Calligrapher Families of Tabriz

Calligrapher Families of Tabriz (8th/14th–10th/16th centuries) [DYNTRAN WORKING PAPER 9, February 2016]


Calligraphers enjoyed enormous prestige in the medieval and early modern Middle East. In Iran and adjacent lands where Persian flourished artistic traditions of writing the language matured between the 8th/14th and 10th/16th centuries (Blair 2006: 241–315, 417–38). Calligraphy in Persian derived from Arabic writing styles and belongs to a broader framework of arts and crafts which can be labeled Islamic as the alphabet of the Quranic language had already been adopted earlier.

Art historians have a wide range of sources at their disposal to study the formative era of Persian calligraphy and the development of its peculiar scripts most notably nastaʿlīq. Two well-known secondary sources that were composed in the decades after the Safavids seized power in Iran in 906/1501 make a claim regarding this script which is not corroborated by first-hand evidence though. Both sources attribute its invention to a calligrapher from Tabriz who served one of the Turco-Mongol dynasties that preceded the illustrious early modern shahs. There are good reasons to reject the idea that a given script was actually invented by an individual calligrapher. But these secondary sources supplement the fragmentary first-hand evidence in important respects. For instance they offer an insider perspective on the art of writing in Iran and neighboring lands which cannot be dismissed altogether. Furthermore both give valuable information especially about the transmission of relevant skills within families of master scribes and calligraphers.

The two well-known secondary sources are specifically concerned with the arts of the book. One is the preface which the famous scribe Dūst Muḥammad wrote to an album of the Safavid prince Bahrām Mīrzā in 951/1544. The other is a work of the historian Qāḍī Aḥmad Qumī entitled Gulistān-i hunar and completed in 1005/1596–97. Both record the rather enigmatic Mīr ʿAlī Tabrīzī as inventor of nastaʿlīq and cover other calligraphers of the city as well. However as in most art historical scholarship their geographical focus lies elsewhere. Although Tabriz was undoubtedly a major center of artistic production during the era under consideration many of its calligraphers are hardly known compared with those of Herat and Shiraz in particular.

Map – Calligraphy cities of Iran and neighboring lands in the Mongol and post-Mongol periods

A work that has been little studied in general but serves as main source for this post informs in relatively great detail about calligraphers of Tabriz and sometimes also about their families. Unlike Dūst Muḥammad and Qāḍī Aḥmad the author is not primarily concerned with the arts at all but with the Sufi milieus of his native city. The source in question is a pilgrimage guide to the cemeteries of Tabriz and surrounding villages written by a local Sufi known as Ibn Karbalāʾī and completed in 975/1567.

Despite their different thematic and geographical focus all three authors envisioned calligraphy and its history in a very similar way. Chronologically the pilgrimage guide of Ibn Karbalāʾī falls between the works of Dūst Muḥammad and Qāḍī Aḥmad and in many cases the three sources either agree more or less completely or supplement each other extremely well. Curiously however Ibn Karbalāʾī makes no mention whatsoever of Mīr ʿAlī Tabrīzī, the supposed inventor of nastaʿlīq. This is all the more surprising as the author would normally not fail to stress the glory of his native city and its inhabitants.

The following overview of calligrapher families of Tabriz from the 8th/14th through the 10th/16th centuries can only make a basic attempt to explain the striking absence of a figure as emblematic as Mīr ʿAlī from Ibn Karbalāʾī’s work. It will rather focus on calligrapher families whose members belonged to a continuous chain of transmission of artistic writing skills at Tabriz. Many of them were highly renowned masters of the pen far beyond too.

In general Ibn Karbalāʾī shared with Dūst Muḥammad and Qāḍī Aḥmad a common vision of calligraphy and its history. According to this vision, distinct styles of writing Arabic and Persian in various scripts were transmitted from teacher to student as in other domains of knowledge and professional enterprise especially the religious sciences including Sufism. This was not a mere idealization but must have actually happened a lot. Moreover in the case of calligraphy all three authors linked themselves personally to the same great and living tradition just with slightly different points and channels of connection. Ibn Karbalāʾī omits Mīr ʿAlī Tabrīzī from his pilgrimage guide. Yet the local chain of transmission of calligraphic expertise and excellence to which he was linked intersects of course with the one that the other two authors made emanate from the supposed inventor of nastaʿlīq.

