Judaica DH at the Penn Libraries Blog //Taking a Closer Look: Arabic Script Calligraphy
Blog //Taking a Closer Look: Arabic Script Calligraphy

Taking a Closer Look: Arabic Script Calligraphy

By Raha Rafii, Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at University of Pennsylvania

What does a modern Kuwaiti singer have in common with a historical manuscript fragment from an Egyptian synagogue?

Here’s a clue: Fragment from @jtslibrary ENA 3904.12

This fragment is one of hundreds of thousands found in the storeroom of the Ibn Ezra synagogue of Old Cairo that was acquired by European orientalists and collectors in the 19th century. This storeroom, referred to as the Cairo Geniza, was utilized by the synagogue’s congregation to stash discarded materials for proper disposal at a later time. The Geniza once held fragments ranging from the 9th to the 19th century that included writings and records from all over the Mediterranean (as well as other regions) ranging from the personal to the formal as well as the secular to the religious. These fragments are in a range of languages but tend to be mostly in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic in Hebrew script (known as Judaeo-Arabic), and Arabic in Arabic script, as you can see in our example.

In the first image you see a beautiful example of Arabic script calligraphy that is now part of the Geniza collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The recto, or front side, which says “O Creator of Created Beings, O Lord of Humankind”, is written in nastaliq, a type of calligraphic script, and decorated with floral and plant motifs, a popular form of decoration for devotional texts.

If you look closely in the second image of the link you can make out some perforation under the word “Creator” (khāliq), which appears to be preparation foradditional floral decoration that was never completed. The Arabic letters are filled in with dark blue ink while the flower and leaf designs are outlined in and filled with black ink, lending them a lovely contrast to the golden brown paper they are written on.

In addition to beautifying a text, the style of calligraphy used can even give us some clues as to the cultural context in which the fragment was produced. The verso, or back side of the page (third image) is bi-lingual and contains Arabic in the right-hand column, written in naskh,and Ottoman Turkish on the left, first written in large nastaliq but then continued in a smaller script. The use of Ottoman Turkish in nastaliq would likely date this manuscript probably to the 15th c. CE or later, when nastaliq was formalized as a script. Even if you don’t read Ottoman Turkish, since nastaliq is a distinctive script predominantly used in Persianate societies for languages like Turkish, Persian, and Urdu, you could reasonably guess that the text written in this script was not in the Arabic language. A closer look at the dotted alif s and lām s

A closer look at the Arabic text in the right-hand column in the third image reveals dots inked in the mid- or upper points of many of the vertical lines. These are evident in many of the alif letters, and even some lām_s and _ṭā_s, in the second half of each hemistich (reading right to left). Since the rest of the poem is carefully vowelled and marked, these dots may have served as markers for the scribe to maintain the proper letter proportions in the _naskh script.

The positioning of the lines on the verso are also a visual cue to what kind of text we are looking at. We’ve already established that we have two languages on the page because of the calligraphic scripts, in two different columns. The consistent naskh calligraphy of the Arabic in the right-hand side appears as our main text, and the lines that look like couplets would indicate that the text is a poem. That is in fact the case for our Arabic text, which is an anonymous supplicatory prayer, or duʿā, asking help from God; it can even be found in modern Arabic collections of poetry. You can actually hear a rendition of the poem by the famous Kuwaiti singer and oud player, Youssef al-Mutref, a wonderful example of how the poem has been preserved as part of a sung tradition in Arabic that continues to be enjoyed today. Kuwaiti singer and oud player, Youssef al-Mutref

The accompanying Ottoman Turkish lines, which are less consistent in style and size than the Arabic text, appear to be explanatory glosses on the poem, demonstrating its importance as part of the poetic tradition of Ottoman elites. The recording of God’s name in the poemwas probably the main reason for its preservation in the Geniza, since according to Jewish tradition such documents could not be destroyed, but rather had to be set aside for later burial. In the case of Geniza documents and fragments, this prohibition extended to God’s name in a variety of languages.

It should be kept in mind that the oral nature of poetry produces variations in its written forms; oral transmission of poems from generation to generation, or even person to person, can produce differences in the poetic text, whether recited or written down. We can see such variations in our manuscript fragment: the second stanza of the Arabic contains the more well-known variation khāliq al-khalq (“Creator of Creation”) rather than the recto’s khāliq al-khalāyiq(“Creator of Created Beings”). However, the poem, as it appears in the manuscript fragment, has significant differences from later written versions of its verses [link here], particularly the addition of the first stanza in the manuscript, and the variants of the third and fourth stanzas.

Besides the words on the page, the manipulation of the paper itself also sheds light on the fragment’s history. The straight cut on the recto’s right margin indicates that the fragment was repurposed for insertion in a book, as seen by the perforations on the recto and binding elements on the verso. This binding, as well as the distinctive collector’s pencil notation at the top of the verso page, actually links our example to another calligraphic manuscript fragment in JTS’s collection. Analyzing our manuscript fragment as a physical object is thus an important element of making connections to other Geniza fragments, and perhaps even other texts.

Hopefully, it is now clear how our examination of a single Geniza fragment — out of the hundreds of thousands held in collections worldwide — enabled us to uncover the multiple ways in which its text traversed historical periods, geographies, and linguistic communities. Its connection to a continuous poetic tradition places our manuscript fragment alongside Youssef al-Mutref’s sung rendition as two equally significant forms of historical preservation — the oral and the written — that have shaped and interacted each other’s development over time. In this way, a single fragment was able to link Cairo to Kuwait while connecting our present with a past that does not seem so distant after all.

By Judaica DH at the Penn Libraries on .

Canonical link

Exported from Medium on April 14, 2020.

Cite this post: raha-rafii. “Taking a Closer Look: Arabic Script Calligraphy”. Published March 15, 2019. https://judaicadh.github.io//blog/2019-03-15-arabic-script-calligraphy/. Accessed on .