The variety of supports used to write Islamic manuscripts inspired the name of this blog. The majority of Islamic books and documents were written on papyrus, parchment and paper. Early writings can also be found on buildings, coins, animal bones, wood as well as textiles, however for the purposes of this post let’s stick to the three most common.
Papyrus was produced using the pith or fiber from the papyrus plant. The stalk of the plant is cut into strips and placed side-by-side with layers of strips running perpendicular to one another. Once all the strips were compiled together the stack was hammer or mashed together allowing the fibers to knit with one another. The sheets were then pressed, dried and later cut into sheets, glued together into scrolls or grouped into gatherings forming a codex. The majority of papyrus was produced in Egypt, however there were some factories in Sicily and Iraq (Avrin p.262).
In mid-tenth century the use of papyrus began to decrease as paper became more common. Papyrus still had a presence occasionally in the form of pasteboards for bindings or as endpapers, but paper came into common use by the eleventh Century. The process of making paper began in China and the technology slowly made it’s way West over time. While Chinese papers were commonly made from fibers of mulberry bark, Arabic papermakers
used linen, hemp and flax to create their pulp (Deroche, 2006). In general the papermaking process is as follows: the fiber is soaked and literally beat to a pulp, the pulp is placed in a bath of water, a papermaker uses a mold to create a sheet, the sheet is removed from the mold, pressed and dried. For an extensive description and video of the process be sure to visit the Awagami Factory website.
Parchment plays an interesting role in the manuscript tradition. It was more expensive to produce than papyrus and paper and in general was reserved for religious texts in the Arab world. The majority of Arabic parchment came from goat and sheep skin, but other skins were used. The production of parchment is well documented and specifics can be found in the Medieval Manuscripts Manuel, but in general skins were soaked in a lime solution for several days, the hair removed and the skin stretched taught on a frame, scraped again while still wet and then the tension increased and the skin is left to dry. As you can imagine this process was physical, smelly and relatively slow.
Wondering how all those pages become a book? Read this post about Islamic bookbindings.
Links to send you down the papyrus, parchment and paper rabbit hole (you’re welcome!):
- University of Michigan Library Papyrology Collection
- Dirty Jobs – Vellum Making
- Chester Beatty Conservation Blog
- Islamic Heritage Project