The Writing Surface: Paper

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Francis Richard

Article contents:
Non-watermarked mediaeval paper
The spread of paper in the Muslim world
The characteristics of non-watermarked paper
Identification of fibres
Surface treatments
Sheet formats and sizes
The description of non-𝓌atermarked paper
The chain-lines
Watermarked papers*
The development of production in the West*
The examination of 𝗐atermarked paper*
Special papers
Tinted papers...*

Paper, a material whose manufacturing processes are related to those of felt, had already been known in China for five centuries before the advent of Islam. In a civilisation where the customary form of the ‘bookʼ was the scroll, it was a widespread writing material. The pulp was generally a mixture of fibres from mulberry bark crushed in a mortar; sheets were made using a detachable mould made of a timber frame across which stretched cords or ‘wiresʼ made from a material of vegetable origin (bamboo fibre). These laid lines, or ‘wire-linesʼ, are easily discernible on the finished product, while the chain lines that connect them together are much less conspicuous. The paper size was made of rice starch.

Additionally, in keeping with the tradition of silk scrolls, as early as the seventh century sheets of paper for use in high-quality manuscripts were already sometimes tinted blue,[1] yellow, red and other colours. Buddhist texts transcribed and copied on paper were widely distributed wherever that religion gained a foothold. Moreover, it seems that the Sassanians had started using paper in conjunction with other writing materials, although no book or document on paper from that time has survived to the present day. It is true that since they had regular diplomatic and commercial relations with Central Asia and China, where paper was in common use, the Sassanians must have known of its existence. It could hardly have been anything other than a costly import, however, and its use was probably confined to official circles.

It should be noted in addition that while in Arabic paper is called qirṭās[2] or 𝓌araq,[3] the Persian term, kāghaẕ (found in Arabic as kāghidh or kāghadh), is a Soghdian loan word.[4] Among others, the Soghdians, through their contacts with Chinese Central Asia, propagated papermaking techniques, and it was even perhaps in Soghdiana that the earliest manuscripts on paper of the Christian scriptures were written.

Paper seems to have been used in Islamic manuscripts in a manner very similar to parchment. Several bifolia were prepared in advance and the gatherings sewn together into volume form; usually the leaves were cut from the same sheet, although there exist composite gatherings comprising bifolia of diverse origins, as well as bifolia made up of two leaves guarded at the centre fold. Generally, all leaves in the gatherings of a given manuscript are laid in the same direction, either parallel or perpendicular to the sewing stations. There are naturally exceptions to this rule, and so it is advisable to carry out an exhaustive (some might say exhausting) examination of the whole volume, recording any visible anomalies that subsequently need to be explained. Such an investigation provides an opportunity to note changes in the paper used (often due to a repair made in the past), the composition of the quires (to be discussed in the following chapter), and other points.

In general the lapse of time between paper being produced and used was relatively brief, since its high price was a deterrent to stockpiling. This observation is important since, in the case of paper with a watermark, the paper itself may provide a clue as to a possible date of copying. Such assumptions may be corroborated or undermined by other findings. According to the specialists in watermarked papers - including Briquet - a ten-to fifteen-year gap may still intervene between manufacture and use, and perhaps this delay may have been longer still for paper used in remote parts of the Middle East.

Non-watermarked mediaeval paper[5]

The spread of paper in the Muslim world

By most accounts, it is the Muslim forcesʼ victory in July 75ɪ on the banks of the Talas in Central Asia (in what is now southern Kazakhstan) that marks the onset of a wholesale expansion in production and use of paper in the Islamic world. The event was indubitably of crucial importance, since Chinese craftsmen skilled in the art of papermaking were taken prisoner during the conflict, being dispatched to set up paper mills in Samarkand, a city already renowned for its many canals. There are also records of paper being manufactured at a Manichaean monastery in Samarkand. It was in the same city, it appears, that for the first time rag and not only vegetable pulp became an ingredient in paper pulp. The moulds used were in the main fitted with detachable mould-covers.

