Perfection and Dreams: A Story About Ottoman Calligrapher Sami Efendi (1838-1912)

My first artist profile is on one of the most celebrated and highly admired calligraphers of all time. He is also my favorite calligrapher, who inspires me. Mehmed Sami Efendi was born in Istanbul on March 15, 1838. At a young age he worked as a clerk and then later as a writer of correspondence in the Ottoman Imperial councils. Known for his perfectionism, he often worked on his pieces for years until they became masterpieces. He later would make stencils of his work, which were highly coveted templates used by the calligraphers and illuminators of his time.

Sami Efendi

Sami Efendi

Sami studied under many local and well-known teachers during his life and excelled in thuluth, jali  thuluth, naskh, diwani, jali diwani, taliq, jali taliq, rika and tugra scripts. He taught calligraphy at the Imperial Council and at the Palace Service. His work can be seen in mosques, museums and fountains in Turkey, such as the Gates of the Covered Bazaar and Zihni Pasha Mosque. He also taught students at his home every Tuesday.

I wanted to share one of the most interesting stories I learned about Sami Efendi with you. It motivates me to work harder on my calligraphy. Sami often told an anecdote to his students that is well referenced. He talked about how once he needed to split some wood to heat his house. At that moment an old hunchbacked man was passing by his house carrying an axe. At first he was reluctant to ask the man for help due to his age, but he then, out of necessity, called the man for the job. 

Sami said that he noticed before chopping the wood the old man took time to analyze a certain spot in the wood, and then proceeded to quickly strike it into many pieces. He was unusually good. Sami was very impressed by this and asked for the old man’s secret. The old man replied that every night he dreams of himself splitting firewood until morning. 


Then Sami remembered something from his own youth about how he used to dream of his teacher anytime he had trouble fitting a letter into a composition. And, in his dream, the teacher would provide a solution. Then Sami would wake up, light his candle and fix the composition. Sami would say, “know that if you do not practice your art, your profession, even in your dreams, you will not make progress.”

Sami Efendi passed away on July 1, 1912. And, he is buried at the Fatih mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. The calligraphy of his grave stone was written by his student Kamil Akdik.


Letters in Gold

Gallery of Sami Efendi's artwork: