Straddling the crossroads of continental Asia and Europe is Istanbul, one of my favorite places to spend time wandering around. Like a fine vintage wine cellaring over time, Istanbul serves up many twists and turns, many faces, and a multitude of atmospheres. Quite probably holding the distinction of being the world’s premier multiethnic environment, its many layers would take lifetimes to decipher.
During my travels through Turkey, I was reading about timespan of the final decline of the Ottoman empire and decided to spend a day visiting a couple of cemeteries to view the work and styles that would have appeared from that period of time (approximately 1800 to 1900 in the Gregorian calendar, 1214 to 1317 in the Islamic Hijri calendar). Many of the tombstones from this time period reference a design and style that would have been influenced from ideas taken from Persian and European arts during the previous and final expansive reach of the Ottoman empire.
The Turkish language inscriptions on the stones are in a calligraphic style of Ottoman Arabic and are read from right to left. Arabic was the written language until 1928 when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, replaced it with a phonetic variant of the Latin alphabet.
Islamic calligraphy, a linear graphic, is a conscious art founded on a code of geometric and decorative rules. The abstract letterforms have their own sculptural autonomy that makes them ideal candidates for a stone carver. Their rhythm and proportion transform individual words into an artistic form of expression.
Typically, inscriptions include the name of the deceased, the father, the origins of the family, a short excerpt from the first chapter of the Quran for the soul of the deceased, and the year in which the person died. Later on, the tombstones were more ornately adorned with floral motifs, patterning, and poems. A unique feature of these stones is their tops, which display different shapes of male headgear. In fact, the headgear represents the highest rank the deceased achieved in his lifetime.
In earlier centuries, gravestones for women were square and contained little information, but with time they decorated with stylized flowers, vines, and ornate Arabesque patterns. Poems were inscribed on many of them.