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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Ancient Arabic Calligraphy Available Online on Library of Congress

A collection of Arabic script calligraphy sheets dating from the 8th to 19th centuries is now available on the Library of Congress' Global Gateway Web site at

During the late 1920s, early 1930s and 1990s the Library of Congress acquired a large collection of Arabic script calligraphy sheets. Almost all of the sheets were acquired from Kirkor Minassian of New York and Paris. The remaining sheets were acquired by the Library's field office in Islamabad, Pakistan, with permission from the Pakistani government to acquire and export calligraphic materials belonging to a Pakistani citizen. The 355 sheets placed online are the vast majority of the Islamic calligraphic items in the Library's collections, housed in the African and Middle Eastern Division. In a forthcoming final update of the Web site another 36 images of material from the 8th through 10th centuries will be added.

Calligraphy was a skill to be mastered, and it was heavily used to express religious sentiment and many other aspects of personal and cultural life. Calligraphic art developed gradually over the centuries and has been the subject of numerous studies analyzing its role in the faith, culture and art of Arabic-, Persian- and Turkish-speaking lands.

A majority of the calligraphy sheets in the collection are written on paper; however, a group of Quranic fragments from the 8th through 10th centuries are inscribed on parchment.
This collection showcases stunning examples of calligraphic art, including illuminated panels, albums and poems. In addition to the individual calligraphy sheets, this presentation contains essays on Ottoman and Persian calligraphic styles, an in-depth look at Quranic calligraphic fragments and an essay discussing some of the Library's notable Arabic script calligraphy sheets and illuminations.

Among the most noteworthy items included in the collection are a page from an 8th century C.E. (first or early second century Islamic era) Koran, and pages from a 17th century Persian dictionary titled "Farhang-i Jahangiri." The former item is written in the Hijazi form of the Arabic script, which is an ancestor of all the modern forms of the Arabic script. This Koran page is also important as an artifact of the earliest Islamic community. Scholars who have viewed pages from the dictionary speculate—based on the great beauty of the calligraphy and illumination—that these may be pages from the royal manuscript that was prepared for the Mughal Emperor Jahangir who reigned from 1605 to 1627.

These beautiful items have been housed in the Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division since they entered the Library's possession. Art historians, historians of the Islamic book and other researchers learned of their existence when they came to Washington to consult with specialists in the Near East Section. The collection of Arabic script calligraphy was truly one of the Library's hidden treasures.

This digitization project began 2002 when Library of Congress management requested proposals for projects focusing on the digital conversion of underutilized collections whose use by researchers would increase by their existence in digital form on Internet. At that time Chris Murphy, the Library's Turkish area specialist, and one of the individuals responsible for the manuscripts held by the Near East Section, proposed that the Arabic script calligraphy collection be given scholarly descriptions, digitized and mounted on the Library's Web site.

This proposal was accepted and in a process lasting almost three years the Web site was created. The Library's Office of Strategic Initiatives engaged Christiane Gruber (currently assistant professor of Islamic art history at Indiana University) to create descriptions of each piece of calligraphy. Murphy worked with the Global Gateway digital team, which handled the technical side of creating the Web site.

Digitization of these materials accomplishes several goals. Hitherto unknown holdings of the Library are presented to the scholarly world. Each item is preserved digitally and the digital surrogate is there to be used by researchers. The actual item will be available only to those individuals whose research requires that they examine the original object. Furthermore, the introductory essays on the Web site give the general public a clear and concise explanation of Islamic calligraphy with an extensive bibliography about the subject.

Many of these pieces of calligraphy come from manuscripts that were disassembled in order to sell pages individually. As a consequence, manuscripts pages were often dispersed among several institutions. The creation of this Library of Congress Web site will, it is hoped, encourage these other institutions to digitize and make available their Islamic treasures. This, in turn, will enable scholars and institutions to use the virtual space of the World Wide Web to reconstruct important and valuable manuscripts that now exist in bits and pieces all around the world.
This online presentation of "Selections of Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Calligraphy" joins other world history collections available on the Library of Congress' Global Gateway Web site at This Web site features the extraordinary international collections of the Library of Congress as well as those of its partners from libraries in Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, France and Russia. The presentations for these five nations are bilingual—in both English and the language of the country represented.

The Global Gateway Web site also makes available such rare items as "The Kraus Collection of Sir Francis Drake," "The Lewis Carroll Scrapbook" and "Selections from the Naxi Manuscript Collection," which documents ceremonial writings of the Naxi people of China, who write using the only living pictographic language in the world.

Photography/ Text © Chris Murphy, Turkish area specialist in the Library's African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress. Published in Library of Congress Information Bulletin, September 2006.

JOC provides access to these materials for educational and research purposes and makes no warranty with regard to their use for other purposes. The written permission of the copyright owners and/or holders of other rights (such as publicity and/or privacy rights) is required for distribution, reproduction, or other use of protected items beyond that allowed by fair use or other statutory exemption. JOC has made every reasonable effort to locate and acknowledge copyright owners and wishes to be informed by any copyright owners who are not properly identified and acknowledged on this website so that we may make any necessary corrections.

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