Treasury Of Calligraphy

Exhibiting calligraphic inscriptions of unrivaled beauty at every step, Istanbul is the virtual capital of this Islamic art. We have listed here some of the most stunning works of calligraphy on the city’s historic peninsula, which has always attracted world-class calligraphers.

Ottoman Istanbul boasted hundreds of libraries large and small. But Ottoman Istanbul itself could be said to have been a library in its own right insofar as the inscriptions engraved on the mosques, tombs, madrasas, soup kitchens, obelisks, fountains and gravestones at every turn give the impression that the whole city is a library waiting to be read.

Many of those inscriptions disappeared during the last century, some due to neglect, some for other reasons. But today’s Istanbul continues to be an extraordinary treasure trove for aficionados of the calligraphic art. So much so that it’s hard to walk for five minutes in the city’s old quarters without coming across some valuable inscription. What, I wonder, is the reason for that?

It All Started With A Pen 
Although there is a widespread belief that the art of calligraphy grew out of a ‘ban on images’, this is not true.  Indeed, to attribute an art as rich as calligraphy to a ban is to do it a great injustice. The art of calligraphy is a manifestation of the fundamental importance of writing and the written text in the Islamic religion. Islam is a religion whose Prophet said, “The pen is the first thing Allah created,” a religion in which the Qur’an itself is sited as evidence of Prophethood, a religion based on the written word of Allah. Thus, the art of calligraphy was born out of a concern to preserve the word of Allah in a way befitting his nature. And indeed, it is impossible to explain in any other way the stunning beauty attained in the second century of the Islamic era by the Arabic script, which exhibited few aesthetic qualities prior to the advent of Islam.

The Ottoman School Of Calligraphy
The Turks of course did not invent the art of calligraphy, but no people could be said to have devoted themselves to this art more ardently than the Turks. The city of Istanbul has been the capital of calligraphy ever since its conquest in 1453. The Ottoman school of calligraphy (Hüsn-i Hat), the foundations of which were laid when Mehmet the Conqueror’s son Bayezid II invited to Istanbul Şeyh Hamdullah (1429-1520), whom he had met as a prince in Amasya, has made its home in this city for more than five hundred years by continuously renewing itself as a living tradition.

When Word Comes To Stone
Although paper is of course the most common medium used for calligraphy, the works that are most lasting and able to address the broadest mass of people are those inscribed on buildings in stone. Inscriptions of this kind were actually produced starting from the very early periods; the inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock in Al-Quds (Jerusalem), for example, date to the year 691. But it was in the 19th century that the inscriptions of monumental proportions, in the script we call ‘Jalî’, attained perfection. Great artists like Mustafa Râkım, Yesârîzâde Mustafa İzzet, Kadı Asker Mustafa İzzet, Şefik, Haşim, Abdülfettah, Sami and Nazif adorned Istanbul with immortal inscriptions on all sides, inscriptions that make Istanbul Istanbul at least as much as its architectural monuments.

“The Qur’an was received in the Hejaz, recited in Cairo and written in Istanbul,” is an oft-repeated cliché, but there’s no denying that it contains a kernel of truth. The art of calligraphy occupies a major place throughout the Islamic world, of course, but its importance in Istanbul is altogether different. Mustafa Râkım was actually a Laz, Mahmud Celâleddin was from Dagestan, and Abdülfettah was of Greek, Abdullah Zühdi of Arab, and Hamid el-Âmidî of Kurdish origin, but all of them flourished in Istanbul, and all rose there to the pinnacle of the calligraphic art.

So that you won’t miss the masterpieces of calligraphy as you tour the museums, mosques and markets on the standard Istanbul tourist itinerary, we have listed for you ten of the most important ones on the Historic Peninsula.