Tughra, the unbearable beauty of a signature… and its customization

Just say ‘Islamic calligraphy’ or google it, sooner or later (most probably sooner), a tughra will appear.

I admit I never took tughras in much consideration when studying Islamic art: to me they were simply signatures of the sultans, surely useful to date letters, inscriptions and objects. But nothing more.

Then I’ve starting facing the Islamic Art also outside the academic world and things started to appear differently.

Tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent (WikiCommons)
Tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent (WikiCommons)

The most hilarious and frustrating encounter I had with a tughra was when collaborating with a private collector (a ‘bad’ one, if you know what I mean): he assured me that he had the “first tughra ever made, belonging to a neglected Fatimid caliph and dating back to the 10th century” (no kidding). After having tried to explain him that Fatimid tughras are hardly possible, I decided to read it: it was the tughra of Abdul Meçid I (r. 1839-1861), a Ottoman caliph, of course.
Anyway he was not persuaded, according to him it remained the tughra of a Fatimid caliph.
Fair enough, my job was over (and in a couple of months also my collaboration whatsoever).

But from then on I’ve started noticing tughras, interpretations, representations and so on…something changed, and I discovered a brave new world of meanings and splendours, in which tughras are admired, interpreted and customized.

A long history…from the Royal Court to custom design

Tughras are beautiful, needless to say. They are finely made and also are quite difficult to decipher.

Tughra of Murad I (1326-1389)
Tughra of Murad I (1326-1389)

The origin is strictly related to the Turkish environment: one of the first recognizable tughra is the one of Orhan I (1326-1359), another one is dated 1403-1413 and is the signature of the prince Süleyman Çelebi.

In any case the tughra underwent a deep stylistic evolution since: the vertical traits became more and more visible, together with the right curved lines. Also the base of the text changed, and honorific titles were add to the name of the owner of the monogram. For instance, starting with the tughra of Mehmed II (1444-1481) the title al-muzaffar da’iman (“always victorious”) was introduced.

Tughra of Murad III (1574-1595)
Tughra of Murad III (1574-1595)

In any case the biggest divide is given by the tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566): after that masterpiece tughras started developing their typical forms, well recognized from then on.

The beauty of the monogram, anyway, started to be used also outside the court environment, as C. E. Bosworth, J. Deny and M. J. Siddiq explain in their contribute to the Encyclopaedia of Islam (2nd edition)

“The form of tughra […] was often imitated by private individuals, who used to substitute for the name of the sultan religious formulae in order to make lawhas or calligraphic plaques to hang up in mosques, libraries, cafés or private houses. In Egypt, we even find tradesmen’s signs of this kind.” (p. 596)

And even nowdays it seems that tughras can be customised.

For instance, today I’ve received an interesting message on LinkedIn: a Turkish professional proposed to write my own tughra… which is not a bad idea in itself.

But his message also explained the significance of the tughra. And here problems start…

The basmala in the form of a tughra, imitating the one of Suleiman the Magnificent (courtesy of Arabic Calligraphy, 2wf.org)
The basmala in the form of a tughra, imitating the one of Suleiman the Magnificent (courtesy of Arabic Calligraphy, 2wf.org)

The quest for symbolism

The message reads:

“Tugra [sic] is a very significant, historical and difficult art. As you see there are three vertical and two horizontal lines. […] [The three vertical] lines are the symbols of: Today – Tomorrow – Yesterday. The horizontal [ones] [are] the symbols of Here and Hereafter.[the underline is mine].

His message made me think (and also gave me the impulse to write this blog).

I’m always quite sceptical when reading general interpretations of symbols and lines, even more when the object interpreted is a century-old signature.

Tughra in the form of a Peacock (courtesy of Christie's)
Tughra in the form of a Peacock, attributed to Mizra Muhammad ‘Ali. Mughal India, 1828-29 A.D. (courtesy of Christie’s)

Of course the shape and elements of the tughra, for their originality and uniqueness have been interpreted by many scholars. As written on the website of the British Museum “Different fanciful theories have been advanced to explain the shape of the tughra.”…but actually none of them include the meaning proposed by the Turkish professional that wrote me.

It has been said that it symbolises a bird or alternatively a horseman galloping at full speed. Another fanciful version (the one that I prefer…) is the one provided by Von Hammer. Von Hammer, in his Histoire de l’Empire Ottoman (p. 77), explains that Murad I (1360-1389), being unable to write and in need to sign a treaty concluded with the Ragusans, dipped his handin ink (!) and stamped it instead of a signature. The tughra thus originated as a calligraphic reproduction of his hand.

In the Encyclopaedia of Islam we clearly read that no definitive interpretation of the symbology of the tughra has ever been given and that the different readings of the symbology lack of meaning when applied to the first samples of tughras…so…no definitive symbolic meaning of the Ottoman monogram…
and no trace of the Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow, Here-Hereafter interpretation…that one is totally absent from the academic sphere, as far as I can see.

Why do we need to give a symbolic meaning?

Do we really need to find the exact meaning of the parts of the tughra? Is it important?
Of course if you write your name it is nicer (and more marketable) to add some hidden meaning… but what strikes me is not the simple need to have a hidden meaning, but to create a totally made up symbology. Totally misleading and with no clear bases.

I’m not against marketing, I’m against the disinformation it can produce and spread…which is something that we all should fight! Even more if we are art historian or simple passionate…

Suggested reading (only one…)

C. E. Bosworth, J. Deny and M. J. Siddiq, “Tughra”, in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Brill, Leiden 2000, vol. X, pp. 595-598.


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