Persian Calligraphy: Gentle Curves of Beauty

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Tamara Ebrahimpour

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Pahlavi script
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Cursive Nasta'liq
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Iranians have always been known for their appreciation of beauty and their artistic taste in creating masterpieces from elements. A brilliant example of such artistry is Persian calligraphy.

Ancient Persian script, which developed between 500-600 BCE, provided Achaemenid kings with magnificent monumental inscriptions. Cuneiform scripts were later replaced by 'Pahlavi' and 'Avestan' lettering.

In the 7th century BCE, the beginning of the Islamic era, Persians added four letters to the 28-letter Arabic alphabet to develop the contemporary Persian alphabet.

Considered one of the highest Islamic art forms, calligraphy soon became an indispensable part of Persian society so that it was not only practiced by professional artists but also by royalty and nobility.

The earliest form of Islamic calligraphy, the Kufic style, was the only script used to copy the Holy Qur'an for over three hundred years.

Kufic developed into different forms called, Square, Floral and Foliated.

Square Kufic has no curved lines. Foliated Kufic has vertical characters with the final letters of words often ending in a leaf or a half-palmette. In Floral Kufic, the leaves and palmettes are an extension of the characters.

Foliated and Floral Kufic styles were often used to decorate stucco and stone in religious and nonreligious monuments.

Throughout the Samanid dynasty, black Kufic scripts adorned Samarkand and Nishapur slipware. Persian calligraphy reached its zenith during the Timurid and Safavid dynasties when it was used to decorate almost all monuments.

In the 11th century six basic calligraphy styles became popular, which were referred to as, Naskh, Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Rihani, Tauqi, and Riqa.

Developed during the Seljuk dynasty, Naskh was used for every day correspondence and in copying literary works.

The key figure in the development of Naskh was Ibn Muqla, an Abbasid minister, who systematized it into a more sophisticated art to be used in copying the holy Qur'an.

Distinguished by its round characters, Thuluth was often used in writing titles. The changes made to this writing style over the centuries can be seen on architecture, metal works, textiles and glass works.

Muhaqqaq characters are not as round as those of Thuluth. Rihani resembles a smaller version of Muhaqqaq and Riqa is a miniature version of Tauqi, which was mostly used for everyday writing.

Hafiz Osman (1642-1698), a master of Thuluth and Naskh is to be credited for the invention of Hilyah, a 'word picture' in which sentences and phrases are written in the form of birds or animals.

The two other styles invented in Iran during the 14th century, Ta'liq and Nasta'liq, became predominant by the 15th and 16th centuries.

'Hassan Farsi Kateb' created Ta'liq by combining Naskh and Reqaa. Written with a thick reed pen, Ta'liq is the combination of short thin vertical letters with broad horizontal ones, the natural length of which is exaggerated especially at the end of words.

Nas'taliq, introduced by Mir Ali Heravi Tabrizi in the 14th century, is a combination of Naskh and Ta'liq.

Known as the most attractive Persian calligraphy style, Nasta'liq was broadly used in copying romantic and epic Persian poetry and literary manuscripts, such as the famous edition of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh copied at the Timurid court.

Iran's latest calligraphic development was led by Sayyid Shafua of Herat who introduced a personalized form of Nasta'liq called Cursive Nasta'liq (Shekasteh) in the 17th century.

Cursive Nasta'liq is slightly more stretched and curved than Nasta'liq and was improved to perfection by Darvish Abdolmajid Taleqani.

In Cursive Nasta'liq the natural spaces between characters and words are blurred by joining up the spaces in a verse or sentence.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Cursive Nasta'liq scripts became so blurred that in many cases they were incomprehensible.

Nasta'liq and Cursive Nasta'liq are used in different script forms:

1- Linear-Script (Satr Nevisi) is used when writing single sentences.

2- Double-Line Script (Beyt Nevisi) is used to write couplets.

3- Double-Diagonal-Script (Chalipa) is used when writing two couplets in a diagonal format.

4- Fine-Script (Ketabat) is used to write a whole paragraph or a short story.

5- Letterhead-Script (Katibeh) is used to write decorative sentences sometimes with interwoven words. These scripts are often used to adorn mosques and shrines.

6- Decorative-Repetitive-Script (Siah-Mashq) was originally used by calligraphers to practice on a single piece of paper.

7- Calligraphy-Painting (Khat-Naqqashi) is a combination of calligraphy and painting.

Today, Persian calligraphy combines traditional ideals of magnificence with creative pictorial writing and calligraphy is not only used to decorate monuments but also for creating formal letterheads, banner ads, book covers and business logos.


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