Copy of Niẓāmī’s Khusraw wa Shīrīn signed by Mīr ʿAlī Tabrīzī

This post will introduce the calligrapher families of Tabriz that represent the chain connecting Ibn Karbalāʾī to the tradition of fine writing in Iran and adjacent lands. Doing so here is more a local history than an art history discussion but will hopefully stimulate research in the latter field too. Before turning to those families of calligraphers a few additional remarks about their historical working conditions are in order however.

Calligraphers were not only active in cities as such but often also in courtly settings associated with urban centers like Tabriz, Herat or Shiraz. Sometimes they would move from one city or court to another for reasons which are not always clear but mostly related to politics. The profession of calligraphy itself bore tremendous political significance and many prominent practitioners served as scribes in royal or princely chancelleries and workshops – Dūst Muḥammad is a good example for this. They penned official decrees and correspondence and helped produce precious copies of the Quran or of literary masterpieces like the Shāhnāma. Examples of these have survived providing parts of the first-hand evidence on the history of the art of writing. Court calligraphers could also display their skills through inscriptions on monuments erected by various dynasts and this was especially important in Tabriz. Unfortunately most buildings for which the city was famous in medieval and early modern times have either disappeared or are in a bad state of preservation but the secondary sources report some relevant pieces of information.

The three 10th/16th-century authors were certainly aware that masters of the writing pen usually worked in teams together with other artists on such large-scale projects. But they rather treat calligraphy and its history as an affair of individuals and highlight one person in particular as the towering figure in the period just before the era under consideration. Yāqūt al-Mustaʿṣimī (d. ca. 698/1298) was a slave of the last ʿAbbāsid Caliph who entered the service of the Mongols after the capture of Baghdad in 656/1258. Contrary to widespread assumptions the city did not fall into ruin under the non-Muslim conquerors and remained a major center of artistic production.

Yāqūt is credited with the definite canonization of a set of standard scripts known collectively as the Six Pens. Among the most widely used of these was naskh out of which nastaʿlīq developed as one of the so-called hanging scripts during subsequent centuries. The former continued to be heavily employed to copy works in prose whereas the latter became the script in which much of Persian poetry would be written. According to the secondary sources, Yāqūt had six outstanding students and Ibn Karbalāʾī describes the tomb of one of them in Tabriz who was named Naṣr Allāh Ṭabīb (Ibn Karbalāʾī, 1:270; Dūst Muḥammad, 7–8; Qumī, 19–22, transl. 57–61). There is little information on his career but moving to Tabriz offered unique opportunities as Mongol rule consolidated. It was the urban center most closely associated with the court of the Ilkhanid dynasty and gradually eclipsed Baghdad as principal city of the extended Iranian plateau area. Above all Tabriz hosted the mausoleum of the Ilkhan Ghazan (d. 704/1304) who adopted Islam upon ascending the throne in 694/1295 and secured the eventual conversion of his Mongol dynasty.

3 - Sayrafi Quran
Quran folio signed by ʿAbd Allāh Ṣayrafī,  CBL Is 1468, f.46a. See © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. Redistribution and reproduction on other terms, in any medium will require approval from the Library.


The next towering figure in the history of calligraphy was a native of Tabriz. ʿAbd Allāh Ṣayrafī was the most influential calligrapher of his time and stands at the beginning of the line to which most prominent masters in Iran reportedly claimed adherence in the following centuries. Dūst Muḥammad and Ibn Karbalāʾī also linked themselves explicitly to chains of transmission of writing skills traced back through Ṣayrafī (Ibn Karbalāʾī, 1:175, 369–71; Dūst Muḥammad, 8, 12–3; Qumī, 24, transl. 62–3). The master of Tabriz was the son of a money changer, earned fame for his copies of the Quran and also participated in the great Mongol Shāhnāma project patronized by the Ilkhanid court in the early 8th/14th century. ʿAbd Allāh Ṣayrafī was a second generation student of Yāqūt but not through Naṣr Allāh Ṭabīb. His teacher is somewhat better known, was nicknamed the majuscule writer (gundah-niwīs) and reputed for having refined the writing styles and techniques which were particularly suited for monumental inscriptions.

In Tabriz but also for Qāḍī Aḥmad who had visited the city Ṣayrafī’s calligraphy was indeed less remembered in connection with books in royal libraries but remained locally present on architectural monuments he decorated. He made the inscriptions on a mausoleum which is not extant anymore and dates from the time when the Mongol dynasty of Iran still existed and on a mosque which may have served as a burial place too and is still standing albeit not in its original form. Both buildings were erected by the Chupanids, a family of Mongol military aristocrats that turned into the first serious successor dynasty of the Ilkhans at Tabriz. The Jalayirid rivals of the Chupanids initially established themselves at Baghdad. Members of these two dynasties also vied for control over Shiraz with post-Ilkhanid local and regional ruling houses based in southern Iran.

The mosque in Tabriz which Ṣayrafī embellished with his calligraphy was patronized by the Chupanid ruler who had secured possession of the city during the succession struggle that followed the death of the last Ilkhan in 736/1335. It was built in 742/1342 but a year later its patron was killed by his wife and his dynasty soon replaced by the Jalayirids who were likewise a family of former military aristocrats under the Mongol Ilkhans. As for ʿAbd Allāh Ṣayrafī, he also made the tomb inscription of a renowned philosopher and physician in the year this famous mosque was built but probably passed away around that time as he left its decoration unfinished. It was completed by his most notable pupil and consequently the building became known as master-and-disciple (ustād-shāgird).

Ṣayrafī’s most notable pupil was named Muḥammad Bandgīr and is the next link in this key line of master calligraphers. Ibn Karbalāʾī reports that they were buried together in the same tomb in Tabriz but says nothing about a family relation between the teacher and the student. Qāḍī Aḥmad who calls the pupil Banddūz and Dūst Muḥammad indicate a family relation but disagree about its nature; the former introduces the disciple as a son of the master while the latter notes that Muḥammad Bandgīr was a maternal nephew of ʿAbd Allāh Ṣayrafī. The second option appears as somewhat more plausible given that the local author is silent on the issue. But while Dūst Muḥammad merely names Bandgīr in this chain of calligraphers Qāḍī Aḥmad and Ibn Karbalāʾī single out another much less famous building in Tabriz which bore inscriptions made by the celebrated disciple.

Copy of the Dīwān of Sulṭān Aḥmad Jalāyir attributed to Mīr ʿAlī Tabrīzī

Muḥammad Bandgīr also trained students in calligraphy but the next link in this chain of transmission, a certain Saʿd al-Dīn Tabrīzī, is only known by name; he is not even mentioned in Qāḍī Aḥmad’s treatise. Bandgīr was still alive in 788/1386 when the Central Asian conqueror Timur (d. 807/1405) first came to Tabriz. The Jalayirids had to abandon the city and were then also temporarily ousted from Baghdad while the Timurids eliminated the local rulers of southern Iran and took over Shiraz on a more stable basis. In all likelihood the transformation of naskh into nastaʿlīq and the association of the script with Persian poetry took place in this period in circles of scribes and calligraphers working in these three urban centers and for the courts based there. Mīr ʿAlī Tabrīzī was probably more active in Jalayirid Baghdad and also not buried in his native city which might explain why Ibn Karbalāʾī did not cover this emblematic figure. According to the other two authors, the supposed inventor of nastaʿlīq taught the art of writing in this script to his son (Dūst Muḥammad, 9–10; Qumī, 57–8, transl. 100–1). The son of Mīr ʿAlī in turn transmitted it to a notable calligrapher of Tabriz who also appears in the local line of masters after Muḥammad Bandgīr and Saʿd al-Dīn.

This man was named Farīd al-Dīn Jaʿfar Tabrīzī and considered a second generation student of Saʿd al-Dīn Tabrīzī in the standard scripts. Jaʿfar left the city in the early 9th/15th century and joined the newly flourishing Timurid court at Herat apparently taking one of his local master students with him. These two and their sons had great influence on the subsequent development of calligraphy in eastern Iran. The chain of transmission in Tabriz continued along another line that also stemmed from Jaʿfar’s teacher in the Six Pens, a direct student of Saʿd al-Dīn or even of Bandgīr (Dūst Muḥammad, 8; Qumī, 24–5, transl. 63–4; Ibn Karbalāʾī, 1:83–7, 370–1). His full name was Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Qaṭṭābī Mashriqī Tabrīzī and he did not only instruct the extremely famous Farīd al-Dīn Jaʿfar but also passed on the art of writing to members of his own family.

Album folio signed by Aẓhar Tabrīzī (student of Farīd al-Dīn Jaʿfar, active in Herat)

Other eminent students of Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad were his two sons. They all had intimate ties to the Sufi milieus of Tabriz so there was obviously no reason to move away from their native city. Some prominent local Sufis and other notables may have sided with the Timurids at times but in general the leaders of Tabriz and their families rather supported the dynasties based in western Iran. These were first the Jalayirids and then especially the Turkmen Qara Qoyunlu who succeeded them as rulers of Tabriz in 813/1411. The Qara Qoyunlu had expelled the Timurids three years earlier and withstood three invasions from the east later. It is possible that as master calligraphers Shams al-Dīn and his sons served all three of those ruling houses around the turn of the century. Yet available information presents them much more as Sufis and offers no concrete hints to their involvement in politics.

Qāḍī Aḥmad just names Shams al-Dīn and his sons while Dūst Muḥammad mentions only the father adding that Mashriqī Tabrīzī signed his sample pieces Shams-i Ṣūfī. The local Sufi author Ibn Karbalāʾī who claimed a line of writing teachers that included the father and one of the sons reports in some detail about both and about the second son. In Sufism Shams al-Dīn was a disciple of an eminent master of Tabriz who also enjoyed a reputation as a Persian poet well beyond the confines of their native city. The calligrapher died in 812/1410 in Aleppo returning from the pilgrimage to Mecca and the elder of his two sons named ʿAbd al-Ḥayy took over the craft of artistic writing from Shams al-Dīn. His younger son named ʿAbd al-Raḥīm and known as Khalwatī originally dropped calligraphy for Sufism.

ʿAbd al-Ḥayy was a great master of the pen but apparently lacked proper manners. For instance, Shams al-Dīn’s elder son allegedly passed off writings of his own for pieces penned by Yāqūt which would have caused his premature death in 825/1422. This forced ʿAbd al-Ḥayy’s younger brother ʿAbd al-Raḥīm to take on the art of writing again without renouncing Sufism though. He was a disciple of the same master as his father, well acquainted with others based elsewhere too and authored a couple of Sufi treatises and commentaries. Ibn Karbalāʾī gives their titles and repeatedly cites works in Khalwatī’s handwriting as reference for reports about various local saintly persons. Calligraphy proper likewise continued to flourish in Tabriz with ʿAbd al-Raḥīm who transmitted the art to several students before he died in Muḥarram 859/December 1454–January 1455.

While the question must remain open for ʿAbd al-Raḥīm Khalwatī one of his students was definitely employed in Qara Qoyunlu court service. Niʿmat Allāh b. Muḥammad Bawwāb seems to have been in charge of the calligraphic decoration of a royal mosque-mausoleum building. It belonged to a complex endowed by the wife of the most successful ruler of the dynasty (Werner 2003, Aube 2011). Jahānshāh (d. 872/1467) expanded his dominions at the expense of the Timurids and essentially recreated the realm of Ilkhanid Iran which the Aq Qoyunlu and later the Safavids would initially inherit by taking possession of Tabriz. Today the building is known as the Blue Mosque (masjid-i kabūd) and the best preserved pre-modern architectural monument in the city. Art historians have particular admiration for its tilework but calligraphy was an equally important feature. Niʿmat Allāh signed an inscription on the portal of the royal mausoleum-mosque on 4 Rabīʿ I 870/25 October 1465 when construction works were probably still underway.

