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Zoomorphic Calligraphy (activity)

Calligraphic Lion

Calligraphic Lion, 1913, by Ahmed Hilmi, Ottoman Turkey, Brownish cream card, written in sulus script, the tongue red and tip of the tail yellow, The Khalili Collection. *Please note that the image has been altered from the original (outline only).


Students will create a zoomorphic drawing composed of an adjective that describes the animal.

45 minutes
Keyword Results: 

Turkish calligraphers were masters of transforming words and phrases into the shapes of animals. Artists achieved these effects by elongating, wrapping, and rotating letters to create the contour (outline) as well as details of the animal. Favorite animal shapes include the lion, peacock, and stork. They also created calligraphic compositions in the form of fruit, plants, and architecture. These objects hold religious meaning and were often composed of Islamic sayings.

Materials: Photo of a favorite animal, color pencils, pencils, black marker, white paper, and scratch paper.


  1. As a class, look together at the calligraphic lion in the above photo. The word “Allah” has been highlighted to show how the artists cleverly incorporated the letters in the lion’s face.
  2. Describe to students the significance of certain animals in Ottoman and Islamic art. For example, Ali is often represented as the lion. This is because his surname means “Lion of God.” Another animal commonly depicted in Ottoman art was the stork, which was associated with virtue and piety. Ask the students to name a few animals and the traits they associate with them.
  3. Have students find a picture in a magazine or from the internet of a favorite animal.
  4. Lightly sketch the contour of the animal on white paper. Make the image large.
  5. On a piece of scratch paper write a word that describes the animal. Examples: ferocious, cuddly, or gigantic.
  6. Have students look carefully at their contour sketch. Arrange and lightly sketch the letters inside the image. Feel free to experiment with the shape of the letters. They can be placed upside down, or incorporated into the contour itself. “Widen” the lines of the letters. Students may want them to look like bubble, block, or stylized letters.
  7. Color in the letters and outline them with a black marker.