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Ottoman Calligraphy: A Powerful Art

The Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) does not exist any longer. However; it is very much alive today with all its architecture, scripts, art and artifacts that can be found in three continents; in regions ranging from Northern Africa, The Balkans and Crimea, Asia Minor and Middle East to the steppes of Central Asia.

Looking at these artifacts today, one would think that the Turks had made many contributions to art from the dawn of civilization. However; that was not the case. The Turks used to live in the steppe of Central Asia mostly as dwellers with their flocks, living in tents and taming horses.(Goodwin, 1998) The harsh conditions of the steppe and lack of food forced the Turks to migrate West. In 1071, they fought their way into Anatolia which at the time was ruled by the Byzantine Emprire. From thereon, it was one battle after the other until in 1453, Fatih Sultan Mehmed conquered Constantinople (Istanbul) and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire. That was the start of a new era, its significance visible not only in the political realm, but also in art.

As the former capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Istanbul had a substantial cultural heritage. It had its own artists and artifacts. Its new owners brought with them the Islamic culture which they had adopted following their migration. These two cultures blended and created magnificent artifacts that had great artistic sophistication.

Calligraphy can be found in manuscripts, wall panels, on the inner sides of domes, on the minarets, tombstones, and on tiles(1). The Ottoman calligraphy was not a simple handwriting technique. It was a highly respected form of self-expression concerning religious sentiments as well as feelings on everyday life. Although some of the best examples and several new varieties of this art were produced and introduced by Ottoman calligraphers, it was not the Ottomans who initiated this form of writing as The Turks only met with the Arabic alphabet and adopted it after they settled in Anatolia. For information on the earliest text written in Arabic script, view

The art of manuscript illumination, known as tezhip in Turkish and Arabic, includes gilding and painted-decorating the pages of a manuscript, calligraphic panels, calligraphic collage, and even the tughras ( The Sultan’s signature). This art was almost inseperable with calligraphy. They both complimented each other. In the Ottoman Empire, great importance was given to tezhip:

 	“The first flowers fell on the edges of the Qur’an pages with the love of God. Those pages  
       were so valuable that they could only be decorated with gold. This was the birth of the art 
       called gilding.......If the fire in the artist’s heart can trickle down his brush and      
       reach the leaf of the rose, that fire will live like a billow in the centuries to 
       come. ...Artists paint the pages with the best flowers, borders and chain patterns. The 
       needles stretch out to the sky like minarets praying. The sultan’s decrees were decorated 
       in the palace workshop and then sent to the farthest corner of the country with the most 
       beautiful bunch of flowers.” (TATAV Publication, 2003).

Although this art generated a great respect for writing and written materials, it did not have an affect on the illiterate masses living in Anatolia. According to an official statistics report dating back to 1897, less than 10% of the population was literate(2). This astounding figure was a natural outcome of the lack of formal schooling in Anatolia. The medreses (today’s equivalent of universities where theology, medicine, astronomy and Islamic Law were taught), were located in the three important cities of the Empire located in the West: Istanbul, Edirne and Iznik.

One of the major reasons that account for such low literacy rates could also be the lack of books. Handwritten books could not be mass produced and therefore were limited in number. The Ottoman Sultans did not allow the printing press into the empire until 1485, and that was with an eddict banning the printing with Arabic characters (Savage-Smith, 2003 in Cosgel et al, 2009) The religious minorities living within the Empire seized the opportunity to begin printing. In 1493, only one year after their expulsion from Spain, David & Samuel ibn Nahmias established the first Hebrew printing press in Istanbul. They printed the Torah and non-religious books.2 They were followed by the Armenians who had a press in 1567 and the Greeks in 1627. The first Turkish printing press that was allowed to print with Arabic characters was allowed in 1727. It was started by Ibrahim Mutereferrika, a Hungarian convert to Islam, who was an Ottoman diplomat and had contributed to the 18th century reform movements. He printed works on language, history, geography, and the natural and physical sciences.(Encyclopedia Britannica, 2009).

There are several reasons why the Arabic printing press was not allowed until approximately three hundred years after its invention in the West. A majority of the ulema (scholars) believed that printing was a sin. A text, particularly one dealing with religion, was something numinous and holy, to be created slowly and lovingly through the traditional calligraphic and bookbinding crafts. (Abdal-Hakim Murad, 1997).Also; it is also known that the lodge of Calligraphers raised strong objections to the use of the printing press as they believed that it would have put an end to their profession (Demireger, 2008).

In an attempt to persuade the Sultan, Muteferrika wrote an essay to the Vizier in which he explained the virtues of the press; stating that many handwritten books had been destroyed within the Empire by intruding troops and that there was an urgent need of replacing them. He further added that the press was the only way to do so in a short time and that by spreading the word of God and the holy cause of the Ottoman Empire, it would contribute to the Islamic culture. When his request was approved, he gathered the praises he gathered from the famous scholars of Istanbul regarding printing and printed them on the first page of the “Vankulu Dictionary”[1] that he published in an attempt to discard possible reactions that could come from religious and calligraphy circles. (Demireger, 2008).

Following the acceptance of press, calligraphy continued to exist as an art which is still respected today.


Goodwin, J. (1998). Lords of the horizons: a history of the ottoman empire. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Tatav Publications, Ltd. (2003). Emek, sabır ve sevgi: nilufer kurfeyz. Istanbul: Tatav Publications.

Cosgel, M., Miceli, T.,J., & Rubin, J. (2009). Guns and books:legitimacy, revolt and technological change in the ottoman empire. Working paper 2009 -12, University of Connecticut, Department of Economics.

(1)Governorship of Istanbul, Calligraphy. Retrieved fro

Mersina, The Life of ottoman jews. Retrieved from

Demireger, M. (2008, October 10). Matbaa'nın osmanlı devletine girişi. Yenimakale. Retrieved from

(2)State Statistical Institute, The First Annual Statistics of the Ottoman State 1897,(Ankara 1997) retrieved from

Ottoman Empire. (2007).Encyclopedia of the Middle East. Retrieved(2009, October 20) from

İbrahim Müteferrika. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved October 25, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online:

History of Ottoman Calligraphy. (2007). Journal of Ottoman Calligraphy, Retrieved from

Abdal-Hakim, M. (1997) Islam and the new millenium., Retrieved from