Sunday, May 19, 2013

Calligraphic Panel from Hacibektaş Museum

[1] The final resting place of Haci Bektaş Veli,
founder of the Bektashi Order.  The tomb is now
 also a museum.
In a previous post, we saw that many dervish lodges were decorated with framed panels hanging on the wall. These works quite often featured calligrams (Turk. yazı-resmi), which is the fancy art-history-term for an image that is composed of calligraphy; the text itself is typically a simple prayer in Arabic. Today throughout the Balkans and Turkey, it is not unusual to find tucked away in the corner of an ethnography museum these kinds of panels, with perhaps the Arabic text for the bismillah in the form of an animal (storks and lions are popular), or an everyday object (like fruit, or jugs). As far as we can tell, these kinds of panels were not only hung in dervish lodges but also private homes or even cafes, so they were an important element of what could be called an Ottoman visual culture. Unfortunately, because these panels are considered more of a folk tradition than fine art, they are often not well preserved and are becoming more rare. 


[2] Calligram of a Face, Hacibektaş Museum
This is not the case, however, at the Hacibektaş Museum. [1] Located in the modern Turkish town of the same name, this city is the birth place of Bektashism, one of the Ottoman Empire's most popular Sufi orders. Ever since the banning of the orders in 1925, the site has served as a museum, and there you will find plenty of calligrams. 

One such example [2] is a human face, with Arabic text forming the contours of the head, mouth, cheeks, eyes and ears. The text itself ("Ya Allah, Muhammad and 'Ali")  serves as an invocation to God, the Prophet Muhammad, and his companion 'Ali, who is  greatly revered within the Sufi tradition. The initial letter mim in Muhammad forms the eyes of the face (with little pupils drawn inside), and the letter 'ayn in 'Ali form the apples of the cheeks. The two dots for the letter ya have been turned sideways to make a pair of earrings. 


[3] Detail of Image 2
The pairing of these three names, Frederick DeJong explains, may be significant in light of a concept in Bektashism whereby Allah, Muhammad and 'Ali form a kind of trinity (the "üçler") through which one comes to know divinity, the greater truth (hakikat). The fact that the Arabic text comprises a human face might also connect to the idea that the divine presence is manifest in every human being, and every material object. 

If we look even closer at this work [3], we will discover an interesting clue about how these kinds of pieces were made. Along the edges of the black lines, there are very small pin pricks, which are evidence for a practice called "pouncing," an early modern method for copying images. If you wanted to duplicate something, all you had to do was carefully prick holes along the lines of an image, then place the panel over a blank piece of paper. If you dusted the panel lightly with soot, then removed it, on the blank paper below you would get an outline of the image, and from there you can basically play connect-the-dots to get a decent copy of the original. In this way, popular compositions like this one could be reproduced and disseminated with ease. It is no coincidence that these kinds of calligrams seem to be found in every corner of what used to be the Ottoman Empire. 

AKSEL, Malik. Türklerde Dini Resimler; Yazı-Resim. Istanbul: Elif Kitabevi, 1967.
DEJONG, Frederick. "Pictorial Art of the Bektashi Order." The Dervish Lodge: Architecture, Art and Sufism in Ottoman Turkey. Edited by Raymond Lifchez. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. 


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