INTRODUCTION: Calligraphy (from Greek CALLI or beauty and GRAPHOS or writing) is the art of beautiful and decorative writing. Calligraphy (in Persian: Khosh Nevissi) should be distinguished from epigraphy, which is the study of permanent inscriptions engraved in metal or chiseled into stone. The art of calligraphy, as today often created with a special pen or brush, is one of the reputable and famous arts in Iran. Many art experts have always globally praised the glorious art of Iranian calligraphy and its numerous decorations. The importance of the art of calligraphy among Iranian arts is such, that some arts seem to be imperfect, without decorative calligraphy. Iranians more than any other nation have used various styles of calligraphy to enrich and beautify books, metallic vessels, religious centers, holy constructions, historic buildings, and many others. Most of the handwritten books of Iran have been recognized as precious artistic works because of their graceful and delicate calligraphy. The calligraphy works of notorious and virtuous calligraphers of Iran are preserved as precious artistic works in museums and private collections all around the world.
EARLY HISTORY OF CALLIGRAPHY IN IRAN: Reliable evidences indicate that the ancient Iranians were familiar to the arts of epigraphy and calligraphy. A tablet in Hieroglyph writing discovered in the northwestern part of the Iranian plateau, belonging to the pre-historical period is a sign that the early inhabitants of Iran possessed inscriptive signs and methods. In archaeological searches of Sialk or Silak (the oldest ziggurat, tracked away in the suburbs of the city of Kashan, in central Iran), dishes and cylindrical seals engraved with the very first Iranian writings have been discovered. Diacono, the Russian scholar has called these documents as the [holy writings], and believes that they belong to the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC. A precious collection of Iranian inscriptions is preserved in the Hermitage Museum of Leningrad in Russia. The cuneiform writing was invented by Iranians and honored later by Sumerians. In the 7th century BC, Medes for the first time in history invented a kind of alphabet consisting of 36 letters. William James Durant (American philosopher and historian and the author of the Story of Civilization) has stated in his writings that Iranians with an alphabet of 36 letters used skins and pen to write, instead of earthen tablets. Handwritten manuscripts of Avesta, the religious book of Zoroastrians, were written with gold on skin. The numerous tablets available in Bisotoon, Pasargad and Persepolis display the symbols used by ancient Iranians for writing. These tablets are made of half-burned clay, bricks, stones, skin and golden and silver sheets. Some of these tablets are considered as samples of the art of calligraphy in the ancient Iran.
FIRST IRANIAN FAMOUS CALLIGRAPHER: In 642, when Iran became a part of the Muslim World, a new Persian alphabet, typographically similar to Arabic, was also developed. Since Iranians had inherited a rich and brilliant cultural heritage during Sassanid Empire, they started to beautify and decorate their own handwritings. The art of calligraphy flourished in Iran when many literary books were written and it reached to some degrees of perfection during the next century. It is speculated that the Iranian calligraphy attracted Caliphs in Baghdad and eminent Iranian calligraphers were invited to immigrate there to introduce this glorious art. Of course, there are some explanations behind these invitations. At the start of the Islamic era two types of Arabic script seem to have been in use in Arab World. One was square and angular and was called KUFIC (after the town of Kufa in Iraq, though it was in use well before the town founded). Kufic was usually used for the architectural decoration. The other, called NASKHI, was more rounded and cursive and was used for letters, business documents, and wherever speed rather than elaborate formalism was needed. The cursive scripts of Naskhi coexisted with Kufic lacked discipline and elegance, and they were not allowed to be used in writing and reproducing the holy book of Koran.
