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Products for grant FT-264875-19

Geometry of Islamic Calligraphy: History, Sources, and Meaning
Esra Akin-Kivanc, University of South Florida

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In the Mirror of the Other: Imprints of Muslim-Christian Encounters in the Late Antique and Early Medieval Mediterranean (Article)
Title: In the Mirror of the Other: Imprints of Muslim-Christian Encounters in the Late Antique and Early Medieval Mediterranean
Author: Esra Akin-KIvanc
Abstract: This article investigates a hitherto overlooked calligraphic form known in Islamic art as muthanna, mirror writing. Previous scholarship has maintained that mirror compositions originated in Iran around the thirteenth century. Establishing muthanna’s relationship with reversed, repeated, and symmetrically arranged unidirectional inscriptions from pre- and non-Islamic contexts, the study traces the art form’s history to late Antiquity—at least five centuries earlier than previously believed, when Byzantine and Arab forces were fervently negotiating territories, as well as political, religious, and visual identities. An examination of a corpus of textiles attributed to workshops in Palestine-Syria and Egypt reveals the multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-linguistic anatomy of mirror compositions. A silk fragment featuring the monogram of Heraclius helps place mirror compositions to the seventh century C.E. with greater certainty, affirming the author’s proposition that mirror writing was practiced by non-Muslim artists before the principles of Islamic calligraphy were firmly established. This new evidence reinforces the importance of celebrating muthanna not as an isolated Islamic art form, as has been the common approach, but rather as a hybrid product of centuries-old experiments with writing directionalities even prior to the advent of Islam. Furthermore, texts featured in inscriptions that were disseminated from Abbasid Baghdad and Fatimid Egypt between the tenth and twelfth centuries suggest that Muslims’ appropriation of this late Antique art form was not a mere result of uncalculated acculturation. Rather, muthanna’s adoption in Islamic art was a deliberate religiopolitical intervention at a time when an expanding, if politically divided, Muslim empire was striving to formulate a simultaneously familiar and distinct aesthetic idiom fit for its imperial vision.
Year: 2021
Primary URL:
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Fall 2021 issue
Publisher: Harvard University Press