A Turkish Delight

My outburst a month ago about the centenary of the Armenian genocide may have given the impression that I am anti-Turkish, but there are many things about Turkey I love, such as its language and its calligraphic art.

When I was getting an improved version of Turkey: A Very Short History printed, I thought at the last moment of a beautiful illustration to add to the back cover, but I was moments too late: the printer (who was my friend Walter Ezell in Greenville) had already run off a hundred copies. I could send my new file and have it done again, wasting paper, but I regretfully chose not to. So the picture has been waiting for another printing, which may never come; so here it is.


This is a tughra, or official monogram of a Turkish sultan, used on seals, coins, and documents. (The modern Turkish spelling is tugra with a cup-like accent over the g.) Each sultan, beginning with Orhan I in 1326, had a tughra, designed at the start of his reign by the court calligrapher.

This example is the tughra of Mahmud II, thirtieth sultan. It was not written in colors like this; they are added to help in discerning the words that have been written on top of one another. They read: Mahmud (the red part) Han bin Abdülhamid muzaffer dâ’iman, “Mahmûd Khân, son of `Abd al-Hamîd, victorious ever.” All these words, except “Khan,” are from Arabic, to which is given Turkish pronunciation.

The art of the tughra is perhaps the most refined exploitation of Arabic right-to-left script, with which Turkish was written until 1928. Arabic letters represent only consonants and long vowels, so there are fewer characters to superimpose; but they are cursively connected, like our handwriting, so that winding them back among each other, partly with the use of extra flourishes, is a subtle problem, and creates a fine tangle. The calligrapher must have made many tries, unless practice had rendered him so deft that with unhesitating and unhurried wrist and fingers he could interlace the perfectly swelling and tapering strokes in perfect spacing. Notice all the rhymes between the endings of strokes that belong to different words.

A tughra is like a maze, or several intertwined mazes of which the pathways are the sequences of letters. And like some mazes it can be seen as having several regions, through each of which parts of the letters thread. These regions had names: the leftward bulge is the beyze or “egg” (Arabic bayda); the downward spread is the sere, meaning “the soft part of the hand between thumb and first finger” (a calligrapher must often have contemplated his own sere); the three uprights are the tugh, “flagstaff”; the S-like swirl across the middle is the zülfe, the east-to-west “breeze” of Turkish conquest; and to the right juts the hancher, “dagger.”

Mahmud II reigned 1808-1839 and began the reforming of the Ottoman empire and also the losing of parts of it, such as Greece and Algeria. So the “breeze” of conquest was long in the past and “victorious ever” did not fit his future.


When I was a teenager and heard of monograms, I thought they were a neat idea, and drew one for myself, consisting of my initials GVO. All you have to do is write them on top of each other and the monogram is almost indecipherable, and can hardly be forged by someone else who doesn’t know what the letters are. But my monogram had no subtlety compared with the Turkish tughra.

For the section on “Distance” in my Astronomical Companion I wanted to make a diagram of the units we use, such as yard, kilometer, mile, light-year, parsec; I found I had to space them on a logarithmic scale (for instance the parsec multiplied by 1,000 is a kiloparsec and by 1,000,000 is a megaparsec, so they are written at constant distances apart); and I found myself writing these factors on hand-drawn curves between them.


Though the lines aren’t tangled (they are meant to clarify, not mystify), they suggest a tughra; the tughra of distances. At bottom right for comparison is the tughra of another Sultan, Süleyman the Magnifice


2 thoughts on “A Turkish Delight”

  1. Fascinating post, Guy! How much more beautiful and evocative the Turkish calligraphy is than the Roman-style western letters they use now! I was stationed in Turkey (near the city of Adana) for several months 25 years ago and noticed one interesting characteristic of modern Turkish alphabet. Being from a German family, I am used to pronouncing vowels with umlauts, but German seems to pale in comparison to Turkish in its use of umlauts! My favorite word appeared on a Turkish telephone system calling card that I purchased: I don’t know what it meant, but the main word on the calling card was “Mudurlugu” where every “u” in that word was umlauted (if that’s even a word). I thought it was so amusing, I have kept the card to this day.

    1. Yes, Arabic script can be beautiful, but it really fits only Arabic; it fits Persian not so well, and Turkish very badly. The European alphabet imposed by Atatürk brought a different kind of delight: that of neatly expressing the structure of Turkish sounds. There is a relish, for instance, in seeing how letter i and its dotless counterpart fall into their places (when you know what they mean in difference of sound), and things like that were hidden entirely in the old writing.
      Müdürlügü means “its directorate”. It must have been part of a phrase meaning something like “Office of Communication”.
      Müdür means “director” or “manager” or “superintendent” (from Arabic mudîr). The suffix -lük means something like our -ry in “sophistry” or -ship in “kingship”, and the suffix -ü means “of it”, that is, of whatever was mentioned just before. Turkish is an agglutinative language, that is, it builds words, sometimes very long ones, by adding such suffixes to the root word.
      The reason for all those “ü”s is the famous Turkish “vowel harmony”. If the root word had been one with the vowel i, so would all the suffixes: -ligi. (Again, this was mostly hidden by the Arabic script.)

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