Beyond a shadow of a doubt, there is something about the written languages of semitic peoples that not only draws the eye, but fascinates us with elegance and intricacy that is largely absent in Roman and Cyrillic print. From the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians, to the flowing calligraphic wonders of the Arabic language, to modern Hebrew, there is something ancient and mysterious and inscrutable about them, even to those lucky and skilled enough to be able to decipher their meaning. Even in this day and age, when an avowed distaste for Middle Eastern extremism from Iran to Israel is all the rage (a category of belief into which I myself fall), there is an undeniably beautiful and haunting quality to their writings. They speak of a beauty that is lost not only on those of us who can’t read them, but apparently on many of those hailing from these war-torn regions who can.
The Tughra is unique even among the artistic scripts of North Africa and South East Asia. An art form lost with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the Tughra is a calligraphic seal or signature unique to each Ottoman sultan that was affixed to all official documents and correspondence. It was also carved on his seal, stamped on the coins minted during his reign, and emblazoned on his palaces. Any visitor to Topkapi in Istanbul can’t help but be overwhelmed by their sheer number and intricacy. Aside from the fond memories they evoke of my visit there with my equally beautiful first wife (yes, Diana, you are always in my thoughts), their place in the history of type as an art form is vastly under-appreciated. Below are just a few of the hundreds that were designed for the sultans of that once-great empire. Although Suleiman’s is the most ornate example, befitting his status in the history of the empire he shaped and the world on which he left his indelible mark, the others are nonetheless remarkable given their graceful lines and the relative simplicity with which they celebrated their namesakes.