Arts & Culture

In Photos: Arabic Typography in Egypt Through The Ages

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In Photos: Arabic Typography in Egypt Through The Ages

From Abdelaziz El Rifai’s Quran Mus’haf. Photo from TYPE Lab Historian Mohamed Hasan’s Book.

Arabic typography is one of the simplest and simultaneously most complex forms of art. The language’s different visual reproductions and renditions are used in the world’s largest and most sophisticated museums, and studied by renowned scholars around the world. However, with the technological boom of typography and fonts, Arabic type did not get the same attention that other languages have gotten, leaving the design world with few Arabic typefaces to choose from.

Research labs like The American University in Cairo’s TYPE Lab are dedicated to changing that, by researching the deep history of the art, and making its visual knowledge available to scholars and designers across the Arab World. Typography and calligraphy can be found anywhere, from monuments to store fronts and street signs, and for hundreds of years, Egypt has been a rich landscape for the Arabic letter.

Khawand Tughay mausoleum in Cairo, built before 1348 (photo courtesy of Bernard O’Kane, Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the American University in Cairo, from The Monumental Inscriptions of Historic Cairo database).
Kufi design in the Qalawun complex in Cairo, built in 1285 (photo courtesy of Bernard O’Kane, Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the American University in Cairo, from The Monumental Inscriptions of Historic Cairo database.)
Square Kufi Quranic piece by Hassan Seri. Photo from TYPE Lab Historian Mohamed Hasan’s Book.

“The Arabic letter started as hand lettering then the whole world advanced with the Guttenberg printing press. The Arab world was very late, though, because the Ottomans did not want to eradicate calligraphers’ jobs. At the time of Mohamed Ali Pasha was when there were finally printing presses like the The Amiri Press that used punch cutters,” said TYPE Lab’s Lead Designer and Researcher Sarah Shebl.

The Zeinab Hanem Yakan mausoleum within El-Rifai Mosque, built in 1912. Wall Writings of Sheikh Mostafa. Photo from TYPE Lab Historian Mohamed Hasan’s Book.
Calligrapher Najib al-Hawawiny Bek’s punch cutters in the late 19th to early 20th century (retrieved by Sarah Shebl from AUC’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library.) He was nicknamed “the calligrapher of Kings” and founded the International Calligraphers Association upon a royal order.

“The way these punch cutters are used is they put ink on it and they print out and mass produce books from them. At this time, they really cared about caligraphy and they don’t want to kill the profession, so there were many calligraphy schools. Simultaneously, King Farouk and Khedive Ismail really appreciated typography and script and they had their own monograms that calligraphers would make for them,” Shebl added.

Ibrahim El Masry’s Cigarette lettering in 20th century. Photo from TYPE Lab Historian Mohamed Hasan’s Book.
Mohamed Abdo’s gold-plated store signs in the mid 1950s. Photo from TYPE Lab Historian Mohamed Hasan’s Book.

“Egypt was one of the countries that most prioritized the technology of the printing press while still preserving written calligraphy. However now, the product available from typefaces, type design, and fonts is not as high quality as it was a long time ago. There was a big drop. But still, there’s a lot you can find on the street, from history and from right now,” Shebl said.

Fuul Truck in El-Gamaleya, Cairo, 2016 (photo courtesy of TYPE Lab’s Lead Designer and Researcher Sarah Shebl)
Store Front in Cairo’s Al Khoronfesh district, 2016 (photo courtesy of TYPE Lab’s Lead Designer and Researcher Sarah Shebl)
El-Gamaleya, Cairo, 2016 (photo courtesy of TYPE Lab’s Lead Designer and Researcher Sarah Shebl)

 

Roma Building in El Bostan, Heliopolis, 2020 (photo courtesy of TYPE Lab’s Lead Designer and Researcher Sarah Shebl)
Sewer cover in Heliopolis, Cairo, 2020 (photo courtesy of TYPE Lab’s Lead Designer and Researcher Sarah Shebl)

Thanks to Sarah Shebl, AUC’s TYPE Lab, Professor Bernard O’Kane and Historian Mohamed Hasan for the photographic research.

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Arts & Culture Reporter. Writer and multidisciplinary artist with a passion for podcasting and theatre. Pre-pandemic, can be spotted getting work done from a Cairo coffee shop, train in Delhi or a New York subway. Intra-pandemic, works at a sunny window with lots of iced coffee.

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