Paper was invented in China around 105 BCE by a character named Ts’ai Lung, a court official according to Adam Gacek, and was known to the Arabs during the military campaign near the river Talas. After the battle of Aṭlakh (now Kazakhstan) in 751, some of the prisoners taken were papermakers, and as a result the firs paper mill was established in Samarkand. It was trough the movement of the Arab troops and their conquests when paper was brought to the Middle East and Europe. The earliest book we have notice from was written in Arabic ca. 866-867, and it is an incomplete version of Abū ‘Ubayd’s work (d. 837) on the Hadith. From some time, the oldest Islamic manuscript was thought to be the Kitāb Ṣuwar al-kawākib al-thābitah or Book of the Constellations of the Fixed Stars by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Ṣūfī, dated according to the colophon ca. 1009-1010, but it is likely to have been made at least 150 years later, for the treasury of Sayf al-Dīn Ghāzī II, Zangid Emir of Mosul, a city in northern Iraq.
|Or. 298, ff. 239b and 241b at Leiden University Library.|
An incomplete copy of Gharib al-Hadith, by Abū Ubayd
Paper played a major role in 13th century Iran, as it was an intermediary medium for works in other media. It is surprising, though, that despite it was introduced around the 8th-9th centuries, there was little notice in the artist’s world compared to other materials such as pottery, metal or textiles. However, from the 13th century on and thanks to the improvement on the production, paper was cheaper at its uses augmented. For example, it was the perfect place to work with designs in architecture or decoration projects, but also for drawings for tiles and metalwork. One of the examples of this phenomenon were the sketches we know the artist Ḥaydar (d. 1325-36) used for his projects. One of them was the band across the intrados of the northern īwān in the Natanz mosque, and the other the miḥrāb in the winter prayer hall of the Friday Mosque in Isfahan.
According to Jonathan Bloom, this would explain the higher similarities between books and architectural decorations towards the 13th and specially the 14th century. Paper was lighter media, easier to carry and to transport the different styles, ideas and designs that were popular in some areas, so they could be quickly known from one part to the other. This produced a greater homogeneity in arts, due to the easier way to exchange ideas. The paper industry developed also new forms of trade and new jobs, alongside with an increasing specialisation and a work hierarchy. There existed the produces, who physically made the paper, but then there were the merchants, who traded with different kinds of products, styles, materials and techniques.
|Friday mosque Isfahan, 1397, Iran|
When approaching the matter of the paper industry in the Middle Ages and the early stage of its development in the Islamic world, it is important to bear in mind our knowledge is widely based on literary sources. Since materials to procedures, other books give us the information we have based our hypothesis on. Two of these sources would be ‘Umdat al-Kuttāb, attributed to Ibn Bādīs (11th century) or Al-Mukhtara’ fi funūn min al-ṣuna’ by al-Malik al-Muẓaffar (13th century). From them we can extract the materials used in paper production, being the most common flax, linen rags, hemp rope or fibres of fig tree occasionally.
To make the pulp, linen rags and hemp rope were used, and cotton is attested in some examples, but this was uncommon. The first step was to cut up the fibres and carefully softening and cleaning them. Then they were pounded either manually or mechanically at the mills, that normally used hydraulic energy and that was the reason for locating them close to rivers. Also, the process of papermaking requires of high quantities of water. After the mixture got the appropriate texture, consistency and purity, the pulp was placed in the rectangular moulds with rectangular strands that will form the future sheet.
In medieval Iran, and also in the majority of the Islamic world, two different moulds were used. The floating mould was placed in a shallow tank of water and then filled up with pulp. This permitted the production of bigger sheets. The dipping mould was immersed into the tank already filled with the pulp, and it increased the number of sheets produced. Some special papers, like the tainted ones, were produced in two different ways: either dipping the sheet in a coloured bath, either adding the colorant to the size. The most popular colour was saffron yellow, but also blue or red. According to Bloom and Canby, every colour had its own meaning. Sometimes the paper was sprinkled with gold flecks for highly luxurious manuscripts, but this was more common towards the 15th-16th centuries.
|Add Or Ms 1699: A 19th c. watercolour from Kashmir shows the preparation of the pulp and papermaking. The British Library|
The sudden explosion in the production of paper increased tremendously the making of illustrated books in late 12th and 13th century Persia, and the easier access to paper sheets led to the introduction of images accompanying the texts, starting with frontispieces with titles and eventually developing into the classic Persian painting we know. As paper became more popular, so did the written culture, although the oral tradition was never abandoned.
Bloom, Jonathan M.: “The Introduction of Paper to the Islamic Lands and the Development of the Illustrated Manuscript”, Muqarnas, vol. 17, 2000, pp. 17-23.
Bloom, Jonathan M.: “Paper: The Transformative Medium in Ilkhanid Art and Architecture”, in Komaroff, Linda (ed.): Beyond the Legacy of Gengish Khan, Leiden, Boston, Brill, 2006, pp. 289-302.
Bloom, Jonathan and Blair, Sheila (eds.): Grove Encyclopaedia of Islamic Art & Architecture, Oxford, Oxford University Press, vol. 3, 2009.
Gacek, Adam: Arabic Manuscripts, A Vademecum for Readers, Leiden, Brill, 2009.