Istanbul, Part Two: IRCICA

During my trip to Istanbul in March, I had the pleasure of visiting IRCICA, the Research Center For Islamic History, Art and Culture. Among the many activities that IRCICA sponsors is a prestigious calligraphy competition held every other year.

IRCICA is located in the Beşiktaş neighborhood, which is easy to get to by ferry from Eminönü or Uskidar. From the ferry port, you walk up Barbaros Boulevard until you see a large park on your right; you can veer to the right through the park (but still going up the hill) until you hit Yıldız Caddesi. Turn right, and the Yıldız Sarayı (where IRCICA is located) will be at the top of the hill. Bring your passport or some sort of ID, because it is required to sign in.

The staff at IRCICA is very friendly, although very little English is spoken. They served us tea and brought out their assortment of calligraphy books upon request.

IRCICA sells a wide variety of calligraphy books, most of which cannot be found anywhere else. These include catalogues of winners plates from their calligraphy competitions, the meshk curriculum books for Thuluth & Naskh and Divani & Riq’a, and classics like The Art of Calligraphy in Islamic Heritage, 1990-1996, which is full of amazing work and sells for over $100 US.

One of the things Aishah and I discovered on our visit is that IRCICA has a new research library. The facility is beautiful and would serve as a wonderful base for visiting scholars. The calligraphy section is fantastic.

The library includes a full archive of all the original calligraphy competition entries, which are such fun to look through. I definitely recommend visiting IRCICA if you’re interested in calligraphy and happen to be in Istanbul.

American Qur’an

I recently found out about a fascinating project by the artist Sandow Birk, who is working to create an “American” Qur’an. The lettering and illustration for this manuscript are informed by a uniquely American aesthetic, which contrasts sharply with more traditional manuscripts found in the Middle East. Below is a description of the project:

[This is] an ongoing project to hand-transcribe the entire Qur’an according to historic Islamic traditions and to illuminate the text with relevant scenes from contemporary American life. Five years in the making, the project has been inspired by a decade of extended travel in Islamic regions of the world and undertaken after extensive research.

To find out more, visit:

Portrait of Mohamed Zakariya

A Turkish TV station called “Ebru” created this 27-minute video portrait of the American calligraphy artist Mohamed Zakariya. In this piece, Zakariya talks about how he became interested in calligraphy, the Ottoman calligraphy tradition, the process of creating a U.S. Postal Service stamp for the Muslim holiday of Eid, and why calligraphy is important. Several of Zakariya’s students are also interviewed.

The art of Illumination

Baghdad: City of Peace, Truly

Baghdad: City of Peace, Truly by Ellen Frank

NPR recently ran a radio story about artist Ellen Frank. Frank runs a modern-day workshop out of her home in New York, focusing on the traditional art of illumination. She accepts several young artists at a time, and they work under her guidance and participate in all aspects of the creation of commissioned work. Frank says about the apprenticeship, “I think we bring back an intimacy of mentorship and training, where the apprentice or intern learns directly from the experienced artists.”

Illumination was also a critical part of the calligraphy process in the Arab, Ottoman and Turkish traditions. This traditional art was passed down from master to apprentice, much as in Ellen Frank’s workshop. Geometric, floral and other non-figural decorations were used to surround a composition, giving it elegance and beauty. Full-page illuminations could often be found at the beginning of a Koran, or serving as a divider between sections. Divisions within the text were often marked by decorations in the margin. Details were painted in gold leaf and other brilliant colors such as blue, sepia, brown, white, green and red.

Modern-day Turkey has kept the traditional art of illumination alive. One the finest illuminators is the Turkish artist Fatima Özçay. (See her work below).

Makanna in Jeli Thuluth

Makanna in Jali Thuluth; Calligrapher: Osman Özçay, Illuminator Fatima Özçay