A place for Drachenwald's scribes to hang out, learn, discuss and critique each others work.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Arabic scroll for Society use

Second attempt completed Oct 2015

This is the documentation I submitted to accompany my second attempt at an Arabic scroll, for Drachenwald A&S competition, October AS 50.

Credits: The goodwill and thoughtful, creative help of Sir Garick von Kopke, OP, OL, made this scroll possible.


I do not speak or write Arabic, but aspired to write an Arabic scroll for Sir Nasr' ibn Isa's viscounty. I hoped to obtain an Arabic text, and copy it, if it was printed in a passable 'medieval Arabic' font. As it worked out, it was more complicated than that.

His Grace Sir Garick von Kopke, 6th king of Drachenwald, speaks and writes Arabic. He agreed to help me with a text. With some details of the reign of Nasr' & Eleanor Sir Garick created a beautiful history, modelled on the style of early Arabic histories. (NB See previous blog post for the full text.)

He provided me with printable versions in both standard Arabic font (equivalent of Arial in English) and in a font modelled on early medieval Arabic hands - sort of the equivalent of printing a text in a 9th c Uncial Latin font.

In the end I did this scroll twice. I learned so much in the first attempt, that I wanted to do it again, better. The first one is now a promissory note. This second version is better, but still didn't meet my artistic hopes.

Calligraphy research

Arab calligraphers train for decades in their art and I knew I could not reproduce these efforts. My research necessarily focused on resources available in English, intended for novices.

Like European Latin scripts, Arabic had developed several distinct 'hands' over time. My interest was in very early Arabic: something compatible for an early Andalusian knight. My research indicated the Kufic hand was the most likely read by Sir Nasr's persona.

Kufic, compared to later cursive scripts, looks stiff, crisp and blocky. It's a contemporary for Roman capitals, and served much the same purpose - it began as a script for carving text in stone, and is thus angular and full of edges and corners.

Like Roman capitals, Kufic is associated with formal texts. Like Roman caps in medieval manuscripts, Kufic remained as the hand for headings and titles of texts, even when the rest of the text was in a cursive hand.

Kufic varies widely in letter height and proportions, its main characteristic being its angular nature. Kufic examples on vellum (very early Q'rans) have fluid corners of letters showing the scribe using the reed to its full capacity, but still emphasises strong uprights and long flat lengths.

Figure 1 Sample Kufic script with gold Surah (chapter) heading

Written Arabic

  • like Hebrew, Arabic is written from right to left
  • traditional Arabic 'alphabet' has 28 letters but just 18 'forms' - some letters use the same shape, but add dots to distinguish one from another, called letter pointing
  • certain letters are written differently depending on their position in a word, with initial, medial and final forms
  • Arabic letters have distinctive ligatures; some letters never join their neighbours but are always 'standalone' letters even in the middle of a word; if 2 letters look similar it is their ligatures that tell you what they are
  • early written Arabic, like Hebrew, does not include vowels; the diacritic marks (coloured dots) to indicate vowels, that appear on many Arab manuscripts, were added later, sometimes centuries later, to help readers' pronunciation
  • modern Arabic now includes adapted letters for 'loan' sounds that aren't native to Arabic (like P in the name Prothal), and also many additional orthographic signs to modify pronunciation
Arabic does not have hyphens to split words over 2 lines: you must complete a word on a line. Instead letters are sometimes stretched to 'justify' the text and fill lines (kashida) and make the text beautiful. You can stretch a single letter (mashq), or stretch the space between them (tatwîl).
The pronunciation can also influence where to apply kashida; long vowels encourage stretched letters to represent the long sound. Knowing where and when to stretch a word attractively is a skill unto itself.

Scroll design features from exemplar: choices and limitations

The features I wanted to include in Sir Nasr’s scroll, from the 12th c example, were:
  • the full text in Arabic with comperable spacing and kashida
  • the gold dots that marked the end of sentences (distributed as evenly and attractively as possible)
  • one line in gold to feature a highlight in the story (when King Prothal rewards Sir Nasr’ with the King’s order of Albion) – a parallel to a Surah heading
Examining the photo of the original examplar closely, I think the gold used is shell gold: gold flakes painted in with gum arabic. I don’t own any real shell gold, so I used transfer gold with gum arabic binding. (Unfortunately my gum arabic binding was too thick, and gives the effect is of raised gold where I didn't actually want this.)

