Category Archives: Mellon Sawyer Seminar LECTURE

Workshop IV: Islamic Bookbinding with Yasmeen Khan [Spring 2017]

On the first day of April, Yasmeen Khan, Head Conservator at the Library of Congress, led an Islamic bookbinding workshop for Mellon Sawyer participants at the University of Iowa. Khan was visiting Iowa City as a Mellon Sawyer Seminar scholar, and presented a lecture the previous day on ‘Bindings Informed by the Arab Manuscript Tradition: A Conservator’s Perspective.’ Other lectures included Francois Deroche on Arabic and Islamic manuscripts, Sabine Schmidtke on the Zaydi manuscript tradition of Yemen [13th-20th c.] and AnneMarie Luijendijk and Brent Nongbri who discussed early christian papyri from late antique Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Full Mellon Sawyer lectures are available on the Seminar website.

The workshop was packed, with 30 participants attempting to make an Islamic book in an 8-hour work day. Because of the complexity of the book-to-be-made and the short duration allotted in which to complete it, I divided the group into working pairs, each consisting of a bookbinder and a non-binder. It was not difficult to find willing bookbinders at the UI Center for the Book to fill out the ranks!

UI book conservator Giselle Simon helps Mellon Sawyer visiting lecturer Sabine Schmitdke sew an Islamic endband




The Mellon Sawyer Islamic binding workshop, led by Yasmeen Khan, Head Conservator at the Library of Congress

The book was a model of a 15th-century Turkish binding, with some nods to Persian decoration. It was made with a two-part cover – upper and lower cover made of book board, which is attached to a cloth spine liner, then covered in leather and tooled [instead of using one large piece of leather to cover the entire book]. The lower cover had an envelope flap which sat under the upper cover when closed. At the spine edge of the upper and lower cover, the leather was pared thin and adhered to the spine, one piece overlapped the other. The two-part covering style is found on many Turkish bindings [among others], though it is often not detected because the overlapping leather often looks seamless on the spine.

The workshop began with a viewing of an Islamic Papermaking video made by the filmmaker father of Mellon Sawyer participant and papermaker Radha Pandey, who herself teaches Islamic papermaking throughout the US and abroad [check out her tour schedule and work at:]. The video, in Urdu, discusses the steps involved in making paper with Islamic techniques and discusses the lineage of a papermaking family within the town of Sanganer, Rajasthan – a place known for paper and textile production. Fiber is prepared from a mix of raw hemp and torn strips of recycled manuscript which are beaten and stamped in water to form a pulp.

Copyright: Riverbank Studios, New Delhi.
Filmed in Sanganer, Rajasthan.

Indo-Islamic papermaking uses a mould with detachable screen and deckle sticks. Sheets are pulled, transferred to a stack or post and pressed slowly using weights [also seen in Japanese papermaking]. Sheets are then brushed onto plastered walls outside to dry [this is seasonal production therefore, not possible during the monsoons]. As noted, many of these processes are similar to techniques and tools used in Nepalese and east Asian papermaking. Dry sheets are then coated with a light coating of wheat starch, dried and burnished to give them a crisp sheen and make them suitable to take ink without bleeding. European papers were burnished, but not to the extent of Islamic papers, which were traditionally burnished to a lustrous sheen.

In the Middle Ages, papermaking moved from China to Europe through Islamic craftspeople and trade routes, so to study Islamic paper is to study this critical cultural link connecting eastern and western traditions. Paper transformed every culture that it was introduced to, so the role of Islamic paper on European culture should not be underestimated. Jonathan Bloom explores this history in his Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World.

link stitch diagram by Y. Khan – with sewing in center [outer stations are for primary headband sewing]
Ornately carved and decorated wooden book cradle, Sackler Gallery, DC [2017 Koran exhibit]
We began by sewing the sections of the book together, a task helped along with some pre-prep [sections pre-punched, sewing begun]. The book block contained 18 sections, sewn in a single paired station using a simple and fast link stitch. The link stitch has a fascinating and complex history! It appears on the earliest codices from Coptic Egypt, and is a technology that was shared across early Christian cultures from north Africa [Egypt and Ethiopia], throughout the Near and Middle East [Byzantium, Armenia, Georgia, Syria] to northern Europe [8th-c. St. Cuthbert Gospel of John]. Each culture adapted the link stitch to their own needs and textual traditions. With the 7th-century rise of Islam, Muslims adopted this link stitch sewing for production of the Koran and Koranic commentaries. The adaptation of the link by Muslim binders is light [few stations/holes, light thread], as compared to the heavier application seen in Byzantine bindings [more stations/holes, heavier sewing thread often formed in an extended/reinforced link]. This is due to the early adoption of paper by Muslim scribes and bookmakers, which creates a book block that exerts less stress on the binding than a parchment book block. Many texts were also meant to be read supported in a book cradle, which reduced stress on the binding. In any case, we sewed our books and started in on the next step.

