Persian calligraphy wins UNESCO protected status

December 17, 2021 - 18:17

TEHRAN – Persian calligraphy, a symbol of hope and dignity for the predecessors of one of the world’s first civilizations, has been awarded protected status by UNESCO.

Iran’s national program to safeguard the traditional art of calligraphy added to UNESCO’s prestigious list of good safeguarding practices on Thursday.

It was honored during the UN body’s 16th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage being virtually held from December 13 to 18.

After the Islamic conquest of Persia, Iranians adopted the Perso-Arabic script and the art of Persian calligraphy flourished in Iran alongside other Islamic countries. The program is aimed to expand informal and formal public training in calligraphy, publish books and pamphlets, hold art exhibitions, and develop academic curricula while promoting appropriate use of the calligraphic tradition in line with modern living conditions.

According to UNESCO, the tradition of calligraphy has always been associated with the act of writing in Iran, and even when the writers had limited literacy, calligraphy and writing were still intricately linked. But with the advent of printing and the emergence of computer programs and digital fonts, this art gradually declined and the emphasis on pure readability replaced the observance of both readability and aesthetics.

It resulted in a decline in the appreciation of calligraphy among the new generations. The safeguarding of the Iranian calligraphic tradition thus became a major concern in the 1980s, and a national program was developed for this purpose by non-governmental organizations in collaboration with the government.

Some of the work on this program was started by the Iranian Calligraphers Association before the 1980s, and given its immense popularity, the public sector turned it into a national program by redefining and coordinating it on a large scale based on the experiences of the public and private sectors.

Persian calligraphy has long been one of the most revered arts throughout the history of Iran and other Persian-speaking communities.


The Persian word for calligraphy is "khoshnevisi" and a calligrapher is known as "khoshnevis". Calligraphy is also synonymous with khat (literally, line or script) and khat neveshtan (writing script).

After the Islamic conquest of Persia, Iranians adopted the Perso-Arabic script and the art of Persian calligraphy flourished in Iran alongside other Islamic countries.

In the 19th century, the visual potentials of Nasta'ligh script were further explored by creating pieces known as Siyah Mashgh. Siyah Mashgh (literally, black practice) was originally a repetitive exercise of writing words and letters over and over again to rehearse and get ready for inscribing a new calligraphic text. When calligraphers realized the visual power of these pieces, Siyah Mashgh was developed into a new style. Words and letters are repeated numerously despite their meaning as they form a framework of complex compositions and styles where the typographic qualities of letters are displayed.

Mir Emad Hassani (1554 -1615) known to orientalists as Mir Emad is perhaps the most celebrated Persian calligrapher. It is believed that the Nasta'ligh style reached its highest elegance in Mir Emad's works. Other notable figures include Mirza Asadollah Shirazi, Mirza Gholamreza Esfehani and Mirza Mohammadreza Kalhor of the Qajar Period.

Iranian women calligraphers have also contributed to the history of Persian calligraphy, particularly Mir Emad's daughter Goharshad who was trained by her father. Many women in the Qajar courts were experts in the art of calligraphy, including Fakhrodolleh (Touran Aghaa) who was a Qajar princess and the daughter of Nasereddin Shah. Many of these princesses have also inscribed copies of the Holy Quran.

Computerized calligraphy is also a relatively new trend. The "IranNastaliq" font can be installed on Microsoft Word.

Calligraphic prints on fabric, particularly T-shirts are currently a popular trend.

The post-Islamic Iranian architecture is rich with surfaces that are harmoniously decorated with glazed tiles, carved stucco, patterned brickwork, floral motifs, and calligraphy. Scripts in various patterns and colors are used in the tilework of Iranian architecture. 

In Iran, people of different age groups (from 7 to 70 plus years) and from different walks of life attend calligraphy courses.

 It is estimated that about 80 percent of the students who sign up for calligraphy courses are women, perhaps because women comparatively have more free time for artistic dedication. Moreover, calligraphy has always been referred to as honar-e ghodsi va ma'navi (literally, sacred and spiritual art) and has hormat (literally, reverence) in public eyes.


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