Persian Calligraphy

The Development of an Art Form

By: Ezat O. Negahban

Originally Published in 1989

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Iran is one of many cultures in which the written word has been transformed into an art form, an extension of its function beyond documentation and com­munication. Iranian calligraphers employed their talents to produce styles and patterns of writing that were applied to such different mediums as architecture, pottery, and metal work, in addition to the page itself. They have made Per­sian script rich in variety and beauty and produced many master­pieces of art, particularly when calligraphy was combined with miniature painting.

In this article I shall outline the major types of Persian calligraphy, with a brief reference to some of the master calligraphers. I will also draw on my own experiences to provide an example of the role that this art form still plays in Persian life and culture.

Historical Background

Before the Islamic era, there were several types of script in Iran. The earliest was cuneiform, exe­cuted with wedge-shaped strokes made on clay tablets or cut into stone. Cuneiform script was used for several millennia by peoples speaking a variety of languages, who occupied the area from the eastern Mediterranean to the Indus Valley. In Iran both the Elamites in the third and second millennia B.C. (Figs. 1,2) and the Persians in the first millennium employed cunei­form script.

At the end of the Achaemenian Empire, the angular and relatively inflexible cuneiform was gradually replaced by cursive scripts. In Iran, Aramaic script was used along with cuneiform during the Achaemenian Period (Fig. 3). Beginning in the 7th century B.C., Aramaic served as a lingua franca throughout the Near East until it was replaced by Arabic after the Islamic Conquest. Later, during the Parthian and Sassanian periods, Avestaic (Fig. 4) and Pahlavi scripts were used, Pahlavi being the more common.

With the downfall of the Sas­sanian dynasty and the emergence of Islam (7th century A.D.), two new scripts appeared in Iran: Kufic, which was angular with horizontal connections (Figs. 5-8,11,12,13,30), and Naskh, which was more rounded (Figs. 10,16,19). Based mainly on Coptic and Soryani scripts (which had in turn developed from the Aramaic and Phoenician), both were already in use in Arabia before the time of Mohammad (Fazaeli 1971).

During the first centuries of the Islamic era, Kufic and Naskh were used in a simple form, but grad­ually the Iranian scribes began to develop them, adapting them to the Persian language. New styles and patterns evolved during the period of the Abbasid Caliphs, particularly during the time of Ma’Moon (786-833 A.D., 170-218 A.H. [After Hejira]), when a great expansion took place in all branches of art, especially cal­ligraphy.

One of the great pioneer cal­ligraphers was Ibn-Moghleh Beid­havi Shirazi, the Grand Vazir of Al­Moghtader Bellah. Shirazi codified several types of script in the Aghlam-i-Setteh (The Six Styles of Writing). These six styles included Naskh, the slightly rounded script which had been known before the emergence of Islam (Fig. 10); Mo­haghghegh, also known as Araghi or Warraghi, a compact cursive script; Reyhan, similar to Mohagh­gbegh but more elaborate; Tholth (Figs. 13,14,21,30), subdivided into Thaghil (`Difficult’) and Khafif (`Light’ or `Simple’); Toghi’, be­tween Naskh and Tholth, with rules similar to Tholth but written deeper and rounder (Fig. 23); and Rogha’, similar to Tholth and Toghi’ but more more elaborate and finer. Shirazi introduced rules and regula­tions in twelve original patterns that standardized the different styles of writing and initiated a new era in Persian calligraphy.