Apparently, improvements in techniques of beating or paddling pulp fibre were also devised: in the fourth/tenth century, al-Bīrūnī mentions the existence in Samarkand of a hydraulic power hammer similar to that used for de-husking rice.[6] Unfortunately, no text in Arabic script copied on paper from this time has survived from these regions. The introduction of paper to Baghdad followed shortly afterwards, the existence of a paper mill being attested at the ‘Abbāsid capital in 794.[7]

This rapid rise in the use of paper was mirrored by a rapid decline in the papyrus and parchment which it supplanted, primarily owing to considerations of cost. Egypt was turning to paper by the third/ninth century, with papermills being built at a later date in Fusṭāṭ. The ‘Abbāsid administration was clearly a heavy consumer and it is difficult to say exactly whether the demand for paper in book production was preceded by its adoption by the administration (as decreed by the Caliph in 808) or whether the two major uses for paper developed in parallel. In any case, the paper trade grew apace, and the custom arose of calling the various grades of produce by the names of the cities in or near which mills were set up (Baghdādī, Samarqandī, and so on), water quality being a notable influence on that of the paper produced. Paper from Baghdad, for example, enjoyed a reputation for fineness until the ninth/fifteenth century, though the adjective Baghdādī also simply designated a sheet of paper of large size. By the sixth/twelfth century Damascus too possessed its own papermaking industry; the quality of its output, considered superior to that of Egypt, then seems to have entered a decline. In the fourth/tenth century, paper was also being manufactured in North Africa, at Kairouan in what is now Tunisia

Any descriptive analysis of papermaking, however, immediately encounters a terminological stumbling-block, since it is a field where equivalence can not always be established between traditional expressions - which vary with period and place - and the terms employed by contemporary specialists. This makes it difficult to obtain a clear view of the objects under study. Similarly, although precise translation of the earliest texts concerning paper is essential, it is an area fraught with difficulties.

The spread of ‘Arabʼ paper throughout the Mediterranean Basin was, as we have seen, almost meteoric. The earliest manuscripts on paper produced in Armenia, where rag paper is found made solely from cotton fibre, date from 960. The Byzantine Empire had also become aware of paper by the tenth century, and the imperial chancellery introduced it in ɪ052; by the eleventh century paper was also in use in Sicily. In these cases, the paper was either imported from regions under Islamic control or manufactured locally following similar methods. As for Spain, by the twelfth century it possessed many paper mills in its Moslem provinces: there was a mill at Játiva in ɪ056, and at Toledo in ɪ085. At the time of the Ottoman conquest, a paper mill was operative in ɪ453 at Kağıthane, near Istanbul, and at Bursa in around ɪ486.

Between ɪɪ66/ɪɪ67 and ɪ360 there appeared in Spain and Morocco a highly distinctive type of paper known as ‘zigzagʼ paper, a mould-made paper with its chain lines lying at regular intervals and of larger size than ‘Easternʼ papers; the middle of the sheet bears traces of a zigzag mark whose function - indicating a levy, perhaps, or a mark of origin, or else a trace of some process whose purpose has since been forgotten - is not yet known for certain. same zigzag shape also occurs on watermarked papers of Italian provenance.[8]

The characteristics of non-watermarked paper

Identification of fibres

This area of research too remains underdeveloped. The information so far gathered from the very few analyses of the composition (fibre or rag) of paper pulp undertaken to date is not particularly helpful to our investigation. The question arises of the part if any played by hemp, linen (sometimes recycled, for instance from mummy tapes in Egypt), cotton, or other vegetable fibres.[9] Further investigation may perhaps reveal features instrumental in dating or establishing provenance. Finally, a certain amount of paper is said to have been produced from a pulp of silk fabric (ḥarīrī paper).

The delamination of folios is a phenomenon encountered occasionally in manuscripts: this means not the separation or unpeeling of two sheets stuck together, but a more complex process affecting the separation of the fibres, due in all probability to the presence of several layers of pulp.

Surface treatments

The traditional manner of finishing paper prevalent in the Muslim world makes it rather hard to learn much by examining its surface alone. After sizing with wheat, rice or maize starch, the sheet of paper is laid on a board to be scraped and smoothed with a tool made of glass, agate or other material designed to reduce roughness. This explains why parallel-most commonly diagonal - lines are often detectable over the entire surface. In many cases, the sheet was then hard-sized with a brush, since the paper, though it should not be totally transparent, had to be translucent as well as capable of receiving writing without soaking up the ink. In this connection, it is instructive to examine the paper produced in India still today using such traditional methods.[10] The sheets are drained over bolts of fabric which may leave remnants of fibre on the pulp; they are then put to dry and whiten on pisé walls that can leave traces of their own. The dimensions of a mould are generally governed by the size that a papermaker can handle unaided.

