Ottomans on the Mall
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 14, 2008
Earlier this month I heard a fascinating talk on Islamic calligraphy given at New York’s Asia Society by the very well known American calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya. Zakariya spoke passionately and humanely about calligraphy – from the visual joy of seeing Arabic-script calligraphy start to experiment with spacing (rather than cramming letters all together) in the 15th century, to his house-clearing effort to make fixative by boiling snails.
But for me one of the most richly intriguing tidbits I left the museum with was the fact that the Washington Monument has Ottoman calligraphy in it.
Why? Because building the monument was expensive, and after the first few years, the money that the “Washington National Monument Society” raised for the foundation and initial construction had run out. In order to continue building, the Society in 1849 began soliciting donations – not so much of money, but of stone. The Society asked for donations from various state governments – “states” in the American sense and “states” in the foreign country sense – and along with their building stones, the donors often included commemorative plaques. The Ottoman Empire, whose leaders were heavily engaged in trying to reform and modernize its government, economy, and society, was one of the donors. (You can read more about this history and the domestic controversies it generated at the Washington Monument’s official website.)
On the Monument’s official website, the Ottoman Empire is listed as the “Country of Turkey” – perhaps an early indication of Americans’ weakness in geography. You can see the beautiful Ottoman commemorative plaque here. And if you visit Washington, D.C., you can see the plaque in person by taking the daily walking tour, which takes visitors down the Monument step by step, past each of the donor plaques.