We gave our book spines a slight round and added a cotton cloth spine liner, before jumping into the final task for the morning, sewing Islamic headbands.

An Islamic chevron headband []
Islamic chevron headband on Arabic Christian manuscript xMsU584 ar2 cop.1 from UI Special Collections

The Islamic chevron headband has an intimidating reputation, but, like all headbands it just requires some practice to understand the logic of the sewing pattern and a little time to get into the groove. Even experienced binders need a formal introduction, so we set up an Islamic chevron headband tutorial the day before the workshop, so the binders could get a couple under their belts before assisting their non-binder partners during the workshop day. We met in the UI Book Conservation Lab and Khan walked binders through the steps of sewing the chevron headbands. It is basically a two-part headband consisting of a primary support of leather and thread fastened to the head and tail of the book, and a secondary sewing of two colors of silk thread sewn in like a weaving across the primary support. The trick with the chevron headband is to keep the tension light on the ends [left and right] so you end up with an even pattern that sits proudly the full width of the spine, and doesn’t end up shrunken up and deformed at the ends. I forgot to take a detail of this in action, but this site outlines the steps. The Mellon Sawyer seminar often visited the topic of the craft origins of early book technologies. The woven nature of the Islamic headband sewing connects this bookbinding technologies to ancient craft production in the Near and Middle East, as it replicates established patterns and systems used in weaving tapestries, rugs, and cloth. This is true not only of headbands, but leather work, binding structures and closures.


Khan demonstrating the sewing of the Islamic chevron headband to the group using the overhead projector
Francois Deroche, finding the center of the section while sewing his Islamic chevron headband.

On the day of the workshop, the headband sewing went remarkably well! Khan provided a walk-through on the overhead projector –  a brilliant way to provide detailed step-by-step instructions for participants. Headbands anchor the book at the head and tail [top and bottom] and provide stability and support to the book. They also cover and protect the folds of the book at the head and tail and are beautiful! To lay the foundation for the chevron sewing, the primary headband is anchored down to the book through the center of each section or gathering, using the pre-punched holes [we pre-punched, but generally headband tie-downs are all over the place, and it is often much easier to just ‘sew as you go’ than to find pre-punched holes]. Francois Deroche, the father of Islamic codicology, had a eureka experience at this step, discovering that the quire marks made at the outside corners of the sections are marks used by the binders to find the center of gatherings when sewing the headbands. That was pretty cool and lends credence to what we already know at the Center for the Book, making informs knowing in ways that are sometimes surprising.


Elise Hochhalter helps Mellon Sawyer co-PI Paul Dilley sew his Islamic headband
Visiting scholar and workshop participant AnneMarie Luijendijk concentrating on her headband sewing.

After a much-needed midday lunch break [delicious Mediterranean fare], participants continued work on their headbands. By mid-afternoon we had completed our book blocks, headbands and all, are were ready to turn to the covers, cover decoration and attachment.

from Bosch, Petherbridge & Carswell, Islamic Bindings and Bookmaking

The book, in a style not uncommon to Turkish and other Islamic binding traditions, is constructed with a two-part cover – the upper [front] cover, and lower [back] cover with an envelope flap that sits under the upper cover when the book is closed. This two-part cover allows the leather to be tooled off the book, then attached [with overlapping pared leather at the spine], and also allows the binder to make use of smaller sections of leather [instead of needing a large piece of leather to cover the entire book]. It is often a difficult technique to detect, since the overlapped leather on the spine can appear as one piece.

upper cover with pared leather for spine
lower cover with spine leather and envelope flap


Because we had so much to accomplish, the bookboard covers were cut and covered with leather in advance of the workshop, by a dedicated team of binders who cut, pared, trimmed and pasted the leather to the covers [thanks Bill Voss, Giselle Simon, Sarah Luko, Johan Solberg, Julie Leoard, Suzanne Glemot, Candida Pagan!]