About a century later Hassan-i­Farsi introduced a new script known as Ta’ligh (Fig. 15), which was mainly developed from the already established styles of Naskh and Rogha’. In Ta’ligh the charac­ters were more connected, leading to greater ease and fluency, so that it soon became the preferred script in which to write letters. For this reason it was called Tarassol or “Letter Writing” script. Later Ta’ligh was made much more bal­anced and fluent through the rich contributions of Khajeh Abdolhay Mcinshi Asterabacli (907 ASH.), who added new rules for writing the script. Mir Ali Tabrizi (about 850 ASH.) introduced, or perhaps only codified, a style of writing derived from Naskb and Taligh. This warmly welcomed script became known as Nastaligh. Nasta’ligh developed into such a beautiful form of Persian calligraphy that it was called the Arrouss or “Bride of Writing” (Figs. 17,24,25,28,29). The script emphasizes horizontal ele­ments, so that it “seems to hang or float across the page” (James 1989:22). One outstanding callig­rapher who employed this script was Soltan Ali-i-Mashhadi (926 A.H.), who devoted most of his 85 years to the service of Nasta’ligh and produced many masterpieces. He composed a poetic guide to writing Nasta’ligh called the Sarat­ous-sotour (Ways of Lines of Writing) and trained many stu­dents who went on to become master calligraphers in their own right. In the middle of the 11th century A.H., Shekasteh Nasta’ligh or Bro­ken Nasta’ligh was introduced by Morteza Gholikhan-i-Shamlou, the governor of Herat. It spread rap­idly due to its fluent beauty and particularly its ease, which made it suitable for fast writing since it could be used almost as a form of shorthand (Figs. 22,28). This ela­borate and complex style was par­ticularly popular during the Qajar dynasty, when the art of cal­ligraphy underwent a period of revival, and several new variant scripts were developed.

In recent times calligraphy has continued to be a much revered art. Nearly 30 years ago the Society for Calligraphy (Anjoman-i-Khosh­nevisan) was founded by Mr. Khos­row Zaimi, as an associate insti­tution of the Ministry of Culture and Arts. The society has been very active and successful in keeping this valuable art alive in Iran. Over the last decade there has been a great and noticeable development of interest, and many outstanding books of Persian poetry written in beautiful calligraphy have been published.

A Modern Calligrapher at Work

The art of calligraphy so per­meates Persian culture that it has become interwoven in the daily life of the people. In the old traditional system of Iranian education the development and practice of a beautiful writing style was ex­tremely important. It was a source of honor and pride to have good handwriting and to know callig­raphy. Even at the beginning of the modern Westernized system of education, which was being intro­duced at the time I first entered school as a child, great importance was still given to the teaching of good handwriting, and teachers of these courses were highly re­spected. We were given patterns made with dotted lines for each character which we were supposed to complete with one movement of the reed pen (Fig. 25), and we were expected to spend many hours following these patterns of correct and beautiful writing for each charac­ter of the alphabet.

I remember vividly how seri­ously my father took the task of teaching me proper handwriting. He had very good handwriting himself, and to give me the feeling of the correct movements of the pen, he would place it in my fingers at the right angle, hold my fist in his hand, and guide the movements of the pen as I wrote. After his sudden and unexpected death when I was nearly ten years old, I continued my interest in developing good handwriting and in the art of calligraphy, as I knew he would have wished.

At this time the oldest and most respected member of my mother’s family was an uncle, Hassan Dide-ban, retired from the Post and Telegraph Office, who lived in Gholhak village, halfway between Tehran and Shemran in the foot­hills of the Elburz mountains. This venerable old man was a broad-minded but faithful believer who carried out his religious duties with great devotion. I liked him very much since he was kind to me and had a rather interesting wit, as well as an excellent handwriting style. He spent hours each day copying the complete text of the Holy Koran in Nasta’ligh style, a work which took him several years. When it was finished, he donated the volume, bearing his name, to the Sajjad Mosque of Gholhak, where it is used to this day during the reading of prayers. Khan Amu (Sir Uncle), as he was called in the family, gave me lessons in reading the Koran, and when he realized how interested I was in callig­raphy, he began to give me some models of the Nastaligh style to copy. From him I learned that there is no end to the infinite variety and creativity in the art of calligraphy.

The Art of Calligraphy

Before one can begin a work of calligraphy, it is necessary to as­semble the proper tools, including pen, ink, and paper. The pens used in Persian calligraphy are made from reeds (Fig. 26), and learning to cut them out properly is not easy. The nib is cut differently for dif­ferent styles of writing, and grace­ful calligraphy can seem to flow almost effortlessly from the point of a properly cut pen. Reeds grown in a hot climate are preferable for pens; in Iran, the best reeds of all are thought to come from Dezful in Khuzistan. Only well-matured reeds, which are dark brownish-red with a burnished sheen, have a good shell for the cutting of the nib. These mature reeds are cut into sections at the joints. The thicker pieces from near the base of the reed are used for thicker pens (Qalam Dorosht) with a broad nib for large-scale writing (Masgh Dorosht). More slender pieces from near the middle of the reed are used for ordinary writing, while very narrow pieces from the top of the reed, if they have a strong enough shell, are cut to a fine point for slender pens (Qalam Reez) used for fine writing (Masgh Reez). To control the flow of the ink and the width of the line a small cut is made in the middle of the nib, parallel to the length of the pen. The degree of pressure on the cut nib controls the width of the line.

