Selections of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Calligraphy

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Mihrab découpage panel

Calligrapher: unknown

18th-19th centuries

Dimensions of Written Surface: 16.5 (w) x 5 (h) cm

Script: mirror script

This piece of white paper has been carefully cut out to produce an elaborate image of interlacing vines and flowers. In the central panel, two columns border the right and left vertical frame and appear to hold an almost Baroque arch in which hangs a lamp. This motif may be identified as a mihrab, or the prayer niche in the qibla wall of a mosque (i.e. the wall facing Mecca), illuminated by a hanging mosque lamp.

Above the mihrab, a rectangular frame contains the words Allah, Muhammad (peace and prayers upon him), and 'Ali written in such a way as to create a reverse or mirror image. This writing technique is known as specular, bifold (musenna), duplicate writing (cift yazi), or reflecting (mutenazir) itself (Mandel Khan 2001: 130-3; and Ozonder 2003, 147). The process of mirror writing and mirror image-making flourished in the Ottoman empire during the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular in mystical quarters associated with the Bektashi order. The Bektashis created calligraphic panels and paintings representative of their tenets, among which the belief in the divinity of 'Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, comes to the fore (De Jong 1989: 7-9). As suggested by this panel, God, Muhammad and 'Ali are indissociable, as each is replicated from a divine presence into concrete form. It is quite probable that this panel was hung on a wall in a Bektashi dervish's living quarters, mosque, or dervish lodge (tekke), much like another 18th-century panel of mirror writing found in the collections of the Library of Congress (1-86-154.30).

The extractive technique of découpage is known in Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish as qit'a, or literally "cutting out," and artists specializing in this technique were called qati'an (cutters). It appears that découpage calligraphy became popular around the last quarter of the 15th century, as Qadi Ahmad's treatise of 1015/1606 on the subject makes clear (Qadi Ahmad 1959: 17 and 174-94). Although the technique of découpage emerges during the second half of the 15th century, it became a popular tool for the making of Ottoman kalips (calligraphic perforated sheets) during the 16th-19th centuries (Safwat 1996: 142-43 and 194). For example, one Ottoman work of découpage made by a certain Suleyman is dated 1282/1865-6 (Safwat 1996: 200-1, cat. no. 140). For these reasons, it is logical to assume that this découpage, mirror-script work was made in Ottoman Turkey in the 18th or 19th century.

Another découpage calligraphic panel similar to this piece also is held in the Library of Congress (1-84-154.5): this piece may have been the companion piece to 1-84-154.6.

Illuminated Islamic manuscripts
Islamic manuscripts
Islamic calligraphy
Mirror script
Arabic calligraphy
Arabic script calligraphy

17.9 (w) x 26.3 (h) cm


Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division, Washington, D.C. 20540

ascs 105