From Necessity To Art: Writing

Murat Belge May 2014


Zaruretten Sanata Yazı
Zaruretten Sanata Yazı

Civilization means increasing numbers--an increase in the number and diversity of people and things and therefore also an increase in information and knowledge. Too much knowledge is generated and circulated to be stored in the human memory, so an easy way had to be found of preserving and storing it when necessary. Taking the form of pictures, or "pictograms", wherever it arose, writing was invented and developed to answer this need. In time those pictures were transformed into “ideograms” that conveyed a meaning. The alphabets we use today developed from such ideograms, but in their evolution they came to be associated with sounds (phonetics). Therefore, the letters of the alphabet today represent sounds rather than meanings or concepts.
Writing, which has made a positive contribution to art of all kinds, most notably literature, in time became an art form in its own right: the art of calligraphy (Greek for “beautiful writing”). The Latin alphabet adopted in Turkey was also used for calligraphic purposes and its letters were stylized accordingly. Chinese characters with their abstract shapes are even more conducive to calligraphic elaboration. But it would be no exaggeration to say that the most brilliant examples of calligraphy in the world are those produced in the Arabic script. The Islamic attitude to the phenomenon of the “suret” or image can also be considered to have contributed to channeling the potential for the plastic arts in Islamic society into calligraphy.
Like many peoples who converted to Islam, the Turks adopted the Arabic script, borrowing as well the different ways of writing it - Kufic, for example - from the Arab world. But in Ottoman society especially, calligraphy went even farther than it had in Arab culture. It is Ottoman calligraphers who produced the most refined works in the scripts known as Thuluth and Nasikh. And enlarged, innovative scripts such as “Jali Thuluth” even arose among the Ottomans. Similarly, the “Hilya” (list of attributes of the Prophet Muhammad) is an Ottoman literary genre, for which reason it is said in the Islamic world that the Holy Quran was revealed in Mecca, recited in Egypt and written in Istanbul.

Whether cuneiform or hieroglyphics, all scripts were difficult to begin with. Therefore, the ability to read and write was regarded as a mark of superiority, and, Egypt and China especially, it was the literate who ruled society.


The art of calligraphy is the most magnificent art in Islamic civilization. The transformation of writing into an unrivaled art arose from the desire to write down the divine revelations as correctly and perfectly as possible.

Calligraphy, which was used to inscribe expressions with divine meaning on panels or stone, was first devoted to transcribing the Holy Quran, the most sacred of all texts. Developing down the centuries, calligraphy proved a medium for artistic expression in a culture in which images were not looked upon with favor. Tens of thousands of people born with a genius for making pictures used that medium to employ their talent and labor in executing and developing the most perfect examples of the art of calligraphy, which reached its apex in Istanbul in the second half of the 19th century.

Orthographic notation such as accents and diacritical marks developed in Islamic writing in the first half of the 7th century (1st century A.H.).  Almost simultaneously, the dimensions of the leather, parchment and, eventually, paper on which writing was done were more or less standardized, as were the properties of the pens to be used. The nature and color of the ink and experience with ways of writing more quickly and preserving the results more easily heralded the birth of the art of calligraphy. In the 12th century, Yâkut el-Musta’sımî, rumored to have been originally from Amasya, made an advance in calligraphy as important as the invention the wheel. Cutting at an angle of 23.5 degrees the nib of the pen, which until then had been flat, he added perspective to the script, thereby earning the distinction of being the greatest master of all calligraphers up to now. Nor did Yâkut conceal his knowledge from the countless students he trained. Seven of his most distinguished followers scattered throughout the Islamic world, becoming the fathers of Yâkut calligraphy. With the exception of Maghreb calligraphy, an offshoot of the incompletely evolved Kufic script used today in the countries of northwest Africa, the Yâkut script and its style, refined and beautified down the centuries, prevails across a broad swath of the Islamic region.
Manuscripts of the Holy Quran should be treated as pre- and post-Yâkut. The calligraphic shortcomings of the hundreds of thousands of pre-Yâkut manuscripts were gradually reduced by Yâkut and in subsequent centuries, until the script achieved perfection with the Ottoman calligraphers. Moreover, while manuscripts in the early period were not illuminated, later on in different countries and regions they began to be decorated with rosettes placed between verses, at five page intervals and in the margins, as well as with ornamental chapter headings and initial letters and arabesque motifs that call to mind infinity, thereby reflecting the taste and artistic niveau of the time.