With more pressure the cut nib separates slightly so that the line becomes wider, while for fine lines less pressure is applied and at the same time the pen is twisted some­what during writing. In the old days in Iran the best ink was imported from China and came in the form of small dried pieces. These pieces would be mixed with water and left to dis­solve; the ink would then be di­luted to the proper consistency—thin enough to flow smoothly, but not so thin as to be watery. The prepared ink would be put in a glass or ceramic inkwell whose rim turned well inward so that little ink would be lost if it overturned. This inkwell would be filled with small bits of cut rag, preferably silk, so that the pen would not pick up too much ink. The pen would be dipped in the inkwell and the nib touched against the inward rim to remove extra ink. Some scribes would put their pen into the ink­well, touch it against the side of the rim to remove excess ink, and then rub the nib on the top of the second knuckle of the thumb of their left hand, which would be in a hori­zontal position as they held the paper. When needed, more ink could be picked up from the top of the knuckle until it was gone, and then the pen would be dipped in the inkwell again.

The paper used for calligraphy should have enough of a glossy coating so that the ink does not spread out and lose the cleanness of the writing. In my youth the best paper, like the best ink, came from China, from the city we called Khan-Balik (Peking). When I was young we did not sit on chairs at tables, but rather on the floor. The best position for writing was to sit with the left leg bent and doubled under, while the right leg was bent at the knee with the right foot on the ground. The diagonal column of the right thigh thus made a stable surface on which the paper could be positioned for writing.

Although I make no claim to be an expert calligrapher, I derive great pleasure and satisfaction from the hours that I am able to devote to calligraphy, writing out verses of some of our illustrious poets in Nasta’ligh and Shekasteh Nasta’ligh script (Fig. 27). I have now reached a time in my life when I can no longer comfortably sit on the floor to write, but to an Iranian of my age and background, Persian callig­raphy remains an abiding interest, an interest inextricably interwoven with a love for and appreciation of our great Persian poets.

Calligraphers often combine two or more different styles of script in order to emphasize different words or different parts of the text. In Figure 28, I have used both Nasta’ligh and Shekasteh Nas-taligh. The basic text has been composed by Fereidoun Tavalloli, a contemporary Persian poet. It describes a scene on the Karun river, the main river of Khuzistan province in southwestern Iran. A despairing lover, a riverboat man who has been rejected by his be­loved, sings sorrowful verses of Baba Taher, a famous old poet of Luristan. In my rendition the verses of Tavalloli are written in fine Shekasteh Nastaligh style, while the verses of Baba Taher, which express the essence of the story, are written with a larger pen in Nastaligh style.

The lampshade shown in Figure 29a,b, which was created by Bah-man Negahban, illustrates the rich­ness and creativity still to be found in the art of Persian calligraphy. This eight-sided shade has an inter­locking hexagonal structure, both of the shade and of the poetry written on it. A six-word verse (four repeating, two changing, AABBAA), written in Persian Nas-taligh style, is arranged within a honeycomb lattice, verse overlap­ping verse interconnected by shared words. Each of the six triangular panels contains a com­plete verse arranged so that it can be read in a meaningful way from any direction. When the lamp is turned on, direct light shines through the central grid of each unit, which carries the name of God (Fig. 29b).

The poetry written on this lamp­shade, about love and care (“Moheb bait”), is one of the masterpieces of Molavi (Moulana Jalal-ed-Din). (Molavi was the foremost teacher and poet of Sufiism-lslamic Mysticism—and the notions of rhythm and repetition found in his poetry are central to the practice of Suffism.)


Cite This Article

Negahban, Ezat O.. "Persian Calligraphy." Expedition Magazine 31, no. 1 (March, 1989): -. Accessed June 16, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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