In comparison to the Islamic West, craftsmen in Iran and the Ottoman Empire seem to have accorded exceptional importance to the preparation and outward appearance of paper. A sheet had to be translucent and was often, once scrupulously smoothed, brushed down with a primer (glair, gum-dragon or tragacanth) or coating, generally more liberally applied in the margins. In high-quality Ottoman manuscripts from the time of Mehmed II (reg. ɪ444-ɪ446 and ɪ45ɪ-ɪ48ɪ) and of Bayezid II (ɪ48ɪ-ɪ5ɪ2) one often finds a very smooth and apparently generously finished cream paper. In other cases, it seems clear that the paper was simply painstakingly smoothed, without any coating, an option that rendered erasure or rewriting far more difficult.

Sheet formats and sizes

Sheets of paper were seldom used in their original uncut state save in the case of volumes of exceptional size (such as MS. Paris BNF arabe 2324 from the early eighth/fourteenth century, a folio volume whose bifolia measure 53 x 76 cm). As a rule, though, dimensions rarely exceed 45 x 65 cm.; this is probably because it would be difficult for a craftsman to operate a mould single-handed if were it any larger. In most folio volumes, the whole sheet measures at least 35 x 55 cm, according to the measurements of ninth/fifteenth-century Persian manuscripts made by this author.

In a folio volume the wire-lines lie perpendicular to the sewing stations; the same applies generally to octavo format, whereas in quarto volumes the laid-lines run parallel. Since bifolia were prepared in advance, occasional leaves with lines running in an apparently anomalous direction do appear. In the case of unusual volumes such as the so-called ‘Baysunghurʼ Qurʼān the precise technique employed remains unknown; perhaps a fixed mould was used.[11] Mamluk Qurʼāns, certain specimens of which can attain impressive dimensions - around a metre tall or even more - also call for examination from this point of view. Again there exist, especially in the Iranian world, oblong or ‘landscapeʼ format volumes (in Persian, safina), whose utilisation recalls that of the roll. The sheet equally well could be deployed in either direction, the gatherings corresponding to the same formats. Sheets were often trimmed drastically and so off-cuts could be put to use, as they were in Iran or India, for example, for drafting pharmaceutical prescriptions or writing various other documents (accounts, etc.), the paper being cut with a sharp blade.

The description of non-𝓌atermarked paper


Paper can be classified in terms of the number of millimetres occupied by twenty wire-lines. As an example, in a manuscript copied at Andakan (Ferghana) in ɪ3ɪɪ (MS. Paris BNF suppl. persan 69),[12] where the broad wirelines of the beige paper run perpendicular to the sewing stations and the chainlines are almost invisible, twenty wire-lines extend over approximately 40 mm. The dimensions of the whole sheet must have been at least 390 X 480 mm. The volume consists of gatherings of eight leaves - or quaternions - a system that will, as we shall see, became predominant in the Iranian world and universal in India in the eleventh-twelfth/seventeenth-eighteenth centuries, and competed with the quinion (gathering of ten leaves) in the Ottoman Empire until the end of the tenth/sixteenth century. In the Maghrib and in Spain, ‘senionsʼ or gatherings of twelve leaves also occur. Study of wire-line spacing can provide supplementary information. If carried out meticulously enough, it may even be possible to identify the variety of reed, bamboo or grass-stalk used to construct the mould. The best paper is most often that whose wire-lines lie closest together;[13] other criteria of quality include the regular consistency of the pulp and inconspicuous fibres.

The chain-lines

12. Non-watermarked Oriental paper with chain-lines spaced at regular intervals.

 In general chain-lines are difficult to discern and appear occasionally as lines running perpendicular to the laid-lines (illus. 12). There are cases, however, on particular types of paper where they are sufficiently prominent for examination to be useful. A typological analysis[14] of unwatermarked ‘Arabʼ papers whose chain-lines can be readily observed has been attempted by Geneviève Humbert for the period from the fifth/eleventh to the ninth/fifteenth century.[15] It relies on observation of the pattern made by the wire- and chain-lines when a specimen sheet is held up against the light. The chain-lines lie at relatively regular but sometimes protracted intervals (up to 80 mm.) and may be grouped in twos or threes. Humbertʼs classification notes six groups.