Occupying oneself with the Quran is a special vocation, and it is the aim of all calligraphers to crown their achievements with a calligraphic transcription of the holy book. The Quran consists of 604 pages, 9,000 lines and 78,000 words. When textual emendation and illumination are added to this effort, which requires great discipline and consistency, the work produced is a reflection on the page of great genius.

The masters of our traditional arts have a pithy saying about the use of illumination and calligraphy together: “Illumination is the garment of calligraphy.” The art of illumination, whose roots go back to Central Asia, underwent tremendous development after it was adopted by the Turks, reaching a pinnacle in 16th century Ottoman art. The Holy Quran is said to have been revealed in Arabia, recited in Egypt and written in Istanbul. It would not be wrong to say that it was also illuminated in the Ottoman capital.
Assoc. Prof.  Dr. Münevver Üçer,
Mimar Sinan University

Dr. Zübeyde Cihan Özsayıner-Director of Museum of Calligraphic Art
Girls of the Ottoman elite class learned the art of calligraphy, producing hilya, Islamic certificates, divans (collections of verse) and Qurans, especially in the period that followed the Tanzimat or mid-19th century reforms. Until 1914 there had been no official institution providing calligraphic instruction. Prior to the promulgation of the 1908 Constitution, calligraphic lessons were given in the middle schools and then in primary classes at the Girls’ School opened in 1911. The first official institution to offer calligraphic instruction was the “Calligraphers’ Madrasa”, which opened in the Babıali district of Istanbul in 1914 and continued until 1929.

“Besmele” (Bismillah) and below it a three-line Hadith text appear in a calligraphic inscription in Thuluth and Naskh by Hatice Huriye Hanım, who lived during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz and is thought to have come from an elite family.

A calligraphic inscription penned in Turkish in 1881 by Selma Hanım, who received her ijazah or certification from Kazasker Mustafa İzzet Efendi, is preserved today in the Museum of Calligraphic Arts

A 33 x 33 cm calligraphic inscription penned in Thuluth and Naskh by Emine Behçet, who is known to have received her ijazah from calligraphers Sami and Hafız Ahmet Fahri, displays “rococo” decorations in the open space around the writing.

A calligraphic inscription containing an ode to Sultan Abdulhamid II and produced in Persian in the Ta’liq script by Nasiye Cariye is inscribed in 8 lines inside two different frames worked in gold and silver “Dival” embroidery on a dark red field.

Assist. Prof. Dr. Kaya Üçer, Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University
In its mystical meaning, the letter ‘vav’ symbolizes that the eye of Allah is always upon us and that humans are ever subject to His power and mercy. I use the letter vav frequently on the domes of new mosques - what they call “new quests in mosque architecture” - as an exhortation to people that they should worship regularly and practice honesty in their lives. Vav also symbolizes both the fetus in the mother’s womb and a person prostrating himself in prayer. But I prefer to use vav in its mystical meaning. Beyond all that, it also has an aesthetically pleasing shape.

Hüseyin Gündüz
Highly regarded by collectors as well as artists active in the field, the art of calligraphy today is enjoying a golden age.  One cannot ignore the fact that contemporary painters employ calligraphic elements in their compositions, which are widely admired. The high-quality calligraphic panels produced today and the illuminated manuscripts and calligraphic descriptions of the Prophet Mohammad, together with the exhibitions and conferences being organized and the publications that are coming out are enhancing interest in the subject by the day and broadening its area of use.

4500 B.C.
Prof. Dr. Aslı Özyar / Boğaziçi University
It is true that the Sumerians invented a syllabic script we call cuneiform. We know that the city-states founded in southern Iraq some 4,500-5,000 years ago systematically preserved in archives the documents that they wrote on flat clay tablets with the tip of a thin stick. Writing began as a records system developed in order to administer activities such as the gathering, storing and distributing of the large amount of surplus production generated during the urbanization process, and was transformed within a short time into a cognitive tool that would influence, even shape, how the urban people who used it perceived the world and themselves.

