Cairo may be best known for its ancient Egyptian ruins, but it is also home to a vast amount of Islamic history.
In the busy Cairo streets that history is there for all to see with its ancient mosques, often decorated with intricate Koranic script.
It’s that detailed artwork that is being celebrated in Cairo during January, with the city welcoming calligraphers from around the world to take part in the International Festival for Arabic Calligraphy.
Research specialist in Arabic calligraphy at the Biblioteca Alexandrina Calligraphy Center, Mohamed Hasan is one of the organizers.
He says the traditional art from is something that exists in everyday life, ‘When I walk in the streets I see inscriptions from the Ottoman era, the Mamlouk era. At the same time there were lots of crafts linked to this art; the Koran production was here, a lot of manufacturing, paintings, even street signs, the old blue ones that we see all over Egypt,’’ said Hasan.
‘‘Some of them follow in the footsteps in designing logos, in typography, computer fonts and book layouts, so each book has a special style relating to its design. Moreover, in magazines I might go and buy a magazine where that designer uses a special font. Even news channels are using Egyptian typographers to create new fonts,’’ he added.
Arabic calligraphy is a major form of artistic expression in the Islamic world, with many different kinds of scripts.
The most famous ones are the Kufic style, a more geometric style, where many Korans have been written using this font. Another is the Tulut style used by the Mamluks in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Calligraphy is a form of artistic expression that acquired great prestige because it was used to transcribe the Koran.
Farid Al-Ali has traveled from Kuwait to attend the festival, he says it is important to foster new talent as well as preserve the ancient art,
‘‘Since it was launched, it’s mission is to take care of Islamic arts including Arabic calligraphy, Islamic painting and all the productions that are related to this kind of art, calligraphy. But of course to look after developing new talents in the fields of Arabic calligraphy and Islamic art, and to look after promoting this art,’’ said Ali who is head of Kuwait Islamic Arts Center.
The body has lent the festival a piece by Iranian artist Amir Falsaffy, estimated to be worth around 10,000 U.S dollars.
Another item on display is a piece created by an Egyptian Jewish jeweler which uses mother of pearl. This creation dates back to 1912.
The Bibliotecha Alexandrina is running a project called The Digital Library of Inscriptions and Calligraphies, Dr Shereen El Kabbani, is involved in the project.
She says she’d like Egypt to be recognized for its rich Islamic heritage, ‘‘We’re trying to send, from our project, like the project from our Digital Library of Inscriptions and Calligraphies, a very basic idea about Arabic calligraphy and that is to try to protect this great heritage, that lots of people, especially Europe, have no idea about it. Maybe they look to us as though all we have is Pharonic civilization, but no, we can tell them we also have a wide range of Islamic civilization and a wide range of Arabic calligraphy, of different kinds of artistic decorations, but with a simple style,’’ said El Kabbani.
The project that El Kabbani is working on documents all monuments containing Islamic script, either in Arabic, Farsi or Turkish to make them accessible to researchers or anyone with an interest.
They list the location, historical period, materials used, translation, font and links to any publications that refer to the monument.
Among the specialist researchers are also artists keen to show off their designs, one of them is Yousry El Mamlouk.
Mamlouk showed off his brush skills fusing Thuloth and Jali Diwani styles.
Traditionally calligraphers were highly respected as many of them used verses from the Koran in their works of art.
But the skill isn’t only limited to paper and parchment, it’s also visible in ceramics, architecture and garments.