Watermarked papers...*

*The remainder of this article is exclusively available in the printed version of the related book. The book is available in both electronic and printed formats within Our Publications in the following link:

[1] As with a Chinese scroll, MS. Paris BNF Pelliot chinois 3561, copied in 676 CE on a dark ochre-colored paper, and the fragment Pelliot chinois 4642, datable to the first half of the seventh century, where the calligraphy is inscribed on pale blue paper.

[2]  Gacek, AMT, p. 114.

[3]  Gacek, AMT, p. 114.

[4] From the Persian it was transmitted through Uygur to Turkish (Ottoman kāghiẕ, modern kağıt).

[5] A thoroughly documented bibliography has been published in M.-T. Le LéannecBavavéas, Les Papiers non filigranés médiéυaux de la Perse à lʼEspagne (Paris, 1998). Readers are referred to that publication for supplementary information on the details. A more detailed account of the history of paper in the Islamic world is to be found in J.M. Bloom, Paper before Print (New Haven, 2001).

[6] P. Mohebbi, Techniques et ressources en Iran du 7éme au 19éme siécle [Bibliothèque iranienne, 46] (Tehran, 1996), pp. 182-188.

[7] J. von Karabacek, Arab Paper, 1887, pp. 33, originally published as: ‘Das arabische Papierʼ, in Mitteilungen aus der Sammlung der Papyrus Erzherzog Rainer, 2/3 (Vienna, 1887).

[8] See MS. Paris BNF arabe 2291, wich has a goatʼs head watermark.

[9] See A. Gacek, ‘On the making of local paper. A thirteenth-century Yemeni recipeʼ REMMM 99-100 (2002), p. 79-93.

[10] See particularly N. Premchand, Off the deckle edge (Bombay, 1995).

[11] On the MS., see Islamic calligraphy/Calligraphie islamique (Geneva, 1988), pp. 104-105; D. James, After Timur (London, 1992), pp. 104-105; A. Soudavar, Art of the Persian courts: selections from the Art and History Trust Collection (New York, 1992), pp. 59-62; S. S. Blair, A Compendium of Chronicles: Rashid al-Dinʼs illustrated history of the World [The N. D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, 27] (London/Oxford, 1995), p. 112, note 19. Concerning the technique of using fixed moulds, seeJ. Irigoin, ‘Les papiers non filigranés: état présent des recherches et perspectives dʼavenirʼ, in M. Maniaci and P. Munafò (eds.), Ancient and miedieυal book materials and techniques, vol. I, pp. 265- 312.

[12] FiMMOD, 158. The paper in this manuscript faintly resembles certain examples in Chinese manuscripts dating from before the eleventh century CE discovered at Dunhuang, a place not far away.

[13] The question remains as to what exactly ‘Samarkand paperʼwas. In a later period, the expression designates a certain quality of paper, whereas originally it must have denoted the much-praised paper actually manufactured in Samarkand and exported. In a fine manuscript (MS. Paris BNF arabe 5036) completed around 1440 in Samarkand, the ivory paper in which twenty wire-lines occupy from 22 to 24 mm. must have been cut from a sheet measuring at least 36 x 48 cm. Still, it is not known whether this is an example of genuine ‘Samarkand paperʼ.

[14] G. Humbert, ‘Papiers non filigranés utilisés au Proche-Orient jusquʼen 1450: essai de typologieʼ, ɈA 286 (1998), pp. 1- 54.

[15] For Persian paper from the fifteenth century CE, see F. Richard, ‘Le papier utilisé dans les manuscrits persans du 15e siècle de la Bibliothèque nationale de Franceʼ, in M. Zerdoun Bat-Yehouda (ed.), Le papier au Moyen Âge (Turnhout, 1999), pp. 31-40.

Source note:
This article was published in the following book:
Islamic Codicology: An Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script _ English version, 2005, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, pp. 49-64.
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