The Arts of the Book and Calligraphy

Sakıp Sabancı Museum Collection of the Arts of the Book and Calligraphy consists of illuminated Korans, prayer books, calligraphic compositions, albums and panels written by well-known calligraphers, illuminated official documents bearing the imperial cipher of the Ottoman sultans as well as calligrapher’s tools, all produced during a period extending from the end of the 14th century to the 20th century.

Qur’an (1600s) by Unknown scribeSakıp Sabancı Museum

Illuminated manuscript books: a treasury for book lovers

From the early medieval
period onwards Islamic rulers and magnates were increasingly interested in the
arts, and sought to own finely illuminated, illustrated and bound books written
by master scribes. Libraries were founded in contemporary centres of scholarship
like Merv, Baghdad and Cordoba, and bookshops that were also scriptoriums and
binderies proliferated.

No expense was spared for the paper, leather, gold and pigments used in their production, and the calligraphers, illuminators, gilders, miniature painters and binders were generously remunerated.

Meşk (calligraphy exercise) (1800s) by Abdurrahman HilmiSakıp Sabancı Museum

Karalama (calligraphy exercise) (1500s) by Ahmed KarahisariSakıp Sabancı Museum

Vakfiye (endowment deed) (1756) by Unknown scribeSakıp Sabancı Museum

Illuminated manuscripts were foremost among the precious objects sent as diplomatic gifts, and royal treasuries overflowed with precious books. As well as Korans, illuminated copies of books on other subjects, particularly literature and history, were produced for bibliophile sultans, statesmen and magnates. In many cases these were also illustrated with miniature paintings.

Delailü’l-Hayrat (1799) by Copied by Galatalı Ahmed NailiSakıp Sabancı Museum

Murakka (calligraphic album) (1700s) by Unknown scribeSakıp Sabancı Museum

Murakka (calligraphic album) (1800s) by Containing calligraphies ascribed to Nazif BeySakıp Sabancı Museum

Elif-Ba (alphabet book) (1853) by Signed Mustafa VasıfSakıp Sabancı Museum

Qur’an (1862) by Copied by Mehmed Şevki EfendiSakıp Sabancı Museum

Murakka (calligraphic album) (1863) by Containing Mehmed Şevki Efendi's calligraphiesSakıp Sabancı Museum

Qur’an (1837) by Copied by Kadıasker Mustafa İzzet EfendiSakıp Sabancı Museum

The Koran: holy book of islam 

The Koran was compiled in book form in mid-7th
century. The oldest surviving Koran dates from the early 8th century and is
written on parchment. Korans are usually bound in a single volume, but
sometimes in thirty separate twenty-page sections known as cüz, or more rarely in two or four volumes. Manuscript Korans vary
widely in height from 2 cm to 100 cm. Rulers, statesmen and wealthy individuals
commissioned illuminated and finely bound Korans written by master scribes,
usually as gifts for mosques and mausoleums. There are a few rare examples of
illustrated Korans.

The tradition of illuminating Islamic manuscripts can be said to begin with Korans. The earliest Ottoman Korans have an illuminated opening spread called a serlevha. Here the Fatiha, the first surah of the Koran, and the first four verses of the Bakara, the second surah, are written on facing pages and surrounded by horizontal and vertical panels and borders filled with polychrome floral motifs.

Prayer Book (1520) by Hüseyin ŞahSakıp Sabancı Museum

In some examples dating from the late 15th century and early 16th century, there are lappets around the borders along three sides. In the 17th century the lappets sometimes jutted from the straight border on the long sides, but more often formed concave and convex lobes around the broad outer borders, so softening their outline.

Al Kahf (the Cave) sura from the Qur’an (1559) by Copied by Kadı Mahmud EfendiSakıp Sabancı Museum

Qur’an (1674) by Copied in 1674 by Mustafa Anber AğaSakıp Sabancı Museum

In 18th century examples the broad borders and lappets of the serlevha are filled with polychrome bouquets of naturalistically drawn flowers. In the 19th century the sharply defined borders disappear altogether, replaced by motifs shaded to lend a sense of depth, such as large flowers and long curving leaves, occasionally baskets or jars filled with flowers, or ribbons tied in bows.

Qur’an (1744) by Copied by Yahya FahreddinSakıp Sabancı Museum

Qur’an (1894) by Copied by Hafız Tahsin Hilmi EfendiSakıp Sabancı Museum

A manual containing suras from the Qur’an and prayers (1779) by Copied by Abdullah Edirnevi and Illumination by Hafız MehmedSakıp Sabancı Museum

of faith: illustrated prayer books 

Prayer books consisting of prayers for each
day of the week and selected surahs from the Koran—commonly the En’am, Kehf and
Yasin surahs—copied by eminent calligraphers and finely illuminated and bound,
were a longstanding tradition in the Islamic world. From the end of the 17th
century prayer books with illustrations and diagrams began to be produced in
Ottoman Turkey. This distinctive type became widespread in the 18th century,
reaching its zenith in the 19th century. Many of them are the prayer book known
as Delâ’ilü’l-Hayrat. 