The only solution of the problem was, therefore, calligraphy. Iranian calligrapher, Muhammad Pur-Mukalla (reported as Ibn-Muqlah in some Arabic and Western literatures), along with his brother were invited to go to Baghdad and work there. The birthplace of Mukalla in Iran is unknown, though some researchers believe he was born in Shiraz, the capital city of the southern province of Fars in Iran. Mukalla (in Persian and Arabic: A man with a hat) was born in 886 when Nassr I of Samanids dynasty was in power. There is not much information on his early life, but it is reported that he was resided in Baghdad from 914 until 940 when he died. Mukalla must have been invited to go to Baghdad by Almughtader, the Abbasid caliph who was in power during 908-932. In Baghdad, Mukalla was first promoted as a Minister (in Persian and Arabic: Vazir) to Almughtader and then to his successors Alghader (932-934), and ArRadi (934-940). In addition to his office works, Mukalla was engaged with the art of calligraphy for which he developed a new system. His system became a powerful tool in the development and standardization of cursive scripts, and his calligraphic work elevated the previous cursive styles into a place of prominence, and made them acceptable as worthy of writing the holy book of Koran. Mukalla is cited as the Father of Calligraphy by many researchers. According to Professor Anthony Welch of Victoria University (British Columbia, Canada), Mukalla is regarded as a figure of heroic stature who laid the basis for a great art upon firm principles and who created the Six Styles of writing: Kufi, Thulth, Naskh, Rogheh, Deevani, and Taaligh.
In spite of those great achievements, Mukalla could not enjoy a happy life at the end. Three times Minister in Baghdad, Mukalla and his political struggle against court enigma were ultimately unsuccessful. After his replacement in 936, his property was confiscated and he was cruelly imprisoned. That was the time when Emaad-o-dowleh-e-Dailami of Buyyid family (in Persian: All-e-Buyeh) was in power in Fars province of Iran. Unbelievably, Mukalla’s right hand was cut off, a dreadful punishment in itself, but particularly terrible for a celebrated Master of the Word! And after still more maltreatments, at 54 he died in the summer of 940. No authentic work in Mukalla’s hand is known to exist, but his principles are glorious and crystal clear.(Just for the record: After Minister Mukalla had been imprisoned by his enemies, and another Minister had defected in disgrace, ArRadi, being without resources, fell into the hands of an able but cruel ruler, Raik, for whom he created the position of Amir of the Amirs. And shortly thereafter, the opposition groups overthrew Ar-Radi. It should be also noted that from 945 to 1055 an Iranian family of Buyyid ruled Baghdad and most of Iraq).
OTHER FAMOUS CALLIGRAPHERS: After Mukalla, Helaal-e-Bawab followed his path. Bawab, possibly a native of Shiraz, was a student of Mukalla’s trainee. It is documented that he was employed in Baghdad and Shiraz during the late 10th and the early 11th centuries. Bawab gave more elegance and geometrical harmony to all Six Styles, especially to Naskh. He reproduced the writing of Mukalla so precisely that his employer in Shiraz, the Buyyid Amir Bahaa-o-dowleh (ruled 998-1012), could not tell the difference. The earliest copy of Koran written in Naskh script is the one that is kept in the Chester Beatty Library of Dublin, the capital city of Republic of Ireland, and it has been attributed to Bawab. He died in 1022. And the list goes on: Among the numerous Iranian calligraphers, one may recall Mir Emaad, and his daughter Gohar Shaad, Mir Ali Heravi, Emaadol Ketaab, Zarin Ghalam, Noora Khosh Neviss, and many others.
View a list of Iranian Calligraphers here.
EPILOGUE: Today, there are many people around the world that they may have not much information about the contents of the Persian Handwriting, but they are very anxious to use the calligraphic works of Iran to adorn their libraries, halls, rooms, and private collections.
MANY IRANIAN PHOTOGRAPHERS, PAINTERS, AND OTHER ARTISTS HAVE ALSO ELEGANTLY ENRICHED THEIR ARTISTIC PRESENTATIONS WITH THE ART OF CALLIGRAPHY TO EXPRESS THE MOST GRACIOUS ARTISTIC NOTIONS.
Manouchehr Saadat Noury, PhD
Child, H. (1985): The Calligrapher's Handbook, ed., Taplinger Publishing Company.
Diringer, D. (1968) The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind, 3rd ed., Volume 1, Hutchinson & Co., London.
Durant, W. J. (1935): Story of Civilization, the Article on Our Oriental Heritage, ed., Simon & Shuster, NYC, USA.
Iran Daily Website (2005): Online Article on Art of Calligraphy quoting Scholar Diocono.
Saadat Noury, M. (2005): Various Articles on the Persian Culture and the History of Iran.
Various Sources (2005): Notes and News about the Persian Calligraphy.
Welch, A. (2005): Online Interview on the History of Art in Iran.
Wikipedia Encyclopedia (2005): Online Article on Calligraphy.
Wikipedia Encyclopedia (2011): Online Article on Iranian Calligraphers (in Persian).
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