Egypt’s history of calligraphy

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 19 Sep 2023

The institutional teaching of Arabic calligraphy in Egypt is marking its centenary this year, writes Dina Ezzat

Al-Portsaidy
Khodeir Al-Portsaidy (photos: Sherif Sonbol)

On 1 October, the School for Arabic Calligraphy (madrassat tahssine al-khat al-Arabi) will be conducting an admissions test in its premises in the Bab Al-Sheariya district of Cairo for all individuals eligible to join its four-year programme of study that is usually followed by a two-year period of advanced studies.

According to Saad Ghazal, art director at the school, all individuals with fluent Arabic reading and writing skills are allowed to take the test irrespective of age or prior qualifications.

“It is unusual for anyone without a basic school education to apply for the test, and it is mostly professionals or graduates of high school that come to take this aptitude test, which basically measures their writing skills and the quality of their command of basic writing patterns,” Ghazal said.

He added that out of the around 50 to 70 people that apply on an annual basis, some 30 to 40 pass the test and join the school for the academic year that starts this year in the second week of October.

The class of 2023 is going to consist of 101 people. The first class was in 1922, when the first school for calligraphy was launched on the direction of king Fouad. Like this year’s class, the first class took its calligraphy lessons at the Khalil Aghah School, originally a kuttab (traditional school) for the teaching of the Quran established in 1869 by an aide of khedive Ismail.

While the venue of the school itself changed in the early years of the 20th century from the current venue of the office of the grand imam of Al-Azhar to Bab Al-Sheariya, its teaching has been mostly the same.

“We are still teaching the seven key schools of Arabic calligraphy, and our teachers are mostly graduates of the school or of other schools of calligraphy that have been established over the years across the country,” Ghazal said.

He added that advances in technology over the past century have not impacted on the concept or methods of teaching Arabic calligraphy. “It remains the same, because this is a classic art that follows classic rules and is done using specific tools,” he said.

This is also the case for the other 90 or so schools teaching Arabic calligraphy across Egypt.

Literature on the history of Arabic calligraphy, also known as Islamic calligraphy, in Egypt shows that it goes back centuries before the launch of the first school by king Fouad. The incredible wealth of Islamic monuments in Egypt that date back to the seventh century CE and the centuries of Mameluke rule have given the country a unique architectural heritage of mosques, schools, and mausoleums that carry the magnificent imprints of Arabic calligraphers.

Prior to the rule of the Mamelukes, the Fatimid and Ayoubid periods had also created a heritage of calligraphy.

The decline of attention to calligraphy during the Ottoman period was compensated for during the rule of Mohamed Ali in the early 19th century by attention being paid to teaching the rules of Arabic scripts in schools.

This attention was emphasised in 1817 by the establishment of the Dar Al-Kisswa Al-Sharifa, the place where the drapes that cover the Kaaba cloth that was sent to Mecca each year were embroidered with verses of the Quran. The subsequent establishment of Egypt’s first Arabic printing house in 1822 and the launch of the National Archives later in the 19th century helped the cause of Arabic calligraphy.

One of the biggest boosts came in 1881 with the establishment of the Committee for the Conservation of the Monuments of Arab Art. This, authors of calligraphic history argue, was the moment when more attention to calligraphy was required to help with the restoration and preservation of Egypt’s monuments.

A TRADITION OF TEACHERS: According to Ahmed Al-Shafei, a calligrapher, this moment coincided with a trip by Khaled Al-Soufi Zadah from Istanbul to Cairo.

A prominent calligrapher in his own right, Zadah married into a family of leading calligraphers in Cairo. Many of the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of this marriage, including Al-Shafei himself, have continued to honour the call of Arabic calligraphy.

Some of the early teachers at the school that was opened in 1922 came from this family, and Al-Shafei himself studied and is currently teaching there today. However, the role of calligraphy today has changed significantly from what it was during the Middle Ages until the early decades of the 20th century, he said.

