In Ottoman times law students studied from manuscript books of laws, canonical decrees, and jurisprudence written by eminent jurists in their handwriting. Bound in gazelle skin and their pages framed by gold borders, these precious books number amongst the finest examples of calligraphy and illumination.
In the early 20th century, the first typewriters and mechanical calculators entered our lives, and these elegant pieces of equipment began to grace the desks of law offices. So strongly built that they have defied destruction, these now obsolete machines have become collectibles. With their heavy cast-iron frames, mother-of-pearl keys, and gilded brand names, they still delight the beholder. Even the passage of a century has not erased the writing. Some of these magnificent typewriters and calculators bear pictures of the factory, city, or country where they were made.
Looking at the typewriters with their attractive pearly glass-covered keys, one wonders what writers, lawyers, and court clerks banged out poems, claims, and judgments on them over the years. The typewriter’s younger sibling, the mechanical calculator, with its handle and similar pearly keys, has not been seen in our offices these past 20 years. These old machines are now museum pieces, witnesses to past technology. In the past official stamps were attached to court rulings to signify that the court charges had been paid. Now receipts printed on cheap paper are used instead.
Some older people will remember how the illiterate who could not sign their names used to carry personal engraved seals, usually bearing their name and date of birth. When it became compulsory to take surnames in the 1930s, these were was added, but as literacy rates rose, this custom died out. At one time, seals were used even by the literate instead of signatures and came in myriad types, made of silver, brass, mother-of-pearl, or agate, and their quality reflected the status and wealth of the user. Those of the sultan and grand vizier were of gold.
They were delicately engraved by craftsmen known as hakkak. Some were in the form of seal rings, and others adorned with mother-of-pearl were kept in exceptional cases. Some known as firildak had three faces with different legends for different purposes on each. Women generally used ornamented silver seals. Sometimes seals symbolized the profession of their owners, such as the anchor-shaped seal of a naval officer. The gold seal of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent was carried by his grand vizier as a sign of his authority. Its gilt impression can be seen on the numerous imperial decrees and other documents of the 16th century.
As well as seal impressions, the imperial cipher of the sultan was drawn in gold by the most skilled calligraphers of the time and sometimes illuminated in other colors. These are works of art that have not lost any of their brilliance over the centuries. Judges wore voluminous ankle-length robes made of red or black handwoven fabric with gold collars.
Similar robes are still worn in court and on official occasions by Turkish judges today. The form and color vary according to the rank and seniority of the judge. Lawyers’ robes are black with red collars and green linings, these two colors representing their role in criminal and civil law. In the past, lecterns were an essential part of court furniture bearing an imposing black-bound law book.
These book-stands were often beautiful objects, usually made of wood, but sometimes of meerschaum, stone, gold or silver, carved, damascened, inlaid, and gilt decoration. Book-stands used at the palace were made of solid gold and set with precious stones.
Writing equipment was, of course, another class of objects used in court, and the pen cases, inkwells, and other paraphernalia of clerks and calligraphers were often superbly crafted works of art.
Reed pens were used before the advent of first the fountain pen and then the ballpoint. Pen cases had an inkwell attached at one end, and the clerk’s seal was attached to one corner by a delicate chain.
All these diverse objects today in museum collections or stand as ornaments in our houses are witnesses of past eras. If we listen to them, they have fascinating stories to tell us about the past, in which they played such vital roles.