Calligraphy Qalam: An Introduction to Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Calligraphy

CalligraphyQalam.com uses interactive tools to interest new audiences in the traditional art forms of Arabic, Ottoman and Persian calligraphy.

This calligraphic panel executed in black and red on a white ground decorated in gold contains a number of prayers directed to God, the Prophet Muhammad, and his son-in-law 'Ali. The letters of the larger words are executed in nasta'liq script and filled with various decorative motifs, animals, and human figures. The human figures standing side-by-side in the central horizontal letter represent the eleven Shi'i imams and (a kneeling) Imam ‘Ali, holding his double-edged sword Dhu al-Fiqar.

This decorative style of script, filled with various motifs, is called gulzar, which literally means "rose garden" or "full of flowers." It is usually applied to the interior of inscriptions executed in nasta'liq such as this one. The gulzar script was popular in Iran during the late 18th and 19th centuries. This piece -- written by the callligrapher Husayn Zarrin Qalam ("Husayn of the Golden Pen") for Husayn Khan Sultan in 1797-1798 -- dates to the early period of Qajar rule in Iran.

All around the larger letters composed in the nasta'liq style and filled with motifs appear smaller Shi'i prayers purposefully executed in a number of different scripts. These include thuluth, naskh, nasta'liq, shikaste, tawqi', and Kufic. One inscription is even written in reverse, as if executed with the help of a mirror. The sheer variety of these scripts, along with the larger central gulzar composition, was intended to showcase Husayn Zarrin Qalam's mastery of all the major calligraphic scripts.

Calligrapher: Husayn Zarrin Qalam. Iran. 1797-1798 A.D. 34.5 x 21 cm. Gulzar script. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division.

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