bayezid II, a pupil of the great master of calligraphy Sheikh Hamdullah, stood holding the inkstand while the master wrote.

The Sultans Ahmet I, Mahmud II, who was a pupil of the calligrapher Mustafa Rakim, and Abdulmecit were all skilled calligraphers.


Written by calligrapher

October 12, 2006 at 8:57 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Hello – My father has a 340 years old manuscript of Quran. The Quran is hand written and apparently it is written by Hafiz Osman (b Istanbul, 1642; d Istanbul, 1698)

    Can some expert in Ottoman Caligraphy contact me at my mail address?


    June 9, 2009 at 12:09 pm

  2. dear Talhah …

    I’m intrested in calligarphy art
    i want to know details about this Quran


    December 20, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    • Hello – I have a 230 years old manuscript of Quran. The Quran is hand written and apparently it is written by Elsayed Mostafa El-Halemy
      Can some expert in Ottoman Caligraphy contact me at my mail address?aldawlia_systems@


      September 17, 2011 at 5:21 pm

  3. […] of Ottoman Calligraphy « Journal of Ottoman Calligraphy May 8, 2012 History of Ottoman Calligraphy « Journal of Ottoman Calligraphy. Share this:EmailPrintDigg Pin ItShare on TumblrLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  4. I am an experienced Western Calligrapher who would like to learn Thuluth Ottoman Turkish Calligraphy
    Can you please recommend a top Turkish tutor.

    cyril morrison

    June 4, 2012 at 7:55 pm

  5. Hello/ salam

    I have taken some images of Ottoman Arabic calligraphy in the kaba walls that were written during the reign of Sultan Murad iii. I am having great difficulty in translating them.

    Could you assist me please?



    February 24, 2013 at 4:43 am

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