Iranian Calligraphy - Tradition & Design


According to Iranian mythology, God is a painter who has painted the world with his pen and beautiful colors. Calligraphy is considered a form of high/divine art in Iranian culture.



1. History of Persian Scripts

In the ancient Persia and in the different historic eras, languages such as “Ilami”, “Avestaaee”, “Pahlavi”, and “Farsi-e-Mianeh” were spoken. It is believed that ancient Persian script was invented by about 500-600 BC to provide monument inscriptions for the Achaemenid kings. These scripts consisted of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal nail-shape letters which in Farsi it is called “Script of Nails” or “Khat-e-Mikhi”.



Ancient Persian Script - "Script of Nails" or "Khat-e-Mikhi"


Centuries later, other scripts such as “Avestaaee” and “Pahlavi” were created. The Avestan alphabet or “Avestaaee” was created in the 3rd century BC for writing the hymns of Zarathustra. Avestan is an extinct Indo-Iranian language related to Old Persian and Sanskrit. Avestaaee script was related to the religious scripts of Zoroastrians’ holy book called “Avestaa” and unlike the nail script -that was carved on flat stones- Avestaaee script was written with a feather pen, usually on animal-skin pages. It is very surprising that this script has many similarities with Arabic scripts such as “Sols” and “Naskh” that centuries later were invented. However, unlike these scripts, letters in Avestaaee were not connected to each other to form a word but they just were written separately next to each other (similar to Latin scripts) and from right to left.


Old Persian Script: "Avestaaee” Script


Pahlavi was another script developed during the Sassanid period (starting from the 1st century) and used for over 500 years before it was replaced by the Arabic alphabet.


Old Persian Script: "Pahlavi” Script


After the Arab’s invasion of Iran in the 7th century, Iranians modified Arabic alphabet for the Farsi language and developed contemporary Farsi alphabet. Arabic alphabet has 28 characters, but due to lack of certain sounds in the language and corresponding characters in their alphabet, Iranians added another four letters to arrive at existing 32 Farsi letters.


Contemporary Persian Script: "Farsi" Script




2. A Short History of Persian Calligraphy

When Islam conquered other older established cultures and spread throughout other regions, where people did not speak Arabic, variant forms of the Arabic alphabet were created. At the time there were six major calligraphy styles categorized as: "Mohagh’agh", "Reyhan", "Sols", "Naskh", "Reghaa", and "Tow’ghee" which all followed 12 major comparable principles.

In Iran, calligraphers combined two existing forms, “Naskh” and 
“Taligh” (itself, derived from “Reghaa”), and created a beautiful
form which was called Nas’taligh. Nas’taligh had a gradual
development that Iranian calligraphers effectively changed and
perfected. And even today now, after seven hundred years, Nas’taligh
is still the most popular contemporary style among classical Iranian
calligraphy scripts. It is known as “Bride of the Calligraphy Scripts”.
As a matter of fact, this calligraphy style has been based on such a
strong structure that it has changed very little since its creation of
more than seven hundred years ago. It is as if “Mir Ali Tabrizi”, its
creator, has found the optimum composition of the letters and
graphical rules, so it has just been fine-tuned during the past seven

Nas’taligh is the most beautiful Iranian Calligraphy style and also
technically the most complicated. It has strict rules for graphical
shape of the letters and for combination of the letters, words, and
composition of the whole calligraphy piece as a whole. Even the
second popular Iranian calligraphy style "Cursive Nas’taligh" or
"Shekasteh Nas’taligh " noticeably follows the same rules as Nas’taligh,
with more flexibility of course.




Why Nas’taligh is Different? It is really important to note that unlike its ancestors, Nas’taligh follows natural curves. In other words, unlike Arabic scripts that follow logical/geometrical designs, Nas’taligh follows the nature and natural curves. There are a lot of resemblances found between the curves used in Nas’taligh and the curvature found in nature.

History of Cursive Nas'taliq - "Cursive Nas’taligh "
or "Shekasteh Nas’taligh " was invented in the 17th century.
This calligraphy style is based on the same rules as
Nas’taligh but it provides more flexible movements. It is a
little more stretched and curved. Some believe “Moteza-Qoli
Shamloo” is the inventor of this style while others believe
it was “Mohammad Shafee Heravi” who introduced Cursive
Nas’taligh first. Almost a century later, a prominent artist
named “Darvish Abdolmajid Taleqani” improved this style
to perfection. Among contemporary calligraphers in this
style, “Yadollah Kaboli” definitely ranks in the most
prominent place.