Delailü’l-Hayrat (1799) by Copied by Galatalı Ahmed NailiSakıp Sabancı Museum

They feature talismanic diagrams, hilyes (descriptions of the physiology of the Prophet Muhammad and his family), drawings of Muhammad’s personal possessions, such as his standard, prayer beads and mantle, pictures of the Tuba tree believed to grow in paradise, the rose of Muhammad and the cities of Mecca and Medina. It is thought that popular interest in prayer books of this type was spurred by the belief that looking at a written description of Muhammad and a picture of his tomb in Medina was equivalent to seeing the Prophet himself, and would be rewarded by forgiveness of one’s sins, an idea that gained currency at the end of the 17th century.

Koran (1500s) by Crown Prince KorkutSakıp Sabancı Museum

Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512), bibliophile and friend of poets and calligraphers

While illuminated books were being produced at the
palace studio (nakkaşhane) in
Istanbul, the new capital of Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444-46; 1451-81), and
artists from the East and the West thronged his palace, his son Şehzade Bayezid
created an equally lively cultural environment in the city of Amasya, where he
served as governor for 27 years. Calligraphers, including the great master Şeyh
Hamdullah, poets and scholars gathered here, and illuminated books were
produced under Bayezid’s patronage. After his accession to the throne as Sultan
Bayezid II he continued his patronage of the arts, and many illuminated books
produced in Istanbul
during his reign have survived to the present day. 

These books reflect tastes in illuminated books that developed at the Ottoman palace during the reign of Bayezid’s father Mehmed II. During Bayezid’s reign the number of books at Topkapı Palace rose to nearly eight thousand, each stamped with the sultan’s seal and recorded in a register.

Calligraphic album (1400s) by Containing calligraphies ascribed to Şeyh HamdullahSakıp Sabancı Museum

Some were masterpieces of Ottoman palace art dedicated to Sultan Bayezid II, while others were gifts presented by the rulers of neighbouring countries. Bayezid’s interest in books marks a new era in the history of the Ottoman palace art studio. His patronage of poets and writers generated a productive cultural environment in which Ottoman literature, scholarship and art flourished.

Ferman (imperial decree) of Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1451-1481) (1459) by Unknown scribeSakıp Sabancı Museum

Imperial cipher of the Ottoman sultans: the tuğra

The tuğra or imperial cipher was the official signature of the Ottoman
sultans. It was drawn by an official called nişancı.
As well as imperial documents, the tuğra
was used on coins and seals. The earliest examples of illuminated tuğras drawn on paper belong to Sultan
Bayezid II (r.
1481-1512). Here the spaces inside
the beyza (loops), sere or kürsü (monogram), tuğ
(shafts), zülfe (dependent sweeps
from the tuğ), and hançer (pincer-like projections) are
illuminated in different colours and motifs. From the 16th century the
illumination of the tuğra became
increasingly ornate.

The monogram text, known
as the sere or kürsü, is arranged to read from bottom to top. It begins with the
name of the sultan at the bottom with his patronymic above. These two names
form the basis of the tuğra
composition. Other words were included that varied slightly over time, but
these did not significantly affect the design. The word bin is inserted between the sultan’s name and that of his father,
with the tail of the letter nun
curving inwards to the left, while the tail of the letter nun in the sultan’s title curves outwards to the left. It is these
two tails that form the loops of the tuğra
and continue horizontally to the right, forming the projection known as hançer. The invocation, el-muzaffer daima  (‘[may he be] ever victorious’) is placed
above the patronymic, with the word daima
stretching towards the inside loop. 

Berat (imperial warrant granting a privilege) of Sultan Murad III (r. 1574-1595) (1575) by Unknown scribeSakıp Sabancı Museum

The vertical shafts or tuğ are extensions of the alif characters in the honorific. Dependent sweeps known as zülfe complete the design. The tuğra was drawn on all documents issued by or authorised by the sultan himself. These included royal commands and appointments, documents granting privileges or annuities, letters to foreign rulers and endowment deeds (vakfiye).

Ferman (imperial decree) of Sultan Mehmed IV (r. 1648-1687) (1659) by Unknown scribeSakıp Sabancı Museum

Berat (imperial warrant granting a privilege) of Sultan Ahmed III (r. 1703-1730) (1704) by Unknown scribeSakıp Sabancı Museum

Documents in the form of scrolls were written in divani, tevki, rıka or celi talik script in black or gold, and sometimes partially in blue or partially in red ink. They date from the early 14th to early 20th century and provide extensive information about Ottoman administration.

