Palace of Typographic MasonryPALACE about
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Here we encounter Dirk van Weelden, whom we met at The Masonic Lobby where he was kind enough to provide a guided tour. Now here at The Labyrinth of Scripts I believe this passionate fanatic of the act of writing, being quite the writer himself, has a word or two to say about the script and the rituals that come with it.

Whether painting a surface or scratching into rock or clay, people have marked their surroundings since time immemorial with the details of this infinite forest of their own making: language.

Many writing systems developed independently of one another, in a wide variety of locations and a range of periods. Nevertheless, this genesis has always retained its vast and mysterious power. You can feel it when you look at this collection of scripts.

It has something of the Original Sin about it: the moment you make an instrument that separates language from one’s body and voice; from language’s existence in a particular time and place. It’s a huge intervention. And a liberation too – like stealing fire. You can build something that wasn’t there before. Records; a history; literature. Peoples and nations are made up of individuals. You can find their public body in their temples, gateways, roads and town walls. And their collective voice is found in their written language, their script.

In the beginning, these signs were only found on the clay tablets of the royal storekeepers and jurists, and on the walls of mausoleums and temples. But thousands of years before our own era, ordinary people; merchants, potters, soldiers – people who had nothing in common with pharaohs, generals and kings – were also writing letters, contracts, memoires and poems.

Writing systems spread across the planet with viral force. They absorbed elements from other scripts and adapted to the sounds and peculiarities of foreign tongues. Whenever the users of a particular script popped up somewhere, it didn’t take long for its letters to follow – and immediately take on new guises.

These writing systems are as diverse as the mass of different cuisines found around the world. They were conceived and developed in specific landscapes and climates, and owe their existence to specific lifestyles and languages. These factors all help determine what the signs will look like. Writing means different things in different places. It’s a whole kingdom of different forms and systems. From symbolic drawings for entire words and representations of different phonemes to signs for separate vowels and consonants. After listening to the language they spoke amongst themselves, people started wondering what its elemental parts could be.

You could picture all these writing systems developed by mankind as an imaginary building, a labyrinth. At which point I can’t help but think about all the dead ends. Take the script that developed in the city of Ugarit, situated just beyond the city limits of Latakia in modern-day Syria. In the Bronze Age, the population of Ugarit wrote in five different languages, including that of the city-dwellers. They used reed styli to make marks in soft clay. After the savage Sea Peoples sailed in from the west and burned Ugarit to the ground, its civilisation collapsed and its language fell into disuse. Nevertheless, a small group of people can still read this language and they study the tablets to learn about Ugarit’s myths and songs, and the letters the Ugarit princes wrote to their fathers. While Ugaritic may not be an entirely extinct language, it isn’t exactly a spoken one either. It clings to life in the petri dishes of linguists and historians.

There are also people who spend most of their life deciphering fossil texts that don’t even budge an inch under their efforts. Inscriptions and documents in a language that no one knows enough about to find an opening. Like Linear Elamatic, the Mesoamerican Zapotec writing system or the Rongorongo glyphs found on Easter Island. Imagine the long hours, dead silence and loneliness involved in this pursuit.

Some scripts, on the other hand, have miraculously risen from the dead. A touching example is the story of Tifinagh, the indigenous alphabet of the Amazigh in North Africa. In Ancient times, the Amazigh kings inscribed their swords, walls and clothing with their own language and alphabet. The Arab conquest of this region led to this script – and in many cases, the Amazigh language itself – being prohibited. From the 1970s on, there was a growing desire in the region to achieve recognition and equality for the Amazigh language and culture, which led to a revival of the Tifinagh script. In a moment, I’ll be introducing you to Juan Luis Blanco, a font designer who wrote a thesis on Tifinagh and who will tell us about his experiences devising a recognisable, imaginary city for a language that is coming into its own again and being reintroduced in schools, public life and radio broadcasts.

Designing a new typeface, rediscovering and reviving letters that have fallen into disuse: these are all means through which we can continue building the endless labyrinth of written characters. Labyrinths have been around since the very first temples, fortresses and palaces were built. They ritualise the process of getting lost – losing contact with the spacetime that we generally live in. In some cases, this experience takes the form of a game. But usually, it’s part of an initiation ceremony: a method to make the mind receptive to the unknown; to something that transcends us all as individuals.