Shekaste Nastaligh by Habiballah Fazaeli




Calligraphy today is the art of linear graphics; it restructures one’s visualization of a language and its topography. Nastaligh is the best marriage of these elements and has been welcomed among Farsi speakers even to the present day.



3. Principles of Iranian Calligraphy

Iranian Calligraphy is based on 12 important principles:
1. Base-line (Khat-e-Korsee):  This is a virtual line that the words will be nested on. It is not necessarily a straight horizontal line. It may be curved or diagonal but in any case it has to follow certain rules.
2. Combination (Tarkib): This principle emphasizes on the harmony between the individual letters and words in relation with one another to make an appropriate graphical figure as a whole. It is also important to have a nice distribution of darkness and whiteness in the calligraphy piece as a whole.
3. Proportion (Nesbat): This principle emphasizes on appropriate proportional size of the letters and words in comparison with each other.
4. Strength (Qovvat) and 5. Slimness (Za’f)
The words “Strength” and “Slimness” represent sturdiness or slimness of the letters or movements whenever appropriate.
6. Flatness (Sath) and 7. Curvature (Dowr)
It shows importance of flatness or roundness of the stretched or curved letters or words whenever appropriate.
8. Descent (So’oud) and 9. Ascent (Nozoul)
These two principles determine whether letters or words must be in an ascending or descending move in relation toward each other to look more appropriate.

 Other principles are summarized as follows:
10. Basics (Ossoul)
11. Virtue (Safaa)
12. Value (Sha’n)

Iranian Calligraphy Tools
_ A professional calligrapher needs quality tools to create master pieces. These tools must have certain characteristics to qualify. It is imperative for a calligrapher to understand the relationship between these tools and to consider these relationships while using them. Among these tools, "Bamboo Pen", "Ink", and "Paper" play the most critical role. Larger size bamboo pen requires lighter (less viscous) ink and glossier paper. It may also require the "Writing Pad" to be less rigid to provide the bamboo pen with more flexibility and allow it to spin slightly and move on the paper controllably.

It is recommended that beginner calligraphy students practice with mid-size bamboo-pen and use plain black ink on plain white paper. The reason behind this recommendation is that this combination of tools, has no decorative extras to distract the eye and reveals all the wrong movements -if any- making them more visible. Therefore, one notices the mistakes and focuses on them. In this way a calligraphy student can improve and enhance his/her calligraphy skills. It must be mentioned that even great calligraphy masters also sometimes apply plain black ink on plain white paper and create master pieces for teaching purposes and to set an example for the students. In this way they can visually follow the curves and learn from the master piece.





List of Iranian Calligraphy Tools:

- Bamboo Pen (Qalam Ney)

- Pen Sharpener (Qalam-Taraash)

- Nib-Finishing Pad (Qat-Zan)

- Ink (Morakkab)

- Ink Container (Davaat)

- Silky Ink-Controller (Liqeh)

- Paper (Kaaqaz)

- Writing Pad (Zir-Dasti)






Now Let’s Write Something _ Farsi is written from right to left and it consists of 32 letters. Almost every word can be written without lifting your writing hand from the paper (except for placing the dots, of course), meaning that usually all characters are connected. This makes Farsi a very fluid and flexible script. To be able to understand the complexity of the script it’s better to have a rough idea of the anatomy of Farsi letters. To make that easier, let’s forget about calligraphy for a moment and look at fonts designed for everyday purposes:


Each letter can have a maximum of four different forms:
Free form: When it appears without being connected to another character.
Initial form: When the character is the first character in a word, therefore only connected to the character after itself.
Medial form: When the character is connected to the characters after and before itself.
Final form: When the character is connected only to the character before itself.



from right to left: Free, Initial, Medial and Final forms

As a characteristic of the particular letter, different forms of a letter have in fact one single shape with different extensions reaching out of that shape. The extension always lands on the baseline if it is going to join two characters. In other words - every two characters always meet on the baseline.


So what happens as you type? Farsi fonts have to be “Smart Fonts”. The font has to decide which form a letter should appear in, depending on its position in the word. “Open Type” has solved this problem by providing all the different forms of the letters and all the exceptions and special connections. Here is an example of letters joining as a writer types a four-letter word.

Notice how the tail of each letter changes as the next letter is typed in.






