The charm of Arabic Typography

Cleo Cantone takes us to Typographica Arabica and Mésopotamie Carrefour des Cultures: two exhibitions in Paris tracing the history of Arabic Typography

As this recent exhibition in the library of languages and civilisations (BULAC) in Paris ‘graphically’ illustrates, Arabic text not only lends itself to the refinement of calligraphy, but also the equally important aesthetic value of tyography. The famous calligrapher Mir Ali Tabrizi (active circa 1370–1410) made no bones about the high status of his art:
“My pen works miracles, and rightly enough is the form of my words proud of its superiority over its meaning. To each of the curves of my letters the heavenly vault confesses its bondage in slavery, and the value of each of my strokes is eternity itself.”
The Arab writing system goes back to pre-Islamic times. The Bedouin used cursive script to write poetry, tracing it on soft materials such as leather, palm-bast, parchment, papyrus, etc. The monumental script, in the form of ‘proto-Kufic’, was used on harder surfaces such as camel bones, potsherds, stone, wood and metals. From the early stages in its evolution in antiquity, the Arabic script has showed a great sensitivity to geometry. At the same time, the almost ceaseless flexibility and adaptability of its letters gave rise to an equally vast range of styles.
From as early as the 8th century, the Christian king Offa of Mercia (757-96) minted his coins with Kufic letters around the rim and examples of Kufic and imitation or pseudo-Kufic abound in Renaissance paintings. Indeed, Arabic calligraphy as a decorative art was widely emulated in Europe, in both secular and religious contexts. Yet the production of beautifully penned books or even sheets containing poetry (wasli) was extremely costly and therefore only available to the elite. It is therefore difficult to surmise why the introduction of the printing press was met, initially, with reticence.
Given the inimitable standards reached especially in copying the Holy Qur’an, such reticence is understandable: no machine could possibly reproduce the artistry of Muslim penmanship. The first printing press for printing Arabic was brought to Aleppo by the patriarch of Antioch in 1705 serving the Christian community and shortly thereafter Sultan Ahmed III issued a firman licensing the establishment of an Arab press in Constantinople. The Qur’an, by contrast only started to be printed in the 19th century.
Little wonder that rulers and men of religion in Europe financed missions whose purpose it was to procure beautiful manuscripts to be housed in the libraries of royalty and monks alike. In this connection, another exhibition in Paris, this time in the National Archives, “Mésopotamie Carrefour des Cultures – Grandes heures des manuscripts irakiens (XIII-XIXe siècle)” focused on the Dominican library in Mosul, Iraq. The monks’ collection includes Syriac gospels, illustrated with crosses and depictions of saints, the monks also collected Arabic manuscripts, from Avicenna’s treatise on medicine to two exquisite copies of the Qur’an, one from the Maghreb/Andalus dated to the 13-14th century and one from Iraq, copied by Yaqut al-Musta’simi and dated 1289 (both of which are preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale). One particular example, dated to 1250-1320 and originating from Egypt or Syria, bears rare testimony to the voyage of the Dominican friar, Riccoldo da Monte Croce who annotated the margins of a Qur’an, particularly the chapter (surah) of Maryam.
Among those charged with the mission to bring back precious tomes under the aegis of King Louis XIV, was Louis Piques (d. 1699). A theologian, orientalist and librarian by training, he worked in the college of the four nations founded by Cardinal Mazarin. Amongst the Arabic manuscripts he bequeathed to the Dominican convent library, were fragments of a Medieval Qur’an and a history and description of Makkah dated 1609.

…the first known printed copy of the Holy Book appeared in Venice in 1537. Published by the Italian Paganino brothers, a surviving copy was recently rediscovered by an Italian scholar.

Whereas hand-copied manuscripts were still valuable items, they could not compete with the evolution of printing technology. This innovative technique ushered in the mass production of printed matter making it available at a fraction of the cost of hand-made books, thereby making literature available to a far wider audience. Given the inherent attachment to the beautification of the written word in Arabo-Muslim culture, it is not surprising that printing did not catch on easily. Indeed, what the Typographica Arabica illustrates so pertinently is the gradual transition between printing on wooden seals to printing manuals on the Arabic alphabet to grammar books. What took longer to see in print was the word of God and even then, the first known printed copy of the Holy Book appeared in Venice in 1537. Published by the Italian Paganino brothers, a surviving copy was recently rediscovered by an Italian scholar.
By the 18th century Arabic characters were being printed from Turkey to the Levant and British and French publishing houses were founded from Calcutta to Cairo. It was with the impetus of the presses that a number of African languages, whose writing systems had thenceforth used the Arabic alphabet (ajami), came to be printed in Latin characters. An Arabic-Hausa dictionary printed in Kumasi, Ghana in 1961 from the Dobronravin collection in St Petersburg is a wonderful example. Printing often accompanied missionary activity: in fact, it was the missionaries who made the first attempts at printing in the Arabic type. They also established ‘eastern colleges’ in Rome in order to train near eastern priests and often equip them with presses when they returned to their countries of origin. In an interesting case of a Hungarian convert to Islam, Ibrahim Mütteferrika (1674-1745) who was an Ottoman diplomat as well as a polymath who introduced the printing press with movable Arabic type to Istanbul. The book on show was one Mütteferrika authored in Turkish and he may have borrowed material from Ibn Khaldun and Hobbes, inviting the sultan Mahmud I to reform his army. The title page recalls the illuminated headpiece in Turkish manuscripts — an indication that aesthetics played a part in the transition between calligraphy and machine-produced print.
If the 16th and 17th centuries were characterised by scholarly and religious motives to publish in Arabic, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was the administrative and business aspects that prevailed. Portable presses were brought from Europe and as well as propagating knowledge about the people and cultures to be subjugated, they acted as vessels of ‘an oriental Renaissance’ to ‘awaken’ the population. A grammar of vernacular Arabic printed on a portable press by the young orientalist Joseph Marcel during the French expedition too Egypt is worthy of note.
Situated on two floors of the library of languages and civilisations (BULAC), the exhibition traced the evolution and development of Arab print, from the 15th century to the present: the latter mainly characterised by posters by contemporary artists from Algeria to Iran, passing through Europe. Exploiting new technology and traditional forms, they forge a contemporary graphic lexicon inscribed in trans-cultural dialogue. The combination of free access and the complementarity of the subject matter and place makes for an unusually contextualised exhibition: the only objects in cases were the rare copies of Qur’ans. Thus, as well as making the public aware of BULAC’s collection of rare books and manuscripts, the exhibition is sure to appeal to students who spend time in the library and it is hoped that the exhibition will cross the Channel in the near future.


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