Skip to main content

Egypt’s oldest Arabic calligraphy school struggles to survive

Many institutes of calligraphy simply closed their doors when the Egyptian government stopped subsidizing them, but one school persists.

Khalil Agha School, Egypt’s oldest specialized institute of Arabic calligraphy, is struggling to survive as less and less people take an interest in learning calligraphy. Many calligraphy institutes have already closed their doors.

"The numbers are declining every year due to the lack of available job opportunities, the rise of technology and the labor market demand for other languages including English,” Hassan Mahmoud, the headmaster of the school, told Al-Monitor.

The school was inaugurated Jan. 29, 1928, by King Fouad I of Egypt with the aim of training skillful calligraphers. It used to have professors of both Turkish and Egyptian origins and the education was free, creating a wide demand. Today, there are 70 students and they have to shoulder school fees, as well as the cost of pens, ink and sketchbooks.

Located in Bab al-Shariya, Old Cairo, the school building is built in the modern Islamic style, and its collection includes 100-year-old paintings as well as many rare books.

Classes are scheduled 4-7 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays.

“The students receive a diploma in Arabic calligraphy after four years of study. The school accepts students who are at least 15 years old and have obtained a preparatory school diploma,” Mahmoud said.

Since 1928, Egyptian schools have graduated several prominent and skilled Arabic calligraphers. One of the most popular Arabic calligraphers in Egypt is Khudair al-Borsaidi who founded an academy and a syndicate for Egyptian calligraphers.

Borsaidi told Al-Monitor that the number of Arabic calligraphy schools declined dramatically over the past decade, standing now at only 70 schools, compared to 272 schools in 2006.

“The government has suspended financial support for Arabic calligraphy schools by abolishing free tuition and raising the cost of study to 250 Egyptian pounds [$14] per year for the certificate and 300 pounds [$17] for the year of specialization,” he said.

According to Borsaidi, the students also pay the costs of the study materials, including colored ink and sketchbooks, prompting many to drop out of school, especially if they have limited financial means. He added that the number of students decreased from 12,000 in 2006 to less than 1,000 currently nationwide.

“Arabic calligraphy is not only an art that reflects Egyptian culture and identity, but it can also be used to promote tourism and generate revenues for the government,” he noted.

Kamal Mogheith, a researcher at the National Center for Educational Research, said that Arabic calligraphy was considered more important in the 20th century. “The subject of Arabic calligraphy is still taught at Egyptian [elementary] schools, but this subject is being given short shrift and its teachers are not qualified enough,” Mogheith told Al-Monitor.

But he nevertheless believes that calligraphy will survive. “Many young people want to obtain the Arabic calligraphy diploma because they seek other jobs in Gulf countries, including the United Arab Emirates [UAE], Kuwait and Bahrain,” Mogheith said. He added that the UAE in particular is still protecting Arabic calligraphy although it has reached high levels of technological progress, because they consider it part of the Arabic culture and identity.

Ayman el-Beely, an education expert and head of the Independent Teachers Syndicate in Cairo, said that the Khalil Agha School was established after former Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished Arabic writing and adopted the Latin alphabet.

“Egypt established the school to improve and preserve Arabic calligraphy after Turkey abolished it. The school raised many of the pioneers of Arabic calligraphy around the world who wanted to modernize and reinterpret this Islamic art in the 20th century,” he told Al-Monitor.

He noted that Arabic calligraphy evolved with Islamic civilization and played an important role in it, “not only as a means of understanding and transfer of ideas, but as an art with its high aesthetic characteristics and values."

Beely added, “The Arabic calligraphy appeared in ancient manuscripts, building facades and wood fillings in the Abbasid, Fatimid and Mamluk periods, in Andalusian decoration and in the decoration of the Holy Quran.”

He said that Arabic calligraphy in Islamic decoration is like the image in Christian art as it has been one of the most important decorative elements used by Muslim artists. “There is almost no artistic work or mosque or beacon in Islamic countries around the globe without Arabic calligraphy because of its characteristics that link aesthetic values ​​with ideology,” he added.

For Mohsen Abdel Wahab learning calligraphy may mean finding work abroad. Working at the Khan el-Khalili Bazaar, Wahab, 45, has been engraving Arabic letters on copper for many years. “Studying Arabic calligraphy at a school and obtaining a diploma will be an advantage if I want to work abroad,” he told Al-Monitor. He is now in his second year.

Nawal Ibrahim, who wants to start learning Arabic calligraphy this year, said that she has been interested in Arabic calligraphy since her childhood. “I excelled in Arabic calligraphy in primary school; it was my favorite subject. But then when I got out of elementary school and got married when I was 17, I did not have the time to develop this skill,” Ibrahim, 53, told Al-Monitor.

“Now I hope that I will master Arabic calligraphy and make money out of this skill as well as start to teach other people,” she said.

For Mahmoud, studying calligraphy is an essential part of the country’s heritage. “Arabic calligraphy is part of the Egyptian culture and the government has to take serious action to preserve it because if it doesn't, we would lose our culture and our identity,” he said.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

The Middle East in your inbox Insights in your inbox.

Deepen your knowledge of the Middle East

Trend Reports

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (4th R) attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (3rd L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on February 22, 2019. (Photo by HOW HWEE YOUNG / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP via Getty Images)

From roads to routers: The future of China-Middle East connectivity

A general view shows the solar plant in Uyayna, north of Riyadh, on March 29, 2018. - On March 27, Saudi announced a deal with Japan's SoftBank to build the world's biggest solar plant. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

Regulations on Middle East renewable energy industry starting to take shape

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial