American Obelisks and Ottoman Calligraphy

guest contribution by ZOE GRIFFITH, Brown University

[1] Commemorative Plaque commissioned by Sultan Abdülmecid I, 1853
Washington Monument, Washington D.C. US National Parks Service.

[2] View of the Washington Monument (const. 1848-84),
with the White House in the background. US Navy
What better way to mark the recent re-opening of the U.S. government than with a blog post about the historic Ottoman stamp on that great nation’s capital? (Well, one could just squint into the mid-distance and shake one’s head slowly in wordless disbelief, but a blog post is a decent alternative.) The Washington Monument, the 555-ft. stone obelisk piercing the sky above the national mall in Washington, D.C., carries even from afar plenty of physical and symbolic heft. [2] Leaving aside the cheap phallus jokes for the moment, the monument channels the civilizational legacy of ancient Egypt—being deliberately designed to conform to the proportions of pharaonic obelisks --and stood as the tallest structure in the world at the time of its erection (sorry) in 1884; it remains to this day the world’s tallest stone structure. As such, the monument’s exterior form alone speaks to the larger-than-life stature of George Washington in mid-19th century American political discourse. Few people, however, are aware that the interior of the Washington Monument constitutes its own archive of mid-19th century political discourse and international diplomacy carved in New Hampshire  granite, Alaskan jade, and  Parthenon marble: the monument’s inner staircase is ringed with 198 commemorative stones solicited by Congress in the 1850s from local organizations, U.S. states, and foreign nations to help both defray the enormous construction costs and cement relations between the then-adolescent United States and powerful parties both at home and abroad. 

One of the highlights of this architectural archive is a 5 ft. x 3 ft. slab of carved marble donated to the United States in 1853 by the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I (r. 1839-61). [1] This intricate and striking composition bears the work of two of the most important Ottoman calligraphers of the mid-19th century, in the form of the tuğra (official monogram) of Abdülmecid and an inscription in the celi ta’lik style, attesting to the amity between the two states:

            Devam-i hulleti te’yid içün Abdülmecid
            Han’ın yazıldı nam-ı paki seng-i balaya Vaşinkton’da

In support of eternal friendship, Abdülmecid
Han allowed his honorable name to be written in the tall stone [memorial] in Washington

As the American recipients and subsequent viewers of Abdülmecid’s marmoreal gesture could not have been expected to read and understand the text of the calligraphic inscription, we have to ask what message the Ottomans intended to communicate through the impressive form and design of this commemorative stone. Reading into the context and visual cues of the Ottoman contribution to the Washington monument speaks to a fascinating moment in the history of Ottoman diplomacy,  imperial identity, and  the role of art and artists in the service of the late Ottoman state.

[3] Commemorative Stone from the town of Salem,
Massachusetts. US National Park Service.
While most of the commemorative stones lining the monument’s interior staircase are 2 ft. x 4 ft rectangles with relatively simple, sometimes austere designs, [3]  the Ottoman contribution is larger and striking in its triptych composition, architectural theme and lavish yet tasteful decoration. Even for an audience of non-Ottomans, the message communicated by Abdülmecid’s stone would have resonated clearly: this calligraphic offering, etched in white marble and originally gilded in gold leaf, was intended to emphasize the sultan’s prestige, generosity, and ability to mobilize resources in the form of precious metal and stone, human skill, and cultural heritage. For the “sick man of Europe,” an invitation to send a chunk of rock to the struggling United States was an opportunity to carve out an enduring image of continued wealth, power, and relevance. At the same time, the fact that they chose to represent themselves in a monumental work of classical Ottoman calligraphy is significant. As Selim Deringil has shown for the Hamidian period, Tanzimat-era statesmen boldly asserted the empire’s presence on the mid-19th century political stage even as they made sure to emphasize the empire’s distinctive Islamic identity. In this way, they insisted that the empire’s greatness lay not only in its engagement with modern technology and diplomacy, but also in its own traditions and innovative power.