“Calligraphy used to be essential for many things and not just for engravings on the walls of mosques, palaces, and mausoleums. It used to be essential for writing some state documents and of course for writing the Quran,” he said.

In 1920, king Fouad summoned Abdel-Aziz Al-Rifaai from Istanbul to write such a copy of the Quran. Al-Rifaai ended up being the first head of the Arabic Calligraphy School in Cairo that was opened upon royal order in July 1922.

“While Egypt has always had a wealth of prominent calligraphers, some of whom were taken to Istanbul during Ottoman rule, the launch of this school brought new attention to calligraphy and a whole new perspective,” Al-Shafei said.

He added that the fact that this moment coincided with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the subsequent decision of the new Republic of Turkey to use Latin letters for Turkish instead of Arabic prompted many calligraphers to come to Egypt where the art was still thriving.

In the second half of the 20th century, Al-Shafei’s grandfather contributed to the calligraphy on the tombs of both king Farouk and former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Prior to that, he had worked on several mosques and on writing the IDs of leading figures in the first half of the 20th century when they were still hand-written.

According to Ghazal, the tradition of having a calligrapher in every state body was the norm, as he would write documents up until the wider introduction of print. “These calligraphers continued to be in charge of writing invitations and other occasional documents for a long time,” he said.

He added that this is less so today, however, when technology has taken over not just state documents and books but also the writing of the Quran and even some billboards that used to be the exclusive domain of calligraphers even up until the 1980s and 1990s.

“Calligraphers were also essential to newspapers, as they would write out the headlines. This has almost gone out of fashion today, except on very rare occasions,” he noted.

 Ghazal said that today a good segment of those who teach at the Arabic Calligraphy School or who attend its classes are there either as a hobby, “because there has been an increase in interest in Arabic calligraphy as a hobby during the past decade or two,” or as a parallel profession, “especially among interior and graphic designers who are keen to incorporate the art of calligraphy in their work.”

This is why there are also independent private classes teaching Arabic calligraphy both as a hobby and as a profession.

Over a decade following his graduation from an Arabic calligraphy school in 2002, Mohamed Hassan, who has made a successful career in several Arab capitals, decided with some colleagues to start a private calligraphy teaching centre in Egypt.

Medad (Ink) started in 2014 “with a set up that made it easier for those who wish to learn and more rewarding for those who teach,” he said.

“It is unfair to expect a teacher who receives LE5 per class at the Arabic Calligraphy School to be invested in the job, especially as the school is not sufficiently equipped with the necessary tools for this type of writing,” Hassan said.

Moreover, in view of the fact that many students of Arabic calligraphy are pursuing it as a hobby, it is more practical to allow them to choose the style they wish to pursue rather than expect them to study the seven or eight styles that are considered the essentials of Arabic calligraphy.

Almost 10 years down the road, Medad now has 60 students, some enrolled in one branch of learning and others for the full course. Because the school’s teaching went on line during the Covid-19 pandemic, it now has students from all over the world, both Arabs and foreigners studying Arabic.

The high demand for Arabic calligraphy classes that are course-designed has also inspired the launch of another centre, Qalam (Pen), that opened its classes fewer than a couple of years after Medad and is also in Greater Cairo. According to Islam Ramadan, who teaches at Qalam, the attraction to Arabic calligraphy has been increasing during the past decade among the younger generations in particular.

However, he added, the appeal is not often met with sufficient perseverance on the part of students. “Sometimes, young men and women will join the class thinking that it will be easy for them to master the rules of calligraphy, but in a short while they realise that it takes a lot more than just nice hand-writing,” he said.

“It takes a lot of hard work that not everybody can afford, and this is why some end up stopping at the elementary level.”

Both Qalam and Medad are committed to teaching classic calligraphy rather than the more fashionable free-style version. “Observing the rules of calligraphy is part of our mission. If we were to abandon the rules and pursue the free-style version, then these rules could end up being compromised,” Hassan said.

