Istanbul is the capital of the exquisitely fine art of Islamic calligraphy. In Ottoman times there were hundreds of libraries here, but the city was and still is a library in its own right. Inscriptions were engraved in the beautiful, flowing Islamic script on the tombs, mosques, madrases, obelisks, soup kitchens, fountains and gravestones that are still encountered at every turn in the older parts of Istanbul, although many disappeared in the last century.
It’s commonly believed that the development of calligraphy in Islamic lands was the result of the famous ban on images. Both Persians and Turks paid no attention to the ban, and you can see this not only in the manuscript illustrations but also in the Turkish school of portrait painting. In fact the flowering of calligraphy had much more to do with the supreme importance of written texts in Islam.
The Prophet himself, after all, said that the pen was the first thing created by Allah. Calligraphy was primarily concerned with preserving the holy Word in the most befitting way. Arabic script didn’t possess any aesthetic qualities worth mentioning until Islam came along, and the art reached a peak during the second century of the Islamic era.
Although the Turks can’t claim to have invented calligraphy, they have certainly devoted themselves to this particular art more than most peoples. Ever since they stormed and took Constantinople in 1453, Istanbul as it became has been the calligraphic capital of the world.
The Ottoman school of calligraphy was effectively founded when Sultan Bayezid II, son of Mehmet the Conqueror, invited the famous practitioner Seyh Hamdullah to Istanbul after meeting him when he was a prince in Amasya. In the five hundred years since then calligraphy has been renewing itself there as a living tradition.
Paper is the most common calligraphic medium, but the writings inscribed in stone on buildings and various monuments and other objects have always reached the widest audience. The practice goes back to Arabic inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, dating to 691. But it reached its climax of perfection only in the 19th century with the script called ‘Jali’, when Istanbul became adorned with inscriptions created by masters such as Mustafa Rakim, Sefik and Nazif.
You can’t go for a short walk to the shops without encountering something breathtakingly beautiful and exotic on a fountain or mosque, no matter how small. I for one never leave the house or hotel without my camera.
It’s a common cliché that the Quran was received in the Hejaz, recited in Cairo and written in Istanbul, but there’s a kernel of truth to it. The importance of calligraphy in Istanbul is something special, even when you consider its influence on the rest of the Islamic world.
It has also been a great leveller historically speaking. The greatest of the Istanbul calligraphers came from very different backgrounds and went on to achieve the pinnacle of artistic perfection. Mahmud Celaleddin was from Dagestan; Mustafa Rakim was a Laz; Abdulfettah a Greek; Abdullah Zuhdi an Arab; and Hamid el-Amidi a Kurd. Yet they were all irresistibly attracted to Istanbul and beautified the City of the World’s Desire with their breathtaking creations.