CHAPTER 6 >>



The Palaeography of the papyri is a special branch of the history of the Arabic Script. By examining the different scripts of the papyri we can complete our knowledge of the development of the different script systems.

J. KARABACEK for example could demonstrate about 900 variants just of the letter hâ’.




Unlike in Greek and Latin writing there is no clear distinction in Arabic papyrology between the writing of documents and the writing of inscriptions.
The development of the Arabic writing is regular and independent of the material on which it was written (i.e. papyri, paper or a different material).
We can subdivide the development into distinct
periods of time:

  1. 1st century AH
  2. 2nd century AH ,first half
  3. 2nd century AH, second half
  4. 4th to the 5th century AH


on PER Inv. Ar. Pap. 10016
[high resolution]


1st century AH:
(7th century AD)


  • The writing of the oldest Arabic papyri.
  • Their writing shows a close similarity to the old Arabic epitaphs - as presented in the Arab Museum of Cairo:
    both are not extremly sharp - as is the kûfî script -, but rather clumsy.
  • They are similar to the pre-islamic inscriptions of Zabad (512 AD) and Harrân (568 AD) and still show dependence from the Nabataean lapidary, which itself developed from the Aramaic script.


  1. NAMES
    • Presumably related to this early script is the so called Meccan or Medinian script (al-khaTT al-makkî, al-khaTT al-madanî) [according to the sources], of which the only known peculiarity is the ’alif bent to the right.
    • Because of this J. KARABACEK and C.H. BECKER subsequently called this early script Meccan - but this is doubtful.
    • C.H. BECKER later compared it to the naskhî script.
    • N. ABBOT distinguishes in her investigations on the Qurra papyri the north Arabian script in the:
      • Hijâz style: from which the makkî-madanî script developed
      • Hîra style: from which the kûfî-baSrî script developed
    • Apart from the above mentioned distinct origins of the writing, the differences in the script also depend on the writer's character, mood, social and educational position and finally on the purpose for which the document was written.
    • The official documents are always written in a thorough, clear and often tall style.
    • The documents of traders, in contrast, show often a more careless writing.
  • (There also existed a kind of a cursive script, with the letters bent to the left. This writing is also attested in old Qur’ân manuscripts and is called mâ’il).
1st CENTURY: all in all the writings of the 1st century AH are very similar to each other - with the few exceptions from al-Fustât and ‘Awjâ’ al-Hafîr

<< §5a


5.a.2. 2nd century AH,
first half
(8th century AD)


  • The writings show a tendency to rounded forms (for example: the passports found in Saqqâra in 133 AH / 750 AD). E. SACHAU and R. LEPSIUS called this styled naskhî which is not correct but acceptable inasmuch as it is very similar to the naskhî script.


    • The script of the protocols of the 1st and 2nd century AH is close to the qalam jalîl [after J. KARABACEK].
    • This qalam jalîl is characterized by a massive and coarse style, very difficult to master. It is also called abu'l-qalam because the calligrapher QUTBA (died 771 AD) supposedly derived from it the oldest four scripts. Another characteristic is the overlong ’alif (similar to the Meccan and Medinian style which are both close to the qalam jalîl) and the overlong Tâ’, Zâ’ and lam which made it look more distinguished.
    • The masters of the qalam jalîl are: al-DAHHÂK B. ASLÂN and ISHÂQ B. HAMMÂD (both living in the 8th century AD).
    • The qalam jalîl is supposed to be identical to the Tûmâr script which was used for the correspondence between kings. It was used first during the period of the Umayyads, a terminus ante quem being the reign of the caliph ‘UMAR B. ‘ABD AL-‘AZÎZ (717-720 AD). For official purposes it was also used by the ‘Abbasids and the Mamluks of Egypt.
    • During the reign of the mamlûk Sultans the qalam jalîl / Tûmâr script developed into a new style: the qalam al-‘alâma ("style of the highest naming").
    • A. GROHMANN put up the hypothesis that the qalam jalîl might have its origins in the Greek chancellery script which shows comparable characteristics and which could have been adopted by the Umayyads like other Byzantine customs.
    • (Proved as being developed indirectly over the sijillî script from the Greek chancellery script is the qalam al-ashrîya ("style of the bills of sale")).
    • The qalam jalîl is amazingly close to the script of the Qurrah-papyri which seems to be a smaller variant of the qalam jalîl.
    • Besides official use in the chancellery (in the time of the umayyad governor of Egypt, QURRA B. SHARÎK (709-714 AD)) it is attested also in other documents and letters.
    • In its typical form we can find this script until the end of the reign of the Umayyads.

      [high resolution]

    • Another chancellery script is the qalam al-nussâkh or naskh, the forerunner of the famous naskhî script. The calligrapher al-AHWAL is supposed to have invented it during the reign of the ‘Abbasid al-MA’MUN (813-833 AD).
    • In the papyri, papers and parchments of the collection of Erzherzog RAINER there are some texts written in the kûfî script which we find also in old epitaphs. Typical for this style are the sharp and sometimes stretched letters (in beautiful calligraphy this is allowed only for the final letters of a row).
    • Another stretched script is called mashq and was used especially for Qur’ân codices.
The RULE is: Identification of scripts as described in the sources with attested scripts on papyri or papers is possible only in a few cases!

<< §5a


5.a.3. 2nd century AH,
second half
(8th/9th century AD)


  • The script becomes strongly rounded and balanced, with the exception of literary papyri which still show sharp and stiff forms. The Initial ‘ayn and the final ’alif are widely bent. These last characteristics are similar to the maghrabî script whose development started in the first half of the 2nd century AH.


    • The maghribî script went its own way by separating itself from the older script in the papyri. Its characteristic factor was the bending of the Tâ’ to the right.
    • It was used more and more from the 5th century AH onwards and had a preference for round forms. In addition there was a tendency to connect all the letters and even words to each other without the demanded disconnections of the Classical Arabic.
    • The origin of the maghribî style is also attributed to the famous al-AHWAL.
    • other attested scripts are the
      • thuluth rîHânî (written in a perfectly shaped style)
      • qarmaTa (written in a narrow style)
      • rafî‘; ’aqall; ghubâr (written in a small, fine style)
    • in contrast to those fine scripts there are other particular coarse and thick writings:
      • the ghalîT script and the thakhîn script

<< §5a


5.a.4. 4th to 5th century AH
(9th to 10th century AD)


  • the character of the scripts become often exceptionally flat (e.g. the final qâf or nûn)


  • al-QALQASHANDI (died 1418 AD) calls this style: mabsûT ("extended")

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Apart from the differences between the single scripts there are also orthographical and compository peculiarities