6 - Bawwab signature
Inscription on the portal of the Blue Mosque with signature of Niʿmat Allāh b. Muḥammad Bawwāb, courtesy of Sandra Aube.

Inscription on the portal of the Blue Mosque with signature of Niʿmat Allāh b. Muḥammad Bawwāb.

Qāḍī Aḥmad notes Bawwāb as the master who decorated the building and Ibn Karbalāʾī provides additional details about the Qara Qoyunlu court calligrapher (Qumī, 28, transl. 67; Ibn Karbalāʾī, 1:370, 469, 524, 598). For example he made or perhaps rather renewed the tomb inscription of an eminent notable of Tabriz who had died more than a hundred years earlier. Biographical information about Niʿmat Allāh seems to be largely lacking but his calligraphy teacher was a renowned Sufi. Thus the fact that he himself was buried in a village near Tabriz might indicate a similarly strong integration into these milieus. Sufis and Sufi families based in the rural hinterland had long been very active and some had achieved great prominence by the 9th/15th century.

In calligraphy Niʿmat Allāh had one student whose extended family represents the ongoing local transmission of the art of writing into the 10th/16th century. This family accompanied the consolidation of Safavid rule and also illustrates the close connections between the Sufis and the calligraphers of Tabriz once more. Niʿmat Allāh’s student was named Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Khaṭṭāṭ and in fact his ties to the Sufi milieus of the city and surrounding villages might even be better attested than his calligraphy career (Qumī, 28, transl. 67; Ibn Karbalāʾī, 1:122–5, 370). Matrimonial ties and master-disciple relationships linked this Shams al-Dīn to members of two outstanding village Sufi families of Tabriz that had already been connected to each other in such ways before. One of these families had also produced several influential men of politics and one of their members played a decisive role in the takeover of power by the Safavids. It is likely that Niʿmat Allāh’s student and his calligrapher relatives joined in the support for the new rulers of Iran.

Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Khaṭṭāṭ died in 930/1524 the same year as Shāh Ismāʿīl, the first Safavid on the throne at Tabriz. He had instructed his son Qāsim in the art of writing who also earned some renown as a poet under the pen name ʿIshqī. The Safavid prince Sām Mīrzā, a son of Ismāʿīl and like his above-mentioned half-brother Bahrām Mīrzā a patron and practitioner of arts compiled a collection of short biographies of men of letters. He devoted an entry to ʿIshqī Tabrīzī, recorded him as a poet but added that he was also a good scribe (Sām Mīrzā, 259). By this period nastaʿlīq was already in common use while the older standard scripts had not disappeared. However the actual line of calligraphers did not continue through the son but through another student and relative of Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Khaṭṭāṭ. This man was knowns as ʿAlī Beg Tabrīzī, a maternal grandson of his teacher and like his grandfather and several other preceding masters of the pen in Tabriz he maintained intimate ties to eminent local Sufis.

It is with none other than ʿAlī Beg that Ibn Karbalāʾī studied writing a little thereby linking himself to this great chain of calligraphers of Tabriz. The author of the local pilgrimage guide informs us that ʿAlī Beg died in 957/1550 and that he was buried in the tomb complex of his paternal grandfather. Unlike Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Khaṭṭāṭ, this grandfather of ʿAlī Beg had no reputation for calligraphy and was more exclusively concerned with religious matters like Sufism. But the great chain of local calligraphers also went on through ʿAlī Beg Tabrīzī who did not only teach Ibn Karbalāʾī. A far more famous student of ʿAlī Beg was his maternal nephew ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Muḥammad known as ʿAlāʾ Beg Tabrīzī who is introduced by Ibn Karbalāʾī as the leader of calligraphers of his time.

Qāḍī Aḥmad mentions ʿAlī Beg and ʿAlāʾ Beg in his treatise on the arts of the book but does not recognize their family relations and their local line of calligraphy teachers. Moreover his account creates confusion about the name and precise identity of these renowned calligraphers especially ʿAlī Beg; other contemporary and later sources from Iran but also from neighboring lands even increase this confusion (Qumī, 38, 40, transl. 79–80; Huart, 103–4). But Qāḍī Aḥmad also gives valuable information reporting that ʿAlāʾ Beg made inscriptions on several mosques and other buildings in Tabriz. The author further remarks that he personally met the calligrapher during a visit to the city in 988/1580–81 when ʿAlāʾ Beg had probably already reached an advanced age. As for Ibn Karbalāʾī, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca in the same year as Qāḍī Aḥmad visited Tabriz and decided to finally leave his native city and settle in Ottoman Damascus. In contrast to the calligraphers, Ibn Karbalāʾī and his Sufi companions came under heavy pressure from the new Safavid rulers presumably for political as well as religious reasons.

