Problems relating to the treatment of Islamic manuscripts: paper

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Mahdī ͑Atīqī

Before embarking on this study, we should point out that we do not attempt the total restoration of ancient manuscripts. Instead, we search for ways of preventing their further deterioration, for in some circumstances, restoration itself contributes to the devaluation of such manuscripts. As early sources tell us, the traditional methods of repair, such as the use of paper laminae, did not involve the use of chemical substances, and this cannot be considered to be a cause of damage. Given the results achieved by those methods throughout history, it is reasonable to suppose that traditional methods of repair have a certain advantage over those of modern science.

The traditional approach to repairing damaged paper

1. The conservator must familiarise himself with the nature of the corroded paper in question with regard to type, thickness and illuminations where present, in order to select appropriate materials for repair.

2. An extensively damaged manuscript is washed with cold, sterilised water to eliminate any microbes present. Prior to this operation, however, it is necessary to clean out corrosion using a suitably fine brush, or a small sponge.

 It is said that the shelves of libraries in Iran were made from cedar-wood, which resists the penetration of pests and fungi that habitually damage books. Attesting to this is the story of a manuscript that was seen in the Astān-i Quds-i Raz̤avī Library in Mashhad. Its borders were intensely black, which led the curators to believe that it had been exposed to such a high degree of corrosion and damage that they refrained even from touching it. This went on until, finally, they discovered the following inscription on the back of the first page: "The borders of this book have been immersed in a decoction of ground cedar-wood in order to preserve it from insect damage." In fact, most damage results from insufficient knowledge of preservation methods, and a failure to recognise the cause of damage, be it the rotting of paper or binding, or the exposure of the manuscript to water or fire, or to injury from pests such as lice, rodents, cockroaches, and woodworm.

 In the lands near salt deserts, there are worms that will eat books, causing certain minor forms of corrosion. A traditional method of treatment followed in the north of Iran involves placing tobacco leaves or powdered tobacco between the pages of a book, which helps to prevent insect damage. Protection from damage is also assisted by the presence of fresh, unpolluted air, and an adequate degree of light.

3. When more than hall of book has been destroyed, there is no alternative but to fashion a new spine, and border for it. The first phase of this operation involves preparing suitable paper taken from very old and defective books that are no longer usable, or that belong to a collection of which there are multiple copies. These leaves are then rinsed in water till their inscriptions and illuminations are completely erased. This rinsing process requires a great deal of skill and experience as the papers must be removed the very moment the inscriptions have been effaced. Next, absorbent paper is used to wipe the newly rinsed leaves to absorb their moisture. If there are no manuscripts available that may be broken down or divided, the only solution is to stain fresh paper with natural dyes stabilised in starch, before using it in place of damaged paper.

Substances used for staining paper

WALNUT DYE The skins of fresh, green walnuts are soaked in water for a period of 24 hours, then simmered until their essence has been extracted. This extract is then clarified, mixed with a little cornstarch gum, and poured into a suitable receptacle. Next, fresh paper is placed in this receptacle. When the dye has imbued every part of it, it is removed and spread out until completely dry. Then the paper is placed upon a board of pear-wood and its colour is deepened with carnelian-stone. The use of starch improves the quality of the paper, giving it body and translucence. (Paper of foreign manufacture first came into Iran toward the end of the 11th century AH.) The starch solution may be made from mallow-flowers, corn, albumen, or fenugreek seeds, the best variety being that derived from cornstarch.

HENNA DYE Crushed henna leaves are soaked in warm water until the liquid is completely suffused with their colour. The paper is placed in the filtered liquid to be stained, and is then spread out to dry.

SAFFRON DYE Saffron is pounded and boiled until a liquid of a very beautiful reddish hue is attained. This is then used to stain the paper. A similar colour may be derived, according to the same method, by using certain other so-called 'dye plants'.

MADDER DYE This dye is extracted from the kernel of madder-roots. The more mature the roots, the better the colour derived from them. The root-kernels are first dried in the shade, then ground. The powder obtained is boiled over low heat until its dye is extracted. Naturally, the addition of a little sulphuric add can result in a better colour, but this procedure is not approved as the presence of acidity would damage paper.

ONION SKIN DYE A light brownish-red dye may be attained by boiling dry onion skins.

POMEGRANATE SKIN DYE A brownish-red dye may be obtained by boiling tender pomegranate peel.

PERSIMMON DYE The seeds of mature persimmons are boiled to obtain a brown dye that can be sprayed on paper to tint it. Alternatively, the same effect can be achieved by steeping the paper in the tinted water Paper stained with this dye is very beautiful indeed.

INDIGO DYE Pigment from the indigo plant may be used to stain paper with an indigo tint.

FENUGREEK DYE Boiling fenugreek plants can produce a green dye that may be used for staining paper.

Mixing the dyes listed above in various combinations can produce a range of colours which, for the most part, produce stable tints because they are derived from plants.

MARBLING PAPER WITH A CERULEAN DYE Paper can be stained a cerulean blue through the following procedure.

