Experimenting with Maghribī scripts: tools and techniques

On November 7th, 2023 we had the pleasure of welcoming Umberto Bongianino, Departmental Lecturer in Islamic Art and Architecture at the Khalili Research Centre, University of Oxford, for a session on praxis. These sessions are meant to be exploratory collaborations between researchers and calligraphers, in order to experiment and try out new hypotheses, following an established protocol developed by the CallFront Project. In this case, this was a preliminary session ahead of our work with the Moroccan master calligrapher Hamidi Bel’aid, who will be collaborating with us in the upcoming future.

We structured this session around a series of questions posed by Umberto Bongianino concerning the instruments used to write the Maghribī mabsūṭ (“monumental”) style, as well as the techniques used for Maghribī thuluth chrysography.  The final part of the session broached questions regarding letter forms in epigraphic Maghribī thuluth, as well as the possible methods used for the transposition of models.

Fig. 1. Printed model from the Marrakesh Quran ca. 1220, the experiment sheet and different types of qalams.

            For the experiments on Maghribī mabsūṭ, we used three specimens printed to scale: two Qurʾāns possibly from Marrakesh, dating from ca. 1220[1] and ca. 1230 (the “Pink Qurʾān”),[2] and a Qurʾān probably from Fes, dated 705 H./1306.[3] Our main objective was to recreate the calamus which would have been used for these calligraphic styles, a monumental variant of Maghribī round scripts used especially, but not exclusively, in Quranic manuscripts. In order to do this, we first selected thick 160 gr drawing paper, with no sizing but polished, resembling the weight and texture of the Pink Qurʾān.  For the ink, although the corrosive effects on the pages of the original specimens indicate the employment of metallo-gallic inks (ḥibr), we used a black soot ink (midād), easier to procure and which behaved similarly to ḥibr in terms of consistency.

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Canonical calligraphy on the Ottoman frontier: Preliminary considerations on thuluth inscriptions from the Balkans

During the month of June 2023, I had the opportunity to conduct field work in Greece and Türkiye thanks to a grant from the École française d’Athènes. Starting in Athens, I travelled to Istanbul via Northern Greece and Turkish Thrace. On the way, the aim was to stop at sites where dedicatory inscriptions dating from the early Ottoman period were possibly still visible and accessible, such as in Thessaloniki, Komotini and Edirne.

Fig. 1. Distribution by country of TEI-referenced inscriptions from the Balkans and Anatolia dated between the 14th and 16th centuries (GIS & CAD : V. Thérouin)

Early Ottoman inscriptions in the Balkans have been known for a long time as documentary sources. Indeed, dedicatory inscriptions affixed to monuments contain valuable information about individuals, including the founder (e.g. name, gender and title reflecting a position in the Ottoman social hierarchy), the function of the building, and a date. The inscriptions were therefore deciphered, edited and studied since the early 20th century. The Thésaurus d’Épigraphie Islamique (or TEI, supported by the Max van Berchem Foundation and the University of Liège) is a remarkable tool for a first approach to this material.

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The Tombouctou Manuscript Project

A pioneering project centring a “history of the book” approach to African Arabic script manuscripts

For the academic year of 2023-2024 the CallFront project will be presenting a series of seminars and a workshop concentrated on the scripts practiced in Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula.  In building this regional pole, the pioneering work of the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project has provided an essential stepping stone to further our collaboration with calligraphers from the region as well as focus on the study of the scripts. In this blog, Susana Molins Lliteras, member of the CallFront consortium, introduces us to the main lines of work carried out by the Tombouctou manuscript project and the new perspectives which CallFront will continue to explore and develop in the wider context of calligraphies in Arabic script in other frontier regions.


The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project (TMP)[1] (University of Cape Town, UCT, South Africa), directed by Shamil Jeppie and active from 2013-2018, began with various aspects of the study of the manuscript tradition of Timbuktu, Mali. This city was a great centre of learning and was famous in West Africa and far beyond, from the 13th to the 20th centuries. Local scholars and their students recorded their scholarship – original works and copies – in manuscripts, many of which have survived to the present in different libraries and collections. Our project centred on the diverse content of the manuscripts, the circulation of scholars and ideas, the economy of the manuscript book, and other aspects of the “work of scholarship” in Timbuktu. We looked at various aspects of the manuscripts, including legal and social history; scholarly elites; history of the book and book collecting; history of reading in West Africa and African Arabic calligraphy.

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Corans chinois : Entretien avec Mme Annie Vernay-Nouri, conservateure honoraire chargée des manuscrits arabes à la Bibliothèque nationale de France

Dans le cadre du projet CallFront, autour du pôle Chine, Annie Vernay-Nouri, conservateure honoraire chargée des manuscrits arabes à la Bibliothèque nationale de France et co-autrice d’un article sur le papier des corans chinois[1], a pu échanger avec Johanna Cozzolino, étudiante à Sorbonne Université, dont le mémoire de Master, sous la direction d’ Eloïse Brac de la Perrière, porte sur les manuscrits coraniques chinois.

Gauche : Juz’ II d’un coran, daté du XVIIe siècle, Chine, encre noire, encre rouge, encres colorées et or sur papier, 280 x 190 mm, BNF (Arabe 7267), Paris, Folio 1v. Source : Gallica / BnF // Droite : Juz’ IX d’un coran, daté du XVIIe siècle, Chine, encre noire, encre rouge, encres colorées et or sur papier, 280 x 190 mm, BNF (Arabe 7268), Paris, Folio 1v, Source : Gallica / BnF

J. Cozzolino : Qu’est-ce qui vous a personnellement attiré dans l’étude des corans chinois ?

A. Vernay-Nouri : Ce que j’ai trouvé intéressant quand ces quatre volumes (Arabe 7267, Arabe 7268, Arabe 7269 et Arabe 7270) ont été acquis par la BnF en vente publique en 2000, c’est qu’à partir d’un même modèle avec une structure du livre établie assez vite dans l’histoire de la copie coranique, on a des traits caractéristiques qui font que, lorsqu’on ouvre un catalogue de vente, on repère tout de suite ces corans chinois qui ont une identité très forte. Conservateure au département des Manuscrits de 1993 à 2018, j’ai toujours été intéressée par les manuscrits déconsidérés, des manuscrits qui n’étaient pas « beaux ». Je trouvais qu’on avait beaucoup à apprendre de ces copies moins précieuses. Ces corans chinois répondaient tout à fait cette définition de pièces moins luxueuses que d’autres très beaux corans qui figuraient dans la collection, et je trouvais intéressant d’étudier leurs spécificités. Pour revenir à la généalogie de l’article que j’ai rédigé avec Geneviève Humbert, chercheuse à la section arabe de l’Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes, il se trouve qu’elle était spécialiste des papiers orientaux. Elle a commencé à s’intéresser au papier, puis on a travaillé ensemble sur quatre exemplaires alors récemment acquis par la BnF.

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Exploring Sulawesi Qur’ans: Writing Techniques, Tools and Materials

In May 2023, the CallFront team had the pleasure of welcoming two specialists of Malay and Indonesian manuscripts: Annabel Teh Gallop, head of the Southeast Asia section of the British Library; and Ali Akbar, calligrapher and a researcher at the National Research and Innovation Agency in Indonesia (BRIN), former head of collection at the Bayt Al-Qur’an & Museum in Jakarta.

This time, our focus was drawn to a corpus of manuscripts, more precisely Qur’ans copied in Southeast Asia during the 17th to the 19th Centuries. These manuscripts were produced in the Malay Archipelago, covering the current nations of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia, of which the major islands are Sumatra, Java, Borneo and Sulawesi (Celebes).

Annabel Teh Gallop and Ali Akbar during their research at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, may 2023 © CALLFRONT

Thanks to the extensive research of Annabel Teh Gallop and Ali Akbar in this field,[1] we started our study with a selection of Sulawesi Qur’ans. This corpus allowed us to make observations about the local traditions of copying the Qur’an, as well as the calligraphy displayed in these manuscripts.

Incorporating praxis to this study is especially necessary as the calligraphies studied in this corpus are no longer practiced by professional calligraphers today. However, even in this region, the copy of the Quranic text was extremely codified.  Thus, the recreation of the writing process and techniques can potentially lead to interesting conclusions about its context of use. Furthermore, as one of the purposes of the project is to find connections between other calligraphies at the frontiers of the Islamicate world, these experiments can allow us to draw connections between corpora from different regions.

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Exploring Recreative Practice Methodologies in Islamic Art  – Writing on Stone at the Frontiers of the Islamicate World

From left to right : Nuria Garcia Masip, Elizabeth Lambourn, Eloïse Brac de la Perrière

During the week of November 21st 2022, the CallFront team had the pleasure of welcoming Elizabeth Lambourn, Professor of Material Histories at De Montford University, Leicester U.K. for a series of experimental sessions of writing on stone.[1] 

For these sessions we focused on a series of specimens from Elizabeth Lambourn’s corpus, inscriptions on stone from Khambhat, Gujarat, dating from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries.[2]  These inscriptions include cenotaphs, headstones, foundation inscriptions and certain architectural fragments, carved on marble for Muslim patrons.

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