Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Architecture and Calligraphy in the Middle East: Maintaining Identity and Preserving Art

Displaying Arabic language in modern monuments is crucial to setting the region apart.

Architecture and Calligraphy
A picture shows a view of the Museum of the Future in the Gulf emirate of Dubai, on June 20, 2022. Giuseppe CACACE / AFP

Dana Hourany

With its intricate calligraphy and distinctive circular shape, the 77-meter-high “Museum of the Future” stands in the middle of Dubai‘s skyline on Sheikh Zayed Road.

Designed by the Dubai Future Foundation, the silver museum displays innovative designs and futuristic art installations that reflect the government of Dubai’s vision for the future.

Within walking distance of Burj Khalifa, the building’s torus shape symbolizes humanity, the green hill beneath it symbolizes earth, and the hollow middle part represents knowledge that is yet to be discovered.

The facade bears an inscription of words of wisdom by Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai.

“We may not live for hundreds of years, but the products of our creativity can leave a legacy long after we’re gone,” the first excerpt reads.

“The future belongs to those who can imagine it, design it, and execute it. The future does not wait. The future can be designed and built today,” it continues, ending with “the secret of the renewal of life, the development of civilization, and the progress of mankind is in one word: Innovation.”

The relationship between Arabic calligraphy and architecture in the MENA region has been prominent since the rise of Islam. Experts and artists say that today, the two have developed a bond that combines the spiritual with the material, the traditional with the modern, to reinforce a distinct Middle Eastern identity that must not be abandoned.

History of Islamic calligraphy

Arabic calligraphy has held a sacred place in the Islamic arts for centuries on end. This is because the original manuscripts of the holy Qur’an were written in calligraphy. The Islamic concept that depicting living things would lead to worship forbade iconography, therefore artists had to come up with new, inventive ways to express their creativity.

Scribes were accustomed to carefully noting down Qur’anic verses, which resulted in large texts and evenly spaced letters. Mosques and other significant monuments from that time period featured intricate designs on their walls. The sacred writings evolved into a decorative component that enriched people’s everyday existence and served as a reminder to worship.

Carpets, wall hangings, paintings, pots, vases, walls, doors, and gateways would all feature Islamic design. Researchers Fabeha Fatima, Richa Rashmi Chauhan, and Apratim Guha Thakurata note in their paper “Calligraphy as an art in Islamic architecture and its significance today” that the Islamic world highly esteemed the pen and the written word, as indicated by one of the Qur’an verses, “Read! Your Lord is the Most Bounteous, who has taught the use of pen, taught man what he does not know” (Qur’an 96: 3-5).

“It is important to note that calligraphy was used on lavish monuments that either held spiritual significance like mosques or were owned by affluent people,” Fatima told Fanack. “In modern times, the decorative style has developed in today’s designs, like that of the Museum of the Future.”

The Museum of the Future

The creative mind behind the Museum of the Future, Dubai-based Shaun Killa revealed in an interview that the calligraphy-engraved facade was one of the main challenges in the project.

In order to place the facade panels, the project required cutting-edge robotic technology and multi-layered positioning systems. The architect dubbed the museum “the most beautiful building in the world” due to the intricate construction work, the distinctive torus shape, and the integration of calligraphy.

Killa’s team set out to create an augmented reality that would highlight cutting-edge technology and offer a view into the coming 50 years marking the centenary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates. The calligraphy itself is meant to represent “the passion of the human soul for creative expression and the arts.”

“Shaped like a human eye, the structure represents future vision and knowledge while the void represents the unknown that we seek to discover,” Killa told Outlook India. “From the first sketch of the Museum of the Future, I had embedded the calligraphy on the façade of the museum to create the structure’s windows and to contextualize the building in this region.”

Another example of modern architecture embracing calligraphy is Qatar’s Faculty of Islamic Studies, which emphasizes the interplay between writing and space to convey the spiritual qualities of space in the Islamic arts, in contrast to the depiction of faith through symbols.

The modern twist

Fatima argues secular texts could symbolize a broader sense of inclusion even though the art form still predominantly relies on Qur’anic passages featured on historical structures and contemporary locales.

Fatima, who is also a landscape architect, emphasized that “globalization is more pronounced than ever and that the world is changing. Incorporating Arabic calligraphy into public areas is essential for maintaining the region’s cultural identity, yet compelling secular writings are also vital for inviting in visitors of all faiths.”

For example, the artwork displayed in the Museum of Arabic Calligraphy in Egypt, is not limited to Islamic scriptures. Among the museum’s collections are modern masterpieces that celebrate the Arabic language and preserve the art form.

The historical practice is being continued by exhibiting Arabic calligraphy as a contemporary artistic medium in museums and galleries.

According to Abdul Rahman Naanseh, a contemporary calligrapher and Artistic Protection Fund fellow at George Mason University who draws inspiration from the phonetics and meanings of words, the art form is developing as it should; what was once used for inscribing has now evolved into a modern means of expressing creativity and design.

“The art form’s presence in museums and on buildings’ facades proves its creative value that has endured for centuries,” the calligrapher explained. “Calligraphy is no longer just for decoration. It is now being remodeled to serve a variety of purposes, including its use in abstract and expressionist art. This is how our culture prevails.”

According to Naanseh, displaying Arabic language in modern monuments is crucial to setting the region apart. Throughout Middle Eastern societies, he adds, calligraphy has played a fundamental role. Thus, maintaining the Arabic language strengthens the sense of belonging and identity in a world where constant information bombardment occurs.

An everlasting art form with many roles

The economic difficulties that many Middle Eastern and North African nations are experiencing have caused the preservation of architectural heritage to lose importance, according to Fatima.

“Sustainable landscape architecture is the future, both for the environment and to maintain public spaces. By incorporating Arabic calligraphy in the form of art, a sense of community will be fostered where diversity and inclusion are valued and a sense of shared interest for the spaces is bolstered.”

Knowledge of architectural heritage ought to be taught in schools, according to the architect. “This will foster a closer connection to the land by educating people about their city, its history, and the building and design methods used by their ancestors.”

For Naanseh, calligraphy has developed into a means of expressing his political and social beliefs, particularly in the wake of the protracted conflict that tore through his native Syria.

The calligrapher stated that as art has always been a means of communicating ideas, “it is crucial to allow intriguing works of art like Arabic calligraphy to develop into contemporary interpretations. When there is so much to critique in an area that provides countless artistic influences, including political problems, why should we restrict ourselves to classic styles?”

Naanseh, now 31 years old, has been passionate about Arabic calligraphy since he was ten years old. He argues that the West, the Middle East, and even the Far East have a continuing interest in the art form.

Naanseh exhorts calligraphers in the MENA area, notably those in Syria, who feel hopeless about surviving in their unstable nations “not to abandon the form of art or their aspirations. We use our work to record historical events that are taking place all around us. This serves as both our primary emotional release and our contribution to society as a whole.”

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