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For the World Arabic Day, we decided to take you on a journey of discovery of Arabic culture through calligraphy. This age-old art form now accompanies and adorns many monuments, buildings and objects of all kinds in the Near and Middle East. 

In order to understand what Arabic calligraphy is, it is important to understand the basics of modern Arabic. It is the language spoken by the Arab countries, of which there are 22 (from Morocco to Syria). This linguistic expansion is inalienable to the Islamic conquests that began with the Hegira (in 622 AD). Arabic is indeed the language of Islam. It is through the written and oral transmission of the Koran that Arabic became a language in its own right.

However, as it progressed, the spoken Arabic language became more heterogeneous through contact with different local cultures. As a result, very few so-called Arab countries speak the same language.

We then speak of dialects when referring to the spoken languages of the people and of Fushaa (الفصحى) when referring to its most literal written form. This is the one found in the Qur’an.

This dichotomy is important to understand that there is not a uniqueness of the Arabic language but rather Arabic dialects and an original written language. 

The birth of Arabic calligraphy

Arabic, originally a highly visual written language

Before Islam, the people of Arabia wrote in Arabic, a language that appeared in the first millennium before the Christian era. Its most completed form, called South-Arabic, is developed in Yemen.

It is composed of 29 consonants and has a “boustrophedon” meaning. That means it is written from right to left for the first line, then the next line from left to right, and so on.

This language then evolved into the one we know today. Its consonantal alphabet becomes syllabic with 7 vowels. It is composed of 28 consonants and is now written and read from right to left.

In addition, the alphabet and its writing are very graphic. For example, the letter B schematically represents the plan of a house. Now, the name of this letter in Semitic is beth (which will give beta in Greek) and beth means “house” in most Semitic languages.

Similarly, the letter we transcribe “‘”, which is a guttural unique to Semitic, is represented by an eye with or without a pupil: this letter is called ayin, which is the name of the eye in Semitic. This implies that the alphabet was invented according to the acrophonic principle, by isolating the consonant sounds and representing each one by the drawing of an object whose name began with that sound. 

Finally, Arabic writing took its definitive form, in terms of spelling, vocalisation and punctuation of letters, in the 9th century. At that time, it was strongly influenced by the great grammarians of southern Iraq and by the Caliphate chancellery.

Traditional calligraphy in the Near and Middle East

Calligraphy is the art of forming the characters of writing in an elegant and ornate way

Originally, Arabic calligraphy was linked to the writing of the Qur’an; the aim was to magnify the sacred word, especially since all representations of humans and animals were forbidden.

Artists could not imitate God’s creation. He could not breathe life into their creations. In other words, there were no paintings, drawings or sculptures illustrating the stories of the Qur’an.

Calligraphy on Qur'an

(Calligraphy on Qur’an, ©Canva)

At first, the calligrapher carves his tools, the qalams (reeds). Then he made his inks from tar, wool, plants, stones and spices.

For paper, it was on rolls, for prayers for example. Leaves were then used for the Qur’an. Both are decorated with illumination and calligraphy. 

Picture of Calligraphy materials

(Calligraphy materials, ©Canva)

These ancient illuminations and ornaments are still visible today on some monuments throughout the Near and Middle East. They are vestiges of the conquests and the Islamic empire.

Calligraphies made of stucco or zellij are inlaid in the monuments. These compositions are resplendent with colour. They are very often found in mosques and medressas (places of learning). We invite you to visit the Merinid Medressas in Salé or the Bou Inania in Fez.

Medressa Merinide of Salé, Morocco

(Medressa Merinide of Salé, Morocco, ©Canva)

The Bou Inania, Fez, Morocco

(The Bou Inania, Fez, Morocco, ©Canva)

The cultural heritage of Arabic calligraphy: a journey of its own.

Arabic calligraphic movements and styles

Arabic calligraphy, as it is known today, is therefore based on a thousand-year-old evolution. Like any art, there are different movements of it, and its wider use has grown steadily over time. Over the centuries, it has been strongly influenced by the different Arab cultures (Maghreb, Near and Middle East). There are several key moments in the construction of Arabic calligraphic movements.

The Thuluth style (ثلث) is one of them. Created in the 10th century AD, it is one of the 6 canonical styles of Arabic calligraphy. It is to be created by Ibn Muqla vizier, an Abbasid calligrapher of Baghdad (Iraq). He established the first standards of the Thuluth style, based on circles.

A widespread calligraphic movement, the Sulouci (or Thuluth) style is still used on the flag of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia's flag

(Flag of Saudi Arabia, ©Pixabay)

Then, and this a century later, in Baghdad, Ibn Al Bawwab, invented about ten styles, and categorized them by field. In particular, we can find the Naskh (نسخ), used for the edition of the Koran in the East. Then there is also the Diwani (ديواني) style, used for caliphal correspondence. Finally, we can also mention the Ruq’ah style (رقعة) for administrative acts.

These styles can in fact be combined, especially the Naskh and Thuluth. They can be found in and on Korans, but also on famous monuments.

For example, these Arabic calligraphic styles can be found in the Saint Sophia Mosque (Aya Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey). They are also used in the magnificent and colossal hanging medallions inside the mosque.

(Medallions in the Hagia Sophia Mosque, Aya Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey)

(Medallions in the Hagia Sophia Mosque, Aya Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey)

Nowadays, Arabic calligraphy has been exported to more secular fields. First through poetry and stories, it has been exported to architecture, marketing and decoration.

Modern Arabic calligraphy

L’art calligraphique arabe porte donc en lui les traces d’une culture millénaire. Il est l’une des premières expressions de l’histoire et de la transmission de la langue arabe.

Au travers de la poursuite de la calligraphie arabe, vous pourrez vous aventurer à travers le temps et l’espace. Allez vous émerveiller devant les calligraphies de l’Alhambra en Andalousie. Vous serez alors plongé dans l’Espagne musulmane (711-1494).

Sinon, allez observer des constructions plus modernes, tel que le Musée du Futur à Dubaï. Sa façade est recouverte de calligraphie arabe rappelant celles de l’Andalousie.

(Calligraphies adorning the Alhambra, Granada, Spain, ©Canva)

(Calligraphies adorning the Alhambra, Granada, Spain, ©Canva)

(The Museum of the Future in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, ©AdobeStock)

(The Museum of the Future in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, ©AdobeStock)

Then, going to meet Arabic calligraphy will allow you to discover a unique art. There is so much diversity in calligraphy.
This starts with the choice of materials used (inks, stucco, wood, zellij, metal). Then, the places where the calligraphies are found allow you to discover more and more unknown corners (libraries, museums, medresas).
Finally, the media are very varied, so you can marvel at the parchments, but also at the furniture and monuments.

(Saadian tombs decorated with zelliges, Marrakech, Morocco,©Canva)

(Saadian tombs decorated with zelliges, Marrakech, Morocco,©Canva)

(Calligraphy of the Soliman Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey)

(Calligraphy of the Soliman Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey)

Languages appear today as a vector of knowledge and learning. Through a language and these symbols it is a whole cultural treasure that we invite you to discover. You will therefore see Arabic calligraphy as a sublimation of the cultural treasure of this language.

Finally, calligraphy, especially Arabic calligraphy, is an invitation. Arranged on books, manuscripts or monuments, they invite us to discover what they hide behind them. So open these books, browse through these objects and visit these monuments adorned with unique calligraphic ornaments !

Do not miss any opportunity

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