AnneMarie Luijendijk, pleased with her tooled cover!

On the day of the workshop, participants blind-tooled their leather covers before attaching them to the book. Blind tooling  involves creating impressions into dampened leather using metal [or other] tools. It is referred to as ‘blind’ since it is plain, without gold or colored pigments.

We first framed our covers with double-lined marks, impressed into the dampened leather with a bone folder [low tech way to go if you don’t have metal tools]. Khan brought a die stamp, cut to the shape of a mandorla for the center of the covers, and a smaller stamp for the envelope flap. Leather was dampened and nipped under pressure, the metal tool creating impressions in the leather. The placement was determined by scoring a single vertical and horizontal lines across the center of the upper and lower covers. These cross-hair lines have long been used by Islamic binders to center decorative tools in the middle of the covers. The vertical score marks even became integrated into the decorative motifs on covers, in the Persian, Turkish, Ottoman and other Islamic traditions – with vertical lines extending from the central mandorla becoming tooled in gold. This is a great example of how process can influence decorative techniques.

Vertical score line visible on 18th/19th-c. Persian/Turkish blind-tooled copy of the Kitāb al-Ṭibb al-jadīd al-kīmīyā’ī ta’līf Barākalsūs (The New Chemical Medicine of Paracelsus). MS A78, National Library of Medicine
16th-c. gold-tooled goat skin binding with elongated lines extended from central mandorla. Text is vol. 9 (al-juz’ al-tasi’) of the Qur’an, dating to the 12th c., Maghrebi script. W.556, Walters Art Museum.
Visiting scholar Francois Deroche discussing cover tooling with Yasmeen Khan.


After tooling was complete, Khan gave a quick demo on leather paring [thinning the edge of leather] and handed the covering demo over to Radha Pandey who demonstrated how to attach the covers to the book. The overhead projector came in handy again! The covers were attached to the spine, the cotton spine liner glued to the boards.

Mellon Sawyer Seminar participant Suzanne Glemot attaching book covers.
Mellon Sawyer co-PI Katherine Tachau and Beth Stone wait for their book spines to set after covering.          

The final step was to glue up the paste downs, the papers attached to the inside of the covers and the envelope flap. Giselle Simon and I made the gold-flecked endsheet papers ahead of time. I painted a light weight [Mohawk] paper blue, allowing it to dry, then pasted it out with a water solution containing 2% methyl cellulose, and sprinkle-brushed gold leaf through a rigid screen so it fell in uneven bits onto the tacky paper. I then pressed each sheet between newsprint and tyvek [so the leaf would stick to the paper, not the tyvek]. Sheets were then allowed to dry overnight under weight [and wax paper to prevent gold from sticking to anything], and cut down to size for the workshop.

The Mellon Sawyer workshop group – with completed books, at the end of a long day!

With end sheets pasted down – the books were done and proudly displayed!

Melissa Moreton, Mellon Postdoctoral Scholar

Seminar – How were ancient religious texts best passed down, orally or in writing?

Friday 16 September 2016 – Mellon Sawyer Lecture

Shai Secunda is the Jacob Neusner Professor in the History and Theology of Judaism at Bard College – a recent move from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he flew in from for his Mellon Sawyer lecture in September. Secunda’s lecture, “‘You May Not Communicate Oral Matters in Writing’: Writing and its Absence in the Transmission of Rabbinic and Zoroastrian Texts,” addressed questions concerning the move from an oral tradition of textual transmission to a written one in eastern late antiquity [watch the lecture here]. 

Paul Dilley [PI], Katherine Tachau [PI], Shai Secunda, Tim Barrett [PI]
How, when and why did oral texts get written down? One may think that an oral tradition of preserving scriptural knowledge would be less precise than a written textual one. Writing, in the western Christian tradition, has long been held up as the best way to preserve [and control] sacred texts. It fixed them and allowed them to be controlled by Roman Christian imperial and early Church authorities. Beyond manuscript writing even, the printing press was hailed as a tool that could further standardize Christian texts like the Bible in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Committing the text to print, instead of manuscript writing, could more firmly fix it in place so that it could not be altered by the unauthorized user. But how were texts best preserved and maintained in the ancient near east?