Now let’s continue with calligraphy _ Nastaligh, as mentioned before, is a good example of a style that allows very dense compositions and is very fluid and expressive. Nastaligh is not directly bound to a baseline. The letters float and continue all the way below and above the baseline. This results in a well balanced line usually with an upward momentum at the end of the line. Understanding and mastering this balance takes years of rigorous practice under a master. A piece of calligraphy can be most beautiful when the artist bends (but not breaks) the rules to add a personal touch and to create a unique yet aesthetically pleasing composition.

Shekaste Nastaligh (meaning “broken” Nastaligh) is a style born out of Nastaligh. It is more angular and suitable for fast writing and its long oblique strokes imply an incredible sense of motion and rhythm.






4. Decorative boarder painting - TAZ’HEEB
Another traditionally complimenting art category which has accompanied Iranian Calligraphy masterpieces throughout the centuries, beautifying them to the highest point, is the decorative boarder painting called Taz’heeb.

Great Iranian calligraphy masters have always been working hand-in-hand with great Taz’heeb artists. Calligraphy masterpieces have been traditionally decorated with fine paintings around them. Once the calligrapher is finished with his calligraphy piece, Taz’heeb painter takes over and decorates the masterpiece. He draws beautiful geometrical patterns and/or fine miniature paintings around the calligraphed words. Taz’heeb usually extends from inside to the outside of the art work where it makes a rectangular, circular, or oval shape border around the calligraphy piece.

Taz'heeb or Decorative Border Painting

Taz’heeb painter has to follow certain rules as his art should match with the style, form, and also meanings of calligraphed words as they together represent and depict the meanings of a poem or verse that they hold.



5. Iranian Calligraphy Today

In 1950, Iranian Calligraphers Association was founded in a collaborative effort by Iranian Ministry of Arts and Cultural Affairs, a few professors of School of Arts, and several prominent calligraphy masters. Iranian art-lovers from all over the country enthusiastically encouraged this association and its activities and soon after this organization expanded and opened numerous branches in many cities in Iran. Iranian Calligraphers Association is the most reputable Iranian art education organization. It has more than 60,000 students in over 220 branches including its international branches in other countries; Tokyo and Paris branches to mention a few. Iranian Calligraphers Association offers courses for different calligraphy styles for art students and conducts nation-wide exams at the end of each semester. There are four major levels in order for the students to pass in a four year program that equals Bachelor of Art Degree.

Today, calligraphy represents quite a new perspective. Calligraphers are trying to make a new form of calligraphy to be separated of literature and also to have all qualities of a visual art. It is true that most of that thriving has failed, because literature and calligraphy have been matched for centuries and separation between them can’t be easy, but there are also successful works that their artists have effectively used the visual elements of art in which we can identify lines, shapes, values, colors, motions, and even textures in the beautiful composition.




6. From calligraphy to typography

One of the qualities that makes current Iranian graphic design unique is its typography. The country has a rich history of visual arts and moreover the better part of this heritage consists of calligraphy. Throughout the times calligraphy has been inventing and reinventing itself and has influenced other forms of art. The incorporation of calligraphy into Islamic architecture is a fine example of this union. In recent times these treasures of beauty and harmony have inspired painters, sculptors, and in particular: graphic designers.

In comparison to Europe and North America calligraphy is a far more popular and practiced form of art in Iran and in most other countries around the region. You can spot at least one piece of calligraphy hung on the walls of most Iranian households.

Perhaps these are all reasons why it is not so easy to draw the line where calligraphy ends and typography starts. Some of the masterpieces of Iranian design are often the results of a collaboration between a designer and a calligrapher. Mohammad Ehsaei for example, a great calligrapher, has created numerous logos using various traditional aesthetics. His “Calligraphy Paintings” are highly praised for their complex compositions. In many of his works Ehsaei has extracted the essence of letters and traditional compositions and used them to create abstract works that are unmistakably Iranian in tone and character.




Reza Abedini is another contemporary graphic designer who has explored and expanded the possibilities of Farsi typography. In many of his works Abedini breaks up the baseline and manipulates individual words and letters to achieve his unique typographic style. Although Abedini uses modern typefaces, he tries “to revive the poetic qualities of Iranian calligraphy in his posters”, as he puts it.

two-piece poster by Masoud Nejabati, “The Blind Owl” typography exhibition


Esrafil Shirchi


And now to practice what you’ve learned, you can print the following exercise sheet and using a calligraphy pen, you can just trace over the gray-out lines first, and then when you feel comfortable, just use a blank sheet to write the same thing.


If you find this exercise helpful and are interested to do more, please contact us for more exercise sheets.



Submitted by faramarz on Tue, 03/10/2009 - 9:29am.