Levha (calligraphic inscription) (1700s) by Signed Mustafa RakımSakıp Sabancı Museum

as a wall decoration: levha and hilye


Inscribing verses from the Koran, words spoken by the Prophet Muhammad, aphorisms and poetry on the interior and exterior walls of mosques, türbes (mausoleums), palaces and pavilions, on wooden doors, windows and pulpits is a very old tradition. Calligraphers wrote texts such as aphorisms, Koranic verses, hadiths, prayers and the names of God and the Prophet Muhammad and members of his family and disciples in large letters on panels that were hung on walls for everyone to read. These inscriptions were decorated with gilding and illumination. Sometimes pictures of Mecca or Medina, or the symbols of sufi orders were included in the composition.

Levha (calligraphic inscription) (1700s) by Signed Mahmud CelaleddinSakıp Sabancı Museum

Calligraphers sometimes designed inscriptions in the form of pictures of birds and animals, such as storks or lions, or of human faces. Texts known as hilye describing the physiognomy of the Prophet Muhammad, sometimes combined with prayers, verses from the Koran, talismanic diagrams, pictures, poems or talismanic phrases were written on large sheets of paper. These were pasted onto cardboard or sometimes panels of wood, illuminated and framed, then hung on the walls of rooms where they could be seen all the time.

Levha (calligraphic inscription) (1800) by Signed Mahmud CelaleddinSakıp Sabancı Museum

Levha (calligraphic inscription) (1800s) by Signed by Sultan Mahmud IISakıp Sabancı Museum

Levha (calligraphic inscription) (1879) by Signed Çırçırlı AliSakıp Sabancı Museum

The popularity of these panels, known as hilye-i şerif, is attributed to a belief that became current in the late 17th century. According to this belief looking at a hilye-i şerif or at pictures of the Prophet’s tomb in Medina was equivalent to seeing the Prophet himself, and that person’s sins would be forgiven.

Tuğra (imperial monogram) of Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876-1909) (1880) by Executed by Sami EfendiSakıp Sabancı Museum

It was also believed that the hilye protected the inhabitants of the house where it was hung from misfortune.

Levha (calligraphic inscription) (1900) by Signed SamiSakıp Sabancı Museum

Levha (calligraphic inscription) (1900s) by Signed İsmail HakkıSakıp Sabancı Museum

Levha (calligraphic inscription) (1900s) by Signed HulusiSakıp Sabancı Museum

Levha (calligraphic inscription) (1951) by Signed HamidSakıp Sabancı Museum

Hilye-i Şerif (written portrait of the Prophet) (1800s) by Signed Abdülkadir Şükri EfendiSakıp Sabancı Museum

Hilye-i Şerif (written portrait of the Prophet) (1854) by Signed Mehmed ŞefikSakıp Sabancı Museum

Hilye-i Şerif (written portrait of the Prophet) (1871) by Signed Yahya HilmiSakıp Sabancı Museum

Hilye-i Şerif (written portrait of the Prophet) (1905) by Signed Hasan RızaSakıp Sabancı Museum

Kıt’a (single piece) (1800s) by Copied by İsmail ZühdiSakıp Sabancı Museum

Displays of calligraphic skill: murakka and kıt’a

Single page inscriptions
written by calligraphers and decorative compositions by artists and
illuminators were compiled into albums known as murakka, which have a special place in the Islamic arts of the
book. Illuminators, painters, calligraphers, binders and a variety of artists
specialising in cetvel, vassale, kat’ı, marbling, flecked gold decoration and halkâr, displayed their finest work.

Murakka (calligraphic album) (1690) by Containing Hafız Osman's calligraphiesSakıp Sabancı Museum

Prayer manual (1669) by Copied by Hafız OsmanSakıp Sabancı Museum

In some of these albums produced at various times and places, the individual pages are masterpieces in which the work of many artists are combined with outstanding skill and harmony.

Murakka (calligraphic album) (1767) by Containing Mustafa Kütahi's calligraphiesSakıp Sabancı Museum

Kıt’a (single piece) (1700s) by Copied by Yedikuleli Seyyid Abdullah EfendiSakıp Sabancı Museum

Kıt’a (single piece) (1871) by Copied by Kadıasker Mustafa İzzet EfendiSakıp Sabancı Museum

The most outstanding examples of such albums were produced at the courts of Safavid sultans and princes in the 16th century. Many such albums were produced by the Ottomans between the 16th and 19th centuries, and these contain hundreds of calligraphic compositions.

Murakka (calligraphic album) (1905) by Containing Mehmed Hulusi Yazgan's calligraphiesSakıp Sabancı Museum

Most calligraphers wrote single-page compositions of this kind, consisting of prayers, Koranic verses, aphorisms, hadith, tongue twisters or experimental lettering exercises in one or more scripts. These compositions in portrait or landscape format are known as kıt’a. They were pasted onto cardboard and then surrounded by borders of decorative paper and illuminated.

Credits: Story

Exhibition Concept:
Dr. Nazan ÖLÇER
Prof. Dr. Zeren TANINDI

Exhibition Curators:
Prof. Dr. Zeren TANINDI

Collection Care:

Digital Adaptation:
Osman Serhat KARAMAN

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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