Working with a Calligrapher in Cairo

Examining and re-creating an historical manuscript page is one of the best ways to understand the processes that went into its making, and one that I have employed several times in the course of my research (see an example of this approach in my paper “A visual analysis of  the opening illuminated pages of a sixteenth century Iranian manuscript…” )

During my residency at the Dar al-Kutub project in Cairo, we decided to recreate a page from one of the manuscripts at the Dar al-Kutub, Egypt’s national library. We chose a sixteenth century copy of the  Canon of Medicine – al-Qanun fi’l Tibb – of Avicenna – Ibn Sina.  The title-page is illuminated in Safavid style, though probably produced in  Egypt. In the main cartouche is the customary invocation to God – Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim –  rendered in fine gold calligraphy. Below is the finished copy that we recreated – I left part of the illumination unfinished to show how the design is progressively built up in stages.

Reconstruction of the title page of a 16th century Egyptian copy of Avicenna's Canons of Medicine.

Reconstruction of the title page of a 16th century Egyptian copy of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine.

The joy of this project was the opportunity to work with a master calligrapher, Ahmed Fares, and to experience something of the way in which the illuminator

Ruling a line in gold

Ruling a line in gold

and calligrapher would work together in the ateliers of the past. This was new territory for both Ahmed Fares and myself, so we had to feel our way empirically through the most logical progression and division of the work. The first stage of the work was the ruling out of the title-box. The entire device, including the ruling and the upper border is the opening title-box, known variously as the Sarlow, ‘Unvan or Masnavi. I still get very confused by the terminology of illuminated elements, as different scholars use different terminology, which further varies depending on whether the terms are Arabic or Persian. If anybody would like to comment I would be most interested.

In any case, the ruling itself is so challenging that I am sure it was the work of a specialist. I use a nineteenth-century ruling pen for the black lines, and a straight brush and ruler for the gold and coloured lines. And I suffer acute anxiety every time! After the ruling was completed, I outlined the main features of the design in black with a fine Indian brush, including the empty cartouche which was to contain Ahmed Fares’ calligraphy. At this point I handed the page over to him to complete his work before I took it back to add colour and detail to the design. We felt that the heavy mineral pigments would smudge and inhibit his hand if I completed that part at this stage.
I have written a little about the colours used for illumination in a previous post:Pigments for Manuscript painting” . The palette for this piece included predominantly lapis lazuli and verdigris (which strangely had not degraded in the original), gold and touches of cinnabar and orpiment. All of which are also part of Avicenna’s Materia Medica!

Ahmed Fares and me working on the Avicenna title-page

Ahmed Fares and me working on the Avicenna title-page

In the historical centres of book production of the Islamic world, there was an enduring hierarchy in the status of the different types of artists who worked on a production: the calligrapher’s art enjoyed the noblest status, this being literally the art of the word,  followed by that of the illuminator (who illuminated the word). The work of the  illustrators and margin decorators was subordinate to calligraphy and illumination, no matter how gifted the artists, their work being permitted only in the secular texts. Though division of labour into these separate elements was common, it was not unknown for exceptional artists to have mastered several or all of these arts.

The sixteenth century writer Abu l-Fazl Allami, the voice of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, wrote of the art of calligraphy in the A-in-i Akabari:

” …..a letter is the source from which the light confined within it beams forth… spiritual geometry emanating from the pen of invention…” Contemporary Persian treatises abounded with complex recipes for calligrapher’s ink or Muraqab, adding to the basic formula of lamp-black and gum a plethora of other ingredients, such as gall-nut, saffron, cinnabar, verdigris,  and scented resins to improve its beauty and viscosity, and calligraphers were trained rigorously for many years to master the precise aesthetic proportions of the various Arabic and Persian scripts. The paper they worked on was stained with vegetable dyes such as henna, producing subtle shades designed to minimize strain on the eyes of the reader, and carefully sized and burnished to provide a silky smooth surface for the calligrapher’s pen (qalam).

Ahmed fares burnishing his gold calligraphy

Where the lettering was to be rendered in gold, the pigment needed to be prepared so finely that it would flow as freely as ink.  This was my first challenge: to produce the perfect 24ct gold ink for Ahmed Fares to work with. The secret is actually pure hard work; rubbing it by hand with honey for hours on end to break up the particles of gold into the finest powder, and then washing it thoroughly in distilled water to remove all impurities. You can see part of the process in my earlier post“The Alchemy of Pure Gold Pigment”

The liquid gold that I prepared flowed smoothly off Ahmed Fares’ pen, I am happy to say, and when he burnished it with an agate, it shone like a flame. The calligraphy in the original was finely outlined with black, and interwoven with delicate Arabesques. The question was whether that was Ahmed Fares’ job as the calligrapher, or mine as the illuminator? In fact Ahmed naturally took possession of that part of the illumination, leaving me to finish rendering the decorative elements around the cartouche. While he worked, I enjoyed examining Ahmed Fares’ collection of  beautiful antique scissors, burnishers and ruling-pens, inherited from his Turkish master.

Ahmed's tools

Some of Ahmed Fares’ antique calligrapher’s tools