The One-Handed Calligrapher

LACMA Suleyman Tughra
Sultan Süleymân’s tuǧra (LACMA M.85.237.17)

One of the best-known symbols of the Ottoman Empire must surely be the distinctive tuǧra, a ‘calligraphic emblem’ that functioned as both a sultanic signature and seal for a range of uses in official documents and in other settings. While the tuǧra form was not unique to the Ottomans, having its origins much further back in Turkic history, it achieved its most spectacular and iconic form in the empire, a form- the ‘classic’ version of which can be seen above in Süleymân’s tuǧra- that is often imitated today in Turkey and beyond in contexts ranging from religious calligraphy to café logos. Yet as the following story, taken from the Arabic biographical dictionary (ṭabaqāt) of the Damascene scholar al-Muḥibbī (d. 1699), suggests, in the seventeenth century at least such imitations of the sultanic emblem could land a creative calligrapher in trouble:

The subject of this entry [‘Abd al-Karīm al-Ṭārānī, d. 1632] had a brother named Muḥammad, who was among those well-known for utmost excellence of calligraphy. He was proficient in writing all styles of calligraphy, and he would imitate certain styles in contexts other than their usual usage, such that he even imitated the sultanic emblem (‘alāma). He traveled to Cairo, where something happened that led to word of his imitating the tuǧra reaching the governor of Cairo. So he had him brought into his presence, and pressed him to confess [having done] that. He confessed, and his right hand was cut off. Afterwards, he would wrap [the stub of] his hand in a cloth rag which he used to attach the pen to himself and so continue to write!

Muḥammad Amīn ibn Faḍl Allāh al-Muḥibbī, Khulāṣat al-athar fī aʻyān al-qarn al-ḥādī ʻashar (Beirut: Maktabat Khayyāt, [1966]), vol. 3, 12.

Now, the tuǧra was not entirely restricted to sultans during this period, as tuǧras, or at least emblems very close in style and form to the sultanic tuǧras, were used by high officials, in particular governors of Egypt. Nonetheless, Muḥammad al-Ṭārānī’s story indicates that its usage was indeed restricted, and that imitation, in whatever context, was frowned upon, to put it mildly. It’s not hard to imagine why this would be: tuǧras were not merely decorative, but acted as official stamps or seals upon documents and other objects, conveying legitimacy and power in their unique and difficult to master style. Unauthorized copying, for whatever reasons, could at the very least dilute the tuǧra’s distinctiveness, or even be used to forge counterfeit documents. Over time, particularly, it seems, thanks to the innovative calligraphic work of Sultan Ahmed III (who innovated the ‘hadith-tuǧra’) in particular, the tuǧra form would be used in a wider range of contexts, including by people with no status within the elite hierarchy at all, without repercussions. Not much solace for our poor calligrapher, however- though at least he was able to carry on despite the draconian punishment for his act of calligraphic license.

Dish with 'Tughra-illuminator' Design,ca. 1540–50
If overt imitation of the tuǧra was, for a while at least, discouraged, the illumination style of the tuǧra, visible in the above example from Süleymân, was reproduced in other contexts, such as in ceramics, like this dish from c. 1540-50, its scrolling tendrils drawn from tuǧra illumination. (Met. 41.45)

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An Ottoman Remix

Ottoman Qur'an Mounting

This curious piece, which consists of three early medieval (9th or 10th century) Qur’an folios written in un-voweled Kufic script pasted together then attached to a piece of paperboard and framed with lovely floral border devices, dates (probably) to the eighteenth century, and was produced somewhere in the Ottoman world. It is currently held in the Freer and Sackler Gallery (S1998.8).

Besides it intrinsic loveliness- the bold angular Kufic script contrasts nicely with the delicate flowing lines of the floral elements- this piece of artistic ‘remixing’ presents some questions which I at least cannot answer with any certainty but are worth asking anyway. What was the original setting and intention of this piece? Would it have been in a collected volume of similar pieces or of other ‘remixes’ (calligraphy, paintings, and drawings taken from their original contexts and remounted in new settings, primarily)? Or would it have been displayed, similar to a hilye-i şerif? How would an Ottoman viewer have understood this presentation: was it seen as a link with the far distant Islamic past, or perhaps as an especially potent means of connecting with the power of the Qu’ranic text? Or was the point of this display simply to show a nice instance of Kufic script, or perhaps to appreciate the folios as something along the lines of antiques? Was there something special about these folios- for instance, we know that very old Qur’an volumes and folios in the Ottoman world and elsewhere were sometimes treated as relics due to their assumed linkage with a key figure in the deep Islamic past. Was that the case with these folios? Or was something else entirely being done with this piece, something that is perhaps now unrecoverable for us?