The Pen is Mightier than the Sword - Center for Contemporary Arab Studies | Georgetown University

One of the sessions at the annual summer workshop for teachers this past June featured a “webquest” titled, “Mightier than the Sword: Calligraphy of the 16th Century Imperial Courts.” The speaker was Sophia Husain, an English teacher at Wakefield High School (Arlington, VA), who developed this resource under the direction of the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development. For this session of the workshop, attendees gathered in a computer lab and explored the site with Ms. Husain in real time.

This Web-based curriculum unit provides a creative and interactive approach to studying many of the major empires that dominated the world stage in the 15th and 16th centuries. Using Islamic calligraphy as an entry point, students learn about eight empires—the Songhay, Saadian, Mughal, Safavid, Ottoman, Ming, Tokugawa Shogunate, and Hapsburg—from historical, literary, and artistic angles. The free online tool is designed for high school students of World History, Literature, Art, and Mathematics. It addresses national standards for 9th and 10th grade subject areas.

The lesson is organized in a series of interdisciplinary stages that move students from research to presentation in approximately three weeks (though the expectations and time frame can be adjusted according to classroom needs). If students have access to the Internet outside of the classroom, they can complete the entire project without taking any class time, until their day of presentation. The teacher can also assign eight supplemental projects that stand alone or enhance the lessons.

Beginning in the imperial Ottoman court, students assume the characters of three actual historical figures: a historian, a literature expert, and an artist. There is a profile of each of these characters on the site with links to additional information. After they explore the Ottoman empire and the role of artists and mathematicians there, the three are then sent out by the Ottoman sultan to explore the seven other empires (“from as far as the deserts of Africa to the Great Wall of China”). Their task is to apply specific research questions to these cultures in order to evaluate them based on the saying, “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword.” The three students in each group present their findings to one another and, as a group, agree on one empire to present to the sultan (the class/teacher) which they feel best represents the saying.

Once students have selected an empire that most corresponds to their research and findings, they decide on an engaging method of presentation that involves all the group members and answers some specific questions that the sultan has asked. Teachers have access to a scoring rubric that evaluates the students’ work based on research and presentation, with each grade resulting in a specific outcome for them in the Ottoman court. In the webquest, the students are told that those who do an excellent job on their research and presentation will be invited to join the sultan’s Artistic Guild, or the “Ehl-i-hiref” (Community of the Talented)!

One of the strengths of this unit is that it is tied closely to the curriculum and gives teachers the opportunity to teach to the standards in a creative and fun way. Its focus on global interactions offers a means of studying Arab and Islamic contributions to the arts and cultures of the world through a lens that encourages research, dialogue, and creative presentation. It also includes an extensive list of resources for teachers and students to help in their exploration of Arab and Islamic history and culture. The webquest can be accessed at

CCAS thanks Jessica Wright from the Jerusalem Fund for contributing to this article.