Copy of a poem by Jāmī signed by ʿAlī Riḍā ʿAbbāsī (Tabrīzī, student of ʿAlāʾ Beg)

In the course of the 10th/16th century Tabriz was repeatedly occupied by the Ottomans and the Safavids gradually moved away from the city basing the central court at Qazvin and then Isfahan. Qāḍī Aḥmad names two local master students of ʿAlāʾ Beg Tabrīzī who followed the court taking up residence and mainly working in these cities (Qumī, 40, 124–5, transl. 81–2, 171–2). Like many of their predecessors from Tabriz they seem to have been specialized in monumental inscriptions but of course they mastered nastaʿlīq too. The author covers one of them in the section on nastaʿlīq and in that on the older standard scripts. It fits perfectly well with the general vision of calligraphy and its history adopted by the secondary sources to designate this celebrated student of ʿAlāʾ Beg as the second Ṣayrafī and the second Mīr ʿAlī. But though certainly not intended in this case these designations could also imply an allusion to his pedigree of calligraphers from Tabriz many of whom had a tremendous impact on the history of writing Persian in particular. The foregoing overview of local calligrapher families from the 8th/14th through the 10th/16th centuries will hopefully serve as helpful contribution to further elucidate both artistic and non-artistic dimensions of this history.

Daniel Zakrzewski (Marburg)

Works cited

Aube, Sandra “Tabriz x. Monuments x(1). The Blue Mosque“, EIr, online edition 2011

Blair, Sheila S. Islamic Calligraphy, Edinburgh 2006.

Dūst Muḥammad Dībāchah-i muraqqaʿ-i Bahrām Mīrzā, ed. and transl. Wheeler. M. Thackston, Album prefaces and other documents on the history of calligraphers and painters, Leiden 2001, pp. 4–17.

Huart, Clément Les calligraphes et miniaturists de l’orient musulman, Paris 1908.

Ibn Karbalāʾī/Ḥāfiẓ Ḥusayn Karbalāʾī Tabrīzī Rawḍāt al-jinān wa jannāt al-janān, ed. Jaʿfar Sulṭān al-Qurrāʾī, Tehran 1344–49sh/1965–70.

Sām Mīrzā Ṣafawi Tadhkirah-i Tuḥfah-i Sāmī, ed. Rukn al-Dīn Humāyūn Farrukh, Tehran 1384/2005.

Qumī, Qāḍī Aḥmad Gulistān-i hunar, ed. Aḥmad Suhaylī Khwānsārī, Tehran 1352sh/1973; transl. T. and V. Minorsky Calligraphers and Painters, Washington DC 1959.

Werner, Cristoph “Ein Vaqf für meine Töchter. Ḥātūn Ǧān Bēgum und die Qarā Quyūnlū Stiftungen zur ‚Blauen Moschee‘ in Tabriz”, Der Islam, 80 (2003), pp. 94–109.


Quran folio signed by ʿAbd Allāh Ṣayrafī dated Muḥarram 728/November–December 1327, CBL Is 1468, f.46a.

Inscription on the portal of the Blue Mosque with signature of Niʿmat Allāh b. Muḥammad Bawwāb, courtesy of Sandra Aube.

References of the remaining images can be obtained via the respective links on the pages of the exhibition Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy presented by the Freer|Sackler Galleries. I would like thank Massumeh Farhad and Betsy Kohut for their support and the permission to link the selected images.

To quote this publication:

Zakrzewski, Daniel, “Calligrapher Families of Tabriz (8th/14th–10th/16th centuries)”, DYNTRAN Working Papers, n° 9, online edition, February 2016, available at:

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