One limitation in recreating this look is that I cannot place the diacritic marks (coloured dots), at all; I do not speak Arabic, and Sir Garick’s text didn’t include them. Similarly, I cannot use pronunciation to guide my use of kashida (stretching letters and words for effect). I can only use the visual placement to balance words across the scroll, and follow the exemplar where possible (eg. seeing which letters were stretched and which were not).

Sir Garick's text included modern orthographic marks. Most of these were not known in early Arabic so while I included them in my first attempt, I dropped them in the second.

Tools and materials

My choice of tools are a necessary comprimise of materials, time and preparation.
  • reed pen: traditional tool for Arabic calligraphy, shaped and sharpened with my pen-knife
  • Higgins India non-waterproof ink
  • pergamenata: A3 sheet, landscape, ruled with 3mm writing line and 4mm space between
  • layout tools: ruler, slope, T-square, 2H pencil, eraser, Linex
  • gum arabic binder, transfer gold for flat gilding
I read up on 'traditional' Arab tools, and did the calligraphy with a reed pen, but stuck to familiar pergamenata and a commercial ink.

I tested both flat and the sloped writing surfaces for this work, then used my 30 degree slope, as my reed retained ink and wrote for much longer on a slope. I did the flat gilding on a flat surface.

Looking at medieval examples, I cannot see any layout marks like writing lines and borders that are so important for European manuscripts. I don't know how Arabic calligraphers learned to write so evenly and consistently without them. I ruled and lined my page because I could not have created a consistent result without it.

Methods, mistakes and observations

I started by reading and learning the basics of the Naskh hand, using the British Museum's 'Arabic calligraphy: Naskh script for beginners'.

The joy of using a reed, compared to a quill or metal pen, is that you can push a reed nib as well as pull it. It felt almost naughty to push a pen! but the Naskh hand requires push, pull, twist and sometimes just plain filling in corners.

This Naskh introduction made Sir Garick's printed texts comprehensible, particularly the ligatures. However, the letterforms in Kufic are very different from the Naskh hand. So I ended up learning two Arab alphabets: one Naskh and one Kufic.

For practice, I copied out several pages of Kufic letter for letter. It helped me see small differences between letters that weren't obvious at first. I wrote out a ductus for the alphabet (see ductus page included with scroll) based on one exemplar, and tried to identify the order of pen strokes to use, based on how dark the ink was, which direction the line went.

After this practice, process was:
  • print all copies in large font
  • on printed copy, mark out texts with English letter names
  • mark out sentence endings, orthogaphic marks (though not used), ligatures
  • measure line spacing in original and do some test lines for letter height and number of words per line
  • rule a page with a best-guess line spacing based on these measurements
  • start calligraphy, letter by letter
At the highlight of the story, I drew in a line of text and filled it with flat gilding, then inked the outline.

My noticeable mistakes came from looking back and forth between my work and the text, and jumping a line of text. I've scraped a lot of mistakes because of confusing a line of text.

My other struggle was with my reed. One risk of using natural materials is that they're not perfectly consistent, and neither is my reed-cutting. As a result I wrote the second half of the scroll with a finer nib point than the first half.


US Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division: selections of Arabic, Persian and Ottoman calligraphy http://memory.loc.gov/intldl/apochtml/apochome.html

LoC exemplar: fragment of Koran, 11th to 12th century, Kufic hand (Fig 1)

Joumana Medlej's tutorials about learning Arabic letterforms: excellent, accessible introduction to Kufic lettering http://design.tutsplus.com/series/arabic-calligraphy-for-beginners--cms-737

Wikipedia: basic intro to Arab calligraphy. I wish I'd read this at the start.

Calligraphy qalam: a site about Arab calligraphy, in English http://calligraphyqalam.com/index.html

Calligrapher: How to write Arabic letters. Dr. Khalifa Al-Sheemy. TV series, 1/2 hour episodes.

Arabic calligraphy: Naskh script for beginners. Mustafa Jafar, British Museum Press, 2002.

The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin. Baha' al-Din Ibn Shaddad, translated by D.S. Richards (2002). Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-3381-5.

An Arab-Syrian gentleman and warrior in the period of the Crusades: memoirs of Usamah ibn Munqidh. Usamah ibn Munqidh, translated by Phillip K. Hitti. 1927, 1957, 200.. Columbia UP. ISBN 0-231-12125-3.


Merlyn said...

so amazing!

Brooks Martin said...

Very nice explanation of the research you conducted. I wish I was competent to judge your work by Arabic standards...but I'll just have to say that your scroll came out beautifully by my standards :-)