3500 A.D.
The Hittites
Dr. Mark Weeden / SOAS, University of London
The Hittites used two scripts. Firstly they used the cuneiform script which they imported from Mesopotamia via northern Syria some time in the late 17th or early 16th century BC. At first they only used it to write Akkadian, the lingua franca of the Middle East at the time, but from the 15th century BC onwards they used it to write their own language, Hittite. Cuneiform was only used by the Hittites to manage the affairs of the extended royal family and the rest of the ruling elite. The other script used by the Hittites was an indigenous hieroglyphic script, which was probably developed in the 16th century BC.

3000 A.D.
Hieroglyphics Hieroglyphics, which were used in ancient Egypt for approximately 3,000 years, means “writing of the gods”. The hieroglyphics of the Egyptians, who used a different writing system from that of their neighbors, the Sumerians, is a dead system today.

1700 A.D.
Phonetic Script
The Phoenicians invented the first phonetic alphabet, which consisted of 22 voiceless consonants and no vowels. In addition to the Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew, the Greeks and Romans also developed their own scripts by adapting the Phoenician alphabet

1600 A.D.
Cretan Script
The culture of writing in ancient Greece is said to have originated in Crete. In addition to this writing, a form of hieroglyphics, and another script termed Linear A, a Linear B script was also invented in the 14th century B.C. The mysterious script of the Phaistos Disc discovered in Crete in 1908 has still not been deciphered today.

600 A.D.
Latin Script
Prof. Dr.  Musa Kadıoğlu / Ankara University
The earliest archaeological and philological evidence of Latin goes back to the 5th century B.C. Longer texts are encountered in the 3rd century, and the classical Latin known and taught today acquired its form in the 1st century B.C. As the official language of the Roman Empire, Latin was the predominant language spoken in the Western Mediterranean. The deeds of Augustus, immortalized in 25 B.C. on the walls of the Temple of the Emperor Augustus and Rome at Ancyra (modern Ankara), capital of the Roman province of Galatia, were written in two languages, Latin and ancient Greek.

Runic Script
The runic script used by the early medieval Asian societies, the Hungarians and the states of northern Europe are known to have influenced the Cyrillic alphabet of the Slavs as well as the Gökturk alphabet, the first alphabet of the Turks.

Prof. Uğur Derman
An art form peculiar to Islamic civilization, calligraphy arose in the Arab world before being loved and enjoyed first among the Seljuks, and later among the Ottomans, following the conversion of the Turks to Islam. Indeed, since the conquest of Istanbul, calligraphy has risen to such a pinnacle as to rival its original.  The six scripts known as Thuluth, Naskh, Muhaqqaq, Reyhanî, Tawqî and Riq’a’ acquired an Ottoman-Turkish identity in the hands of Şeyh Hamdullah (1429-1520) and were further refined by Hâfız Osman (1642-1698). Meanwhile, Mustafa Râkım (1758-1826) added extraordinary beauty to the larger script called Jalî Thuluth, which can be read at a distance. In the 19th century, Mehmed Şevki (1829-1887) in Thuluth-Naskh and Sâmi (1838-1912) in Jalî Thuluth brought these scripts to a close, and the Ta’lîq script, which came from Iran, spread and took on a national identity starting with Yesârî Es’ad Efendi (d. 1798). The Dîwânî  and Jalî Dîwânî scripts used by the Ottoman state in its correspondence, as well as the stylized sultans’ signatures called Tuğra, used as a state emblem, are a manifestation of the art of calligraphy in the official realm.

Gothic Script
The Gothic art movement that dominated Europe in the 12th century manifesting itself primarily in cathedrals also manifested itself in a script as tiny, ornamental Gothic motifs came to be used in writing Latin.

Italic Script
Invented by Niccolò de’ Niccoli in the 16th century, the italic script arose from the need to write more quickly.

Developed by Louis Braille, the Braille alphabet enables the visually impaired to read and write. Each letter consisting of a combination of six embossed dots inside a rectangular cell, it can be read with the fingers.

Morse Code
Developed by an American artist, Samuel Morse, this script consists of a sequence of dots and dashes and is used for transmitting texts by telegraph.

Appearing on walls all over the world, graffiti, which arose as a form of protest, is regarded as a form of street art today.

Sızed Paper
Used for calligraphy, this absorbent paper is made with eggs and cornstarch.