Cairo International Biennale of Arabic Calligraphy Art: Pioneers and Renovators in 100 Years (1922 - 2022)

Amira Noshokaty , Sunday 12 Jun 2022

Last week, Cairo witnessed the seventh edition of the Cairo International Biennale of the Arabic Calligraphy Art under the auspices of Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem at the premises of Cairo Opera House.



Under the slogan ‘Pioneers and Renovators in 100 years (1922/2022)’, the biennale included a three-day seminar that ran from 6 to 9 June at El-Hanager Cinema that highlighted the most prominent figures of Arabic Calligraphy in Egypt and the Arab world as well as an art exhibition showcasing artistic gems of this Art from 125 countries represented by 15 artists at the Art Palace in the Cairo Opera House Complex that is running from 7 to 20 June.

This year’s biennale coincides with the announcement of Cairo as the Capital of Islamic Culture and only a few months after Arabic Calligraphy was added on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  

Furthermore, the event established a new tradition of honouring artists and researchers for their achievements, and a side competition was held in the name of renowned Egyptian calligrapher Khedr El-Portsaidy — the founder of the Arabic Calligraphy Museum as well as the one who accredits and certifies Arabic calligraphers in Egypt.

In the opening session, Mohamed El-Baghdady — the general commissioner of the biennale — noted that this year marks the centenary jubilee of the establishment of Egypt’s first calligraphy school during the reign of king Fouad in 1922.

The session also included the presentation of a research paper written by Nahla Imam — country representative of Egypt at the 2003 Convention of Safeguarding the Intangible Heritage of UNESCO — who shared her experience in adding Arabic calligraphy knowledge, skills, and practice on UNESCO’s representative list of intangible cultural heritage in December 2021.

Mohamed Hassan Abu El-Khair — the first to innovate the ‘mashq’

The second day of sessions showcased the pioneers and renovators of such enchanting art.

The first paper was presented by researcher and calligrapher Mohamed El-Shafaai on passing down the practice of such art in Egypt, taking the family of Mohamed and Abdel-Aziz Abu El-Khair as an example, as the two are renowned Egyptian calligraphers that this year’s round was dedicated to.



He started off by revealing that the concept of passing down this form of art dates back to the pre-Islamic era, explaining that the initial idea behind Arabic calligraphy was transcription, and then the artistic element came later.

“During the pre-Islamic era, except for a small circle, very little knew how to write Arabic, and according to Abdalla Ibn Abbas, the first person to begin writing in Arabic in the tribe of Qureish was Harb Ibn Umaya — one of the masters of the tribe and the father of Sufian Ibn Harb.

The other key person in calligraphy art was El-Wazir Ibn Noqla, who was famous during the Abbasid Caliphate and inherited the art from his father El-Ali Ibn Hassan, explained El-Shafaai.

Mohamed Hassan Abu El-Khair was born in Cairo in 1921, he studied in Al-Azhar and then joined The School of Improving Calligraphy when he was only 17, where he was the top of his class and was taught by calligraphy masters such as Sheikh Fakhr El-Din, Sheikh Ali Badawi, and Mohamed Hosni El-Baba — the father of iconic Egyptian actress Soad Hosni to name but a few.

He excelled in El-Sulus and Reqaa calligraphy and soon became a professor of the art of calligraphy at Oum El-Qoura University in Mecca for 20 years.

“He was the first to innovate in the mashq (an educational manual technique) of the solos of Arabic calligraphy that are taught to fourth graders, where he started teaching students to write whole sentences from the beginning instead of focusing on letters with no context,” El-Shafaai added.

Abdel-Qader Al-Shihabi — the calligrapher of the Palestinian government

The second paper focused on Abdel-Qader Al-Shihabi — a Palestinian calligrapher — that was written by Farag Hussieny. Al-Shihabi is a renowned Palestinian calligrapher whose fame reached its peak during the first half of the 20th century and was known as the ‘calligrapher of the Palestinian government.’

“Born and raised in Jerusalem, Abdel-Qader Al-Shihabi comes from a long line of calligraphers that started off this art between the 12th and 14th year of the Hijri calendar, however, Al-Shihabi learned calligraphy in Istanbul at the hand of Mohamed Ezzat, the biggest artist. He was known for his suluth calligraphy, which decorates the walls of Al-Aqsa Mosque to date. He also spent all his life teaching calligraphy in Jerusalem and encouraging young artists to follow his passion,” explained Hussieny.

Abdalla Al Zohdi: the calligrapher of Al-Haramein Al-Sharifine 

The third paper covered the ‘calligrapher of Al-Haramein Al-Sharifine (The Two Holy Mosques) Abdalla Al-Zohdi and was written by Sami Saleh Abdel-Malak.

“Born in Nablus, Abdalla Al-Zohdi was born around 1251. His family moved to Istanbul, where he studied and excelled in calligraphy at a very early age. His artistic fame made him the official calligrapher of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, where his calligraphy adorns the walls and ceilings of the mosque till now,” the paper explained,

“During the reign of khedive Ismail, he was commissioned to write the calligraphy of the Keswa of the Kaaba and Mahmal. His implacable calligraphy was quite visible and stood out in the design of the keswa from that day onwards. He was known by his highly complex and geometric Sulus calligraphy.”

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