Altair Designs and the Abjad System









Altair Designs

Altair Designs represents a type of design that literally changes before your eyes. They are designs that conjure images and patterns in the mind’s-eye of a user making whatever is ‘seen’ unique. Altair designs, then, are not like other coloring books – there are no fixed images to color and they serve to stimulate the visual imagination. Figure Altair, drawing 3, shows an example where all sorts of image can be ‘seen’ including the elephant who is currently ‘standing in the dark!’

Altair designs also have an underlying cultural purpose, see the window of the Sarghatmish Mosque-Madrasa, Cairo, Egypt, 1356 CE, from which the Altair design logic was derived, see Figure Altair drawing 1.

Students of the Madrasa were expected to explore the conceptual ‘levels’ of the window’s design – from the mathematics to the design’s cultural and functional lineage. The design itself is based on a convergence of two Arabic design methods – ‘close-packing circles,’ see Figure Altair 2, and the ‘ray’ system – where the ray system is a means of creating designs based on numerology – particularly the number ‘8,’ in this case. The numbers and the rosettes used in the window design have their own purpose – the number ‘8,’ for example, traditionally communicates the idea of a transition from ‘Earth,’ to ‘Heaven,’ and the rosettes symbolize ‘gardens,’ and ‘paradise.’

To see the latest manifestation of Altair designs see the ‘Crystal Cave,’ published by Wooden Books (Glastonbury, UK) and Bloomsbury Publishing (New York, USA). For a taste of a cultural perspective on ‘perceptual designs,’ see, ‘Mind Doodles,’ published by Park City Publishing. For a more in depth understanding, see ‘3D Thinking in Design and Architecture from Antiquity to the Future,’ to be published by Thames and Hudson Ltd, April 2018.

The ABJAD System – in Design and Architecture.

The ABJAD system is based on the fact that, in some cultures, letters have, or did have, numeric values. This is true for ancient Greek and for Semitic alphabets such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Writing systems such as Arabic and Hebrew originally only used consonants to write words – leaving the reader to use his imagination or the context of a script to add vowels. Such consonantal scripts are called ABJAD – or more correctly the first four letters, a-b-j-d. If you look on line you should be able to find an old Arabic ‘root’ dictionary such as Edward Lane’s 1876 Arabic-English Lexicon – a root dictionary. The words of root dictionaries are organized by their consonants and then by vowels – where vowels were added to Arabic at around the time of the beginning of Islam – but were still secondary to consonants.

Many Arabic words are based on three consonants, called trilateral roots, and these and other consonantal roots are described in Shah’s, ‘The Sufis.’ Shah gives examples of consonantal roots that can have multiple meanings depending upon the vowel sounds you add to them. Vowels and pronunciation marks are some of the tiny letters, dashes and squiggles you can see above and below Arabic consonantal script.

Many Arabic surface designs are based on polygons and rosettes that have numeric values; a pentagon (5), a hexagon (6), etc. It appears that in some cases ABJAD meanings were applied to ’numeric’ surface designs – but interpretation can easily be subjective. To confirm an ABJAD use then some sort of concurrence is needed such as a location or a purpose for a building, the type of mathematics used to generate the design, any associated Arabic script. Word meanings derived from a surface design need a fairly high level of concurrence – not just a few words – to have any validity. A number of difficulties arise in ‘reading’ Arabic surface designs, particularly the manipulations of the ABJAD system itself – again, as described by Shah. Particular problems arise from, say, a rosette with 16 sides as there is no letter that has that value – so one falls back on 10 and 6 for which there are numeric-consonant values. Other ABJAD system processes such as using multiples of ten of a number (‘5’ can become ‘50’ for example), or changing the order of the consonants, can seem overly manipulative – and that might often be the case but the context of an application can validate an ABJAD intent.


There is a 13th century CE, Seljuk period, door in the Ince Minareli Medrese, Konya, Turkey, see ABJAD A. Part of the door can be seen in part ‘1’ of the illustration. If the you connect the two panels of the door you will see a rosette design composed of five and ten sided rosettes, see part ‘2’ of the illustration. The numeric values are not unusual as many Islamic designs have the numbers ‘5’ and ‘10’ within them. However, ‘context’ needs to be considered as this was a door to a ‘tekke’ – a hall where the Mevlevi Whirling Dervishes danced. Using Edward Lane’s Lexicon, the root meanings are as shown in ABJAD A: Whirling dervishes are called to dance. They meet as arranged. They turn in circles. Their right hand faces up and their left hand faces down. They wear tall hats on top of their heads. They whirl like stars in the night sky. They gather together to dance. They are like thirsty travelers looking for water. As shown in the illustration the design is based on a ‘close-packing’ arrangement of circles placed within pentagonal and rhombic tiles.










Abjad A










The funerary complex of Sultan al-Ashraf Qaytbay, completed in 1474 CE, stands in the Northern Cemetery of Cairo, see ABJAD B. The Qaytbay dome, shown in the illustration, has a design composed of rosettes with sides 16, 9, and 10. With some manipulation using the ABJAD system the numbers 100, 6, and 9 are derived with meanings given in ABJAD B (there were no words with a consonantal root corresponding with 10, 6, and 9). Al-Ashraf Sayf ad-Din Qaytbay (1416–96 CE) was originally a slave, who was taken to Cairo and purchased by the sultan: a classic image of a slave is one with a ring around the neck. Al-Ashraf became a member of the palace guard, was later freed, and was then promoted through the Mamluk military hierarchy to become a field marshal – and eventually the sultan. He amassed a fortune during his time with the military that enabled him, when sultan, to exercise many acts of beneficence without draining the royal treasury. If a meaning was intended through the numbers, then the possible ABJAD meaning fits perfectly. The design method is based on ‘close-packing’ circles. The dome rests on an octagon – where the octagon represents the traditional transition from ‘Earth’ to ‘Heaven.’ The shape of the dome is that of a tear drop.

For a more in depth understanding, see ‘3D Thinking in Design and Architecture from Antiquity to the Furture,’ to be published by Thames and Hudson Ltd, April 2018.

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