[4] Tuğra (imperial seal) of Sultan Abdülmecid I
found in the Kadiköy Iskele Mosque of Mustafa
III.  Modified by Stambouline in order to better see
the full title of the sultan (
Abdülmecid Han
 bin Mahmud el-muzaffer daima). Original image
om the websıte Kitabeler
At the center of the Ottoman commemorative stone is the official tuğra, or royal insignia, of Sultan Abdülmecid. [4] The imperial tuğra, used consistently by Ottoman sultans since Orhan I, consists of the name of the reigning sultan surrounded by a fixed set of decorative and honorific accoutrements. As part of the centralization efforts of Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1809-1839), the master calligrapher Mustafa Rakım had articulated a standard form for the tuğra which would be used as the template for all subsequent sultans. The commemorative stone sent to the United States bears the tuğra of Abdülmecid as executed by Haşim Efendi, a highly-regarded student of Mustafa Rakım.

The inscription at the bottom of the piece was written by Kadıasker Mustafa İzzet Efendi, one of the most highly regarded calligraphers of the mid-19th century. Clearly, the Ottomans wanted to bring their best to bear on the inscription they sent to Washington. Mustafa İzzet Efendi was no stranger to high-profile, monumental works of calligraphy, having also executed the the massive medallions that ring the dome of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul in the late-1840s. [5]

[5] Roundel featuring the name of 'Ali,
designed by Kadıasker Mustafa İzzet Efendi
in the late 1840s. Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.
Photo by Emily Neumeier.
Since the emergence of distinctly Ottoman scripts and genealogies of master calligraphers with the school of Şeyh Hamdullah in the late-15th century, calligraphy had occupied a place of unparalleled prestige in the Ottoman artistic environment. Artistic standards and genealogical chains endured and flourished in the 19th century, a period which also saw the rising prestige of art forms originating in Western Europe and what some viewed as the “deterioration” or disappearance of more traditional art forms. Up until the present day, master calligraphers continue to train their successors through a rigorous but ultimately informal (non-institutional) process of personalized instruction, with an emphasis on perfect imitation of the works of other masters. Most master calligraphers in the Ottoman empire had traditionally led double lives, drawing a regular salary from state service as scribes, teachers, or judges in the imperial bureaucracy or judiciary, and practicing and teaching their art in its spiritual and aesthetic dimensions as a higher calling. Thus, with the fateful exception of the Ottoman Calligraphers’ College (Medrese-tül Hattatin), which opened its doors in 1914, the state had no direct role to play in the training or certification of Ottoman calligraphers. At the same time that the Ottoman state drew heavily on the skills of master calligraphers in the mundane running of imperial affairs, however, it also relied on the enduring prestige and standards of calligraphy in an effort to communicate a symbolic program of imperial grandeur, continuity, and piety at home and abroad through the 19th century.

One has to wonder if the Ottomans were aware that this marble masterpiece now located in Washington D.C. would wind up largely hidden from public view, visible to only a handful of intrepid visitors. Nevertheless, opulent materials and Islamic scripts were easily recognizable markers of the identity that late-Ottoman statesmen wanted to convey to high-profile onlookers. Asked to contribute a stone in commemoration of the founder of the United States, the Ottomans simply rocked it.

View all the Commemorative Stones at the Washington Monument at the website of the US National Parks Service.

DERMAN, M. Uğur.An Ottoman Gift to America.” Trans. by Mohamed Zakariya. Seasons (Spring-Summer 2005): 112-116.
SCHICK, Irvin Cemil. “The Iconicity of Islamic Calligraphy in Turkey.” Res 53 – 54
(2008): 220 – 21.

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  1. Thank you. This is a very interesting and complete post. We just saw an exhibition of the work of Kadıasker Mustafa İzzet Efendi at Topkapi Palace. It was a surprise to learn that his work was inside the Washington Monument.

    Perhaps the most unique and interesting part of your post was the image that deciphers the signature of the sultan. I had wondered, but never understood, how those signatures were formed.

    Thanks very much.


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