The ancient Iranian prophet Mani [c. 216-274 CE] and his followers, the Manichaeans, insisted that writing legitimized and authenticated their religious texts. Mani wrote out his own religious texts – the only religious leader to do so in the premodern era – and advocated for the scribal authority of sacred texts [on the Manichaean predilection for writing and the codex, see Paul Dilley’s lecture here]. However, Jewish rabbis and the Zoroastrian priests of ancient Iran maintained the primacy of the oral transmission of their sacred texts – long after their cultures had adopted technologies of writing. Orality, not writing, preserved the most authoritative versions of religious texts. Only a Jewish rabbi could safeguard the accuracy and proper interpretation of sacred texts. Authoritative rulings on texts were oral. It was even said that rabbinic texts resided in the belly, bones or rooms of the heart, suggesting the deep personal significance of memorization. The living body was the repository of texts, not the parchment scroll or codex.

Religious texts such as the Talmud [including the Mishnah] and ethical tracts [such as the Tractate Avot] were transmitted orally and not written out until well into the first millennium CE. Testimonials by Maimonides and others mention the writing out of early sacred Jewish texts during the late Geonic period [8-11th c.], but the earliest dated manuscripts date to the 11th century. Secunda discussed a Mishnah fragment, dating to 1066 CE and the earliest datable Talmud fragment, dating to 1085 [Egypt]. The Cairo Geniza, a storeroom holding 300,000 fragments of worn or fragmentary Jewish texts in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, has been important in dating some of these earliest examples of written rabbinic texts. Many of the Cairo Geniza fragments have been digitized as part of the Friedberg Genizah Project and Princeton Geniza Project [be sure to catch Marina Rustow’s April 28 lecture on the Cairo Geniza].

In contrast to the Torah, most surviving early rabbinic texts [Talmud and Avot] are from codices, very few [4-5] survive from scrolls. Those that do are on parchment or leather. This apparent preference for the codex over the scroll for these particular texts happens because, by the 8th c. CE, when these texts are committed to writing, the codex was the dominant carrier of writing. The Torah, still today associated with the scroll, was committed to writing in a much earlier period [pre-codex, before 3rd c. CE], when the scroll was the dominant manuscript format. As Secunda states, rabbinic Jews continued to use the scroll for certain sacred texts [like the Torah] because the codex didn’t have the ‘gravitas’ that the scroll did. The birth of the Torah as a written text was inexorably tied to the scroll form, an association that remained because the rabbis invested it with sacrality. How texts are written down, and what they are written down on, is tied to the dominant book culture of the period in which they move from oral to written form.

When does this move from oral to written occur? Secunda noted that, for rabbinic texts, the late Geonic period – especially c. 750 CE – appears to be an important date, with many texts committed to writing in this period. At this time, ‘Babylonia’ [so-called by medieval Talmudic scholars] – modern day Iraq – was the center of the Jewish diaspora. The Talmudic Academies there were the centers for Jewish scholarship and rabbinic law, and their leaders – the Geonim – were important compilers of rabbinic texts. As early as c. 550 CE, the Geonim had completed the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud. It was in this place of learning and Jewish scholarship that a number of texts, previously only transmitted orally, were written down. The mid 8th century may have been a critical period for Jewish communities in this region, perhaps because of the instability caused by a shift in power from the Ummayad to the Abbasid Caliphate, making it necessary to commit previously oral texts to writing to ensure their survival within a new diaspora.

The Zoroastrians had a similar tradition of orally transmitting texts. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of ancient Persia [modern Iran] from the 6th c. BCE to the 7th c. CE. In the case of the Zoroastrians, the shift from orality to writing appears to have taken place within the context of the imperial promulgation of texts during the early Sasanian Empire [225-651 CE]. In the 3rd century, a high priest and imperial advisor named Kerdir boasted about the production of written texts in the imperial bureaucracy and the organization of the Avesta, the sacred Zoroastrian scriptures [in an epigraphic record at Naqsh-I Rajab, known as Kerdir’s inscription]. Here the writing down of sacred texts appears to have occurred under the sponsorship of the early Sasanian emperors, who may have had a stake in solidifying their position at the head of the Zoroastrian church state.

Trying to pinpoint when, where and why these shifts from orality to writing occur is one of the central questions of the Mellon Sawyer Seminar. It will be interesting to see how these dates, places and motives intersect with the introduction and spread of manuscript technologies [sheet materials, writing/