April 16, 2014 – Bernard O’Kane

Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture
The American University in Cairo

“The Writing on the Walls: The Importance of Epigraphy in Medieval Cairo”

We have in Cairo an unbroken sequence of inscriptions on major and minor religious monuments from the 9th century onwards. The size of this corpus enables us to discuss a wide variety of topics, and in particular the ways in which religious monuments advertised their presence through the medium of writing, an art form that has been regarded as the most intrinsically Islamic of them all. Areas that could be analyzed include the visual aesthetics of texts, their relative lengths, the sizes of the scripts used, issues of legibility or the lack of it, and the make-up and design of the inscriptions from their textual contents to the non-literary uses that they served.

Attention could be drawn to them in various ways, through their size, through repetition, and through the care taken with their calligraphy and with intrinsic or surrounding decorative details. Evaluations of what was legible and what was not problematic because of the lack of the painted colors that have been lost. But even so today they still provide a feast for the eye, so we can be sure that their impact in medieval times was much greater.