Holy men of the Persian realm used calligraphy type of writing to record the Koran and many other important documents, and the ancient art of calligraphy dates back at least 1400 years. Persian calligraphy is used to record several different languages, though all of those languages use the Arabic Alphabet: the 2nd most popular in the world.
The art of decorative writing using the letters of the Arabic alphabet is referred to as Arabic calligraphy, and is one of the world’s most respected artforms. Also known as Islamic calligraphy because it was developed to write the holy book of Islam, calligraphy is, in fact, the highest form of visual art in the Islamic world. People from many different countries and religions practice the art form, not all of which are Islamic or Arab.
The Uses of Arabic Calligraphy
Normal Arabic script is used as a form of communication, and is still a visually beautiful form of communication. However, most Arabs take the written language for granted, unaware of its beauty to the rest of the world. Calligraphy’s purpose is both aesthetic and functional and is practiced for its content and beauty.
Calligraphy is certainly more decorative than regular script, and there are very strict rules to creating this fine art. The first rule is that a hand carved reed pen must be used. This is done using a reed of a comfortable size plucked from the banks of the Nile, or other local rivers. Reeds are dried and then taken to calligraphers, who carve them into quill-tips. Each tip has an extra notch carved into it for storing extra ink. True Persian calligraphy is only written using these pens.
The rules for writing calligraphy are much stricter than rules for other forms of handwriting, though the rules are altered by the type of script used for creating texts. For example, one script may require the use of no vowels, while another requires the use of vowels. When writing in cursive, letters may take on three different forms in order to connect letters to each other within words. These distinctions in calligraphy have helped it to develop religious, cultural, and artistic significance beyond everyday handwriting.
Over the centuries, there have been many different styles of Arabic calligraphy – as many as seven distinct styles. Over the centuries, these styles were developed by holy men whom wanted to copy the Koran and spread it throughout the Middle East. Each calligrapher developed their own personal style and they became masters of those special techniques. Today, these styles and techniques are used by Persian calligraphers across the world. They are now formal scripts taught to students of Arabic over a course of a four to six year course, also called an apprenticeship.
Certain calligraphy script styles have specific purposes. For example, one type may be used to write the Koran, while another is used for court documents. Yet other styles are used for birth certificates and still others for decorative papyrus artworks. Small scripts were created to send messages by pidgeon, whereas large scripts might have been created for architectural inscriptions.
The Middle East – Home of Calligraphy
Persian calligraphy includes all calligraphy using Arabic writing. It was first developed in Persia, which includes modern day Iraq and Iran. This type of writing spread to holy men from different areas of the Arab world, including the northern half of Africa to Turkey and Turkey to the western border of India.
In this area of the world, there is a lack of wood. To make fires, people use coal. Coal ash that is cleared away after using is what is used to write calligraphy. This ash is mixed with a little bit of water and dissolved gum to create ink. This ink remains black for centuries. In fact, this is the mixture used to write the original Koran that is still on display and legible today.
Calligraphy and be written on many different mediums, including: paper, parchment, textiles, metal, ceramic, wood, stone, glass, ivory, leather, walls, papyrus and more. Arabic calligraphy is carved into stone and place on the exterior of Middle Eastern mosques. Many times, marble or granite buildings that were built by Mohammad Ali in Egypt are ornately decorated with calligraphy. Inside of these mosques are ceilings, pillars and walls covered in the verses of the Koran. While it is used heavily in Islamic architecture and design, it is also used to write Koranic verses, Hadiths about the prophet Muhammad, poetry, proverbs, royal decrees, court documents, stories, and salutations.
Beyond their obvious beauty, Arabic letters, when arranged into words, communicate a deep and enduring message. Those who are able to read Arabic script can learn to read Persian calligraphy, though it may take several years to easily spot the original message. The trick to learning how to read this script is to identify the first words of the text. After that, the meaning often becomes apparent and the verse is revealed.
Learning to Read and Write Arabic Calligraphy
Arabic is read from the upper right hand corner of the page and is read backwards, but not inverse, of texts that use the Latin alphabet. Calligraphy is different. Works of art that have a teardrop or circular shape usually have the first word of the passage near the lower right hand “corner” of the piece. The words will always be read from right to left. Very few of these works of art begin at the upper right hand corner.
Most students begin learning to read Arabic at about five years old. Parents choose whether to educate their children and schools that use the Arabic or the Latin alphabets. Once a style is chosen, students are not allowed to switch. Therefore, many students that went to foreign language schools struggle with reading Arabic. These students are often given additional instruction on Arabic reading and writing by their parents.
When letters within a work of art are interwoven, there is no clear area to begin reading. Letters that normally are written to sit on a line, or a horizon line, are written askew and adorned with decorative dots or curved lines. Letters that should be in sequence are connected because the writing is, in fact, written in cursive. However, sequential letters in words are often written above or below each other. Follow the lines of the letters to identify the first word in the piece. Once the first word is read, it is easier to decipher the remaining text using the same methods.
Look for common words, such as Alah. Most calligraphy seen on tours of the Middle East contains Koranic versus that are repeated over and over throughout the region. One of these phrases is, “Alah un akhbar,” which means “God is bigger” or “God is great.” Another common phrase used in Bismillah creations is “Bas maleh al rahman al raheem,” which means “In the name of God, most gracious, most compassionate.” After a few letters have been identified, the remaining passage becomes immediately clear.
When it comes to learning to read Persian calligraphy, patience is key. It often takes years of hard work to learn how to read in Arabic calligraphy, especially if this is not the native alphabet of the learner. Even without the benefit of literacy in Arabic, it is still quite beautiful to admire and mysterious in its form.
It is thought that Persian script was first used around 500-600 B.C. The alphabet was first used to carve the names and dedications on the statues of Achaemenid kings. The first Arabic alphabet was developed using vertical, horizontal and diagonal letters that looked more like hieroglyphs than modern day Arabic. Admittedly, these shapes were easy to chisel into granite.
At that time, the Latin alphabet was brought to the area and used by Roman invaders looking to expand the empire. Only the richest elites were able to read, and most of those men were holy men or their king’s most valued employees. The Persians, who were predominantly Jewish and Arab, developed a new alphabet to serve their own people well. Though rough, it was functional. Though a lot of carving contains Arabic letters, the first texts were written with a quill on animal skin “paper.”
Reading and writing became much more widespread as the Jewish and Christian faiths spread. In the seventh century, the Islamic religion was born, and the Koran was written in this alphabet. The Koran, when written in Saudi Arabic, is word for word identical to the original document.
After Islam was born, Persians adopted the Arabic alphabet as their own, eventually modifying the original 28 letter alphabet to 32 letters in order to fit the needs of their language, which was and still is Farsi.
Arabic calligraphy is an artform with a very functional purpose. Though learning to read, speak and write in Arabic is difficult and time consuming, this knowledge opens up a world of knowledge. Begin learning today and enjoy the benefits for a lifetime.