The Art of Calligraphy in the Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Turks produced and perfected several varieties of Arabic script. All the various branches of the art of calligraphy, an art greatly loved and respected by the Ottoman Turks, were flourished particularly in the city of Istanbul.

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Figure 1: A large size mushaf written by Ahmed Karahisarî, displaying the aklâm-i sitte. On each page, four rectangular panels (koltuk) show examples of high-quality illumination as executed in the reign of Sultan Süleyman I, (Library of the Topkapi Palace Museum).

See the link below to the full article if you need to obtain PDF reading softwareThis short article is taken from the full article (by Professor M. Ugur Derman) which is available here as 15 page PDF file

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. However, 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 centre of the Ottoman State, and it was in Istanbul that the finest and most mature works were produced.

The Ottoman Turks have been at the forefront in a remarkable and fascinating art for over five centuries. This art is the hüsn-i hat, or hat in short, the Islamic calligraphy that did not originate among Turks yet whose most magnificent examples Turks who adopted it with a religious fervour and passion have produced. We have to stress at the outset that whenever an art has a practical aspect that makes it useful and attractive for the societies, we also see that its scale of use and acceptance becomes larger. In a similar vein, the Islamic calligraphy has asserted itself with its increasingly aesthetic power down the centuries during which it was a medium for reading and writing.

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Figure 2: A picture of a layered rose by Abdullah Buharî, dated 1733 (Library of the Topkapi Palace Museum).

The importance Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror gave to the fine arts in general and the art of writing in particular is attested. Moreover, these survive to this day a number of the books written calligraphic genius Sheikh Hamdullah (1429-1520), donated to the sultan's library by his son Prince Bayezid, at the time governor of Amasya. Further inscriptions in jelî sülüs made by two calligraphic masters, Yahya Sôfî and his Ali Sôfî, active in Mehmed's day, were added on a number of monuments ere after the conquest of Istanbul. The signatures of calligraphers identify these works. The first two names asserting the Ottoman dynasty's el association with the field of calligraphy are those of Sultan Bayezid II and his Prince Korkut. Both had been taught by Sheikh Hamdullah in Amasya.

After Prince Bayezid' s accession to the throne in 1481, Sheikh Hamdullah moved Istanbul, where he set out to create the most perfect examples of calligraphy in t style of Yâkût Sheikh Hamdullah himself had learned Yakût's style from his man Hayreddin Mar'asi. Upon the personal instigation of Sultan Bayezid, Sheikh Hamdullah was able to create a new original style, elaborating upon examples Yâkût work available in the Imperial Palace (Topkapi)'s treasury. Sheikh Hamdullah succeeded in this important task around the year 1485, after he had undergone a four-month period of mystical seclusion. This accomplishment promoted him to the position of spiritual founder (pîr) of Turkish calligraphy. As matter of fact, the articulation of the aklâm-i sitte that had until then be predominant was subject to an Abbasid understanding of the style. Even though is rumoured that Yâkût himself had been a Turk from Amasya, the culture atmosphere of Baghdad pervaded his work, and he should thus be regarded representative of the culture of the Arab world. However, after Sheikh Hamdullah astounding accomplishment, the aklâm-i sitte as practised in the Sheikh's style prevailed in the Ottoman dominions and drove Yakût's style into oblivion.

The letters or letter-groupings constituting the style of Sheikh Hamdullah can be shown to stem partiality from Yakût's writings. Hamdullah's genius has to be looked for in his choice of beautiful elements and their repetition in his numerous calligraphic samples.

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Figure 3: A large, perfectly written hilye written by Kadiasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi. The marginal decoration was done in a Westernised fashion, (private collection).

The Ottomans practiced calligraphy over a period of nearly five hundred year attaining the highest level of expertise in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These calligraphic productions, which never failed to display the particular characteristics of the Ottoman Turks, increased dramatically as time progressed. This context, the calligraphic form of jelî, which can be applied to any of the calligraphic scripts mentioned as its large-scale and monumental form, we through a similar evolution. This calligraphic form of jelî was used for decorative panels of inscriptions applied to religious buildings as well as to civil architectural constructions. Manuscripts surviving from the Ottoman period ca take the form of books, such as mushafs or dîvans, but can also come in the shape of so-called murakkaas. A murakkaa is a collection of kit‘as (small origin works) that are hinged together on their edges, executed in one or two scripts, o one side on with illuminated margins, on the recto side only and approximately the same size as a book. Large-scale panels, executed in jelî sülüs and jelî ta'lîk, were used for the interior decoration of a great many public and private building The above-mentioned calligrapher Hâfiz Osman devised a calligraphic composition called hilye towards the end of the seventeenth century. A hilye contains the description of the Prophet's physical and moral characteristics, and from the nineteenth century onwards, this form began to be executed on a large scale.

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