“I think it is important for everyone to study calligraphy in an orthodox way and then pursue their own style of writing later if they want to,” he added.

However, for Lara, a 19-year-old student of Spanish origin who decided to pursue an interest in Arabic calligraphy, “if it is just a hobby, then there is no point in being particularly orthodox.”

Lara is actually not attending any classes. “For me, it is strictly recreational, I am not planning to work with it, and I find that books are sufficient for this purpose,” she said.

ART AND IDENTITY: It was a book that he found at a seller of old books in Cairo that helped Mossaad Khodeir, better known as Khodeir Al-Portsaidy, to master the art of calligraphy at a very young age after years of writing political slogans against the British occupation in Port Said in the last century.

“I was always privileged with beautiful hand-writing. I was not trained, but I had the talent to write in a very neat way,” he recalled. He said that when he found the book, he became more dedicated and started practising the letters of the three essential styles that were in it.

Barely a teenager at the time, he was a fast learner, and it was not long before he had established himself as a lead calligrapher at Egyptian TV where he wrote the cast lists for soap operas, plays, and programmes. However, it was in the artistic domain that he really established his name. He takes pride in having had his name associated with some of the best-produced Heliah (praise of the Prophet Mohamed), classics of Arab poetry, and Quranic verses.

Some 20 years ago, Al-Portsaidy established an association for Arabic calligraphy that now has 7,000 members. Ten years later, he established a syndicate for calligraphers that today has about 3,000 members.

“Calligraphers are still here doing a wide range of work. It might not be the only thing they are doing, but there are still calligraphers in this country. Some are just calligraphers, and some are artists,” he said.

Both the syndicate and the association are housed in three houses in Old Cairo, where he displays his own best work. The contribution of Al-Portsaidy to the art of Arabic calligraphy has granted him state recognition, and this has included the launch of calligraphy schools that carry his name both in Cairo where he lives and in Port Said where it all started.

This, he said, just goes to show the significance of Arabic calligraphy for Egypt.

According to Mohamed Baghdadi, Secretary-General of the Cairo International Forum for Arabic Calligraphy (CIFAC), it is hard to underestimate the significance of Arabic calligraphy for Arab culture in general. In 2003, when the Arab League was preparing for Arab culture to be the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany, Baghdadi, a calligrapher and journalist, appealed for special attention to be given to Arabic calligraphy.

“It would have been a big mistake to overlook Arabic calligraphy, which is a unique element of Arab culture,” he said. Baghdadi got his ideas through, and the pavilion for Arabic calligraphy at the fair was one of the best attended.

Two decades down the road, Baghdadi argues that this was a game-changer for Arabic calligraphy. “It got a lot more attention across the Arab world, and it started to be the subject of seminars, fairs, and competitions,” he said. Moreover, Turkey has been showing a new interest in Arabic calligraphy, and it has relaunched schools and started one of the most prestigious competitions for Arabic calligraphy run by the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art, and Culture in Istanbul.

In 2021, after seven years of lobbying and coordination with several Arab capitals, particularly Riyadh, Baghdadi joined calligraphers from across the Arab world to celebrate as the UN cultural agency UNESCO added Arabic calligraphy to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

A total of 16 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Sudan, Tunisia, the UAE, and Yemen, presented the nomination to UNESCO. Saudi Arabia took the lead, Baghdadi said.

Baghdadi worked with Al-Portsaidy and the Ministry of Culture to launch the CIFAC in 2015. “Egypt has a long history of Arabic calligraphy, and it has to continue to be engaged with the wider regional attention to this art,” he said.

On 10 October, Baghdadi and Al-Portsaidy will join other artists for the inauguration of this year’s edition of the CIFAC. “The key theme this year is the October 1973 War, as we celebrate its 50th anniversary,” he said.

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