We begin by putting a solution of cornstarch gum into a shallow receptacle or tray. Then we take the desired quantities of water colour or oil colour and, using a fine brush or straw reed, trickle these pigments onto the surface of the cornstarch gum. Then, using a specially designed combing tool, we begin to trace out the desired effects.

Then we place a blank sheet of paper over the coloured surface, thus transferring and imprinting these images onto the sheet. Lastly, a certain type of absorbent paper may be used to drain off the coloured tracings and images remaining on the surface of the agglutinate solution, and different design effects produced by repeating the process described using alternative pigments and images. This procedure demands a high degree of skill and finesse.

Once a quantity of paper suitable in size and colour for treating a damaged manuscript is obtained, we cut the main body of the book from its border. We trim the edges by 2-3mm using a special blade for cutting leather which is called a shafra. Then we take the pages that have been prepared and create a new book with them. This done, we cut out the centre of the new book's pages until their inner area is slightly less than the outer area of the prepared textual body, as though creating a frame for it. Then we bond the two together, the old textual body and the new paper border, using cornstarch or another agglutinate.

The skill in undertaking this work is in ensuring that the placement never be shifted or altered. By tracing marginal columns in gold, cerulean blue, or other colours in an attractive fashion it is possible to hide the place where the overlap meets the original. Here it should be pointed out, however, that marginal columns of every age were executed in a particular style, and therefore the date of any manuscript requiring material substitutions must be carefully taken into account.


The best types of agglutinates for repairing Islamic manuscripts are the starches and gums derived from plants, which are not apt to cause damage to papers and printed matter. Starch must be set aside for at least two years in order to eliminate all its inherent microbes, which contain nutritional value for certain living things. There is an agglutinate extracted from the roots of a Japanese plant which may stain blank paper. Fortunately, those concerned with this field have recently discovered a method whereby this colour may be separated from the natural gum fluid. Experiments have established that natural gum is wholly undamaging to paper, and, once affixed, is also entirely stable. The process of producing agglutinates from natural gum requires great skill and proficiency.

If only the margins of a manuscript are damaged, the whole operation becomes straightforward, simply requiring the bonding of suitable paper at the appropriate juncture. If, however, paper of some thickness has become corroded, it must be filled out from within. The paper must be split into two laminar portions, then rebonded with a suitably fine insert.

One example of a manuscript that was restored according to this method is Qur͗ān no. 108, written in the hand of Yāqūt al-Musta͑ṣimī, in the year 604 AH through the good offices and skills of Mulla Ḥusayn Ṣaḥḥāfbāshī, who established the Foundation for Traditional Binding. Each page of this manuscript was split into two or three laminar portions, then filled with a suitable paper insert to take the place of the corroded interior. The same was done with Qur͗ān no. 192, which is reckoned among the wonders of the traditional art of binding. Both these Qur͗āns are kept in the Āstān-i Quds-i Raz̤avī Library.

Sometimes we come across examples of the illuminated heritage which have valuable illustrations on one side of the page, and calligraphy, or different illustrations, on the other. In such cases, we may split the page into two laminar portions in order to display each one separately. In certain instances, a new body and border may also be provided, and various dyes or pigment solutions, or specific pictorial forms, used to good advantage. This process of filling out paper laminae is, necessarily, a manual operation, and constitutes one of the craft professions that are handed down within one family from generation to generation.

Thick paper (Pasteboard)

We refer here, briefly, to the topic of making binding boards with reference to the two methods that have historically been used for preparing bound volumes.

  1. We layer together sheets of ordinary blank paper, or previously used paper, until the required thickness is achieved, taking, lastly, another suitable sheet with which to envelope the whole. Most volumes bound in this way are exposed to decay from humidity which causes the paper binding strata to fragment and separate. To remedy this problem, an agglutinate solution may be injected between the paper layers which are then compressed as one until they return to their former state.
  2. In certain cases where the covering layers of pasteboard binding have come apart, they can also be returned to their former state with injections of agglutinates. If the covering itself has split into two, we separate the paper strata attaching to either portion as necessary, and replace some of the older strata with new paper pasteboard layers. Then we cement the two broken portions together again. Occasionally, the pasteboard covering will have been exposed to a very considerable degree of decay. In this case, it cannot be restored with agglutinates alone. Rather, the entire covering must first be separated into two. Next, we take a piece of suitable pasteboard and place it between the two cover portions, which we then cement about either side of this place. Thereafter, we take a soft leather ribbon and use it to tape over the covering rims. With regard to the line of the dividing edge, this can be hidden and covered over with a column traced in golden stripes. This operation must be undertaken in conformity with the appropriate guidelines.

It may lastly be noted here that the process of decorating and ageing paper demands not only the relevant experience, but also a capacity for innovation. Generally speaking, border areas are painted with beautiful, primary colours, which are then abraded with extremely fine sandpaper in order to achieve the effect of age. Occasionally, ligneous tints may also be used for the same purpose.

Source note:

This article was published in the following book:

The Conservation and Preservation of Islamic Manuscripts, Proceedings of the third conference of Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, 18th-19th November 1995 - English version, 1995, Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, pp. 151-156.

Please note that some of the images used in this online version of this article might not be part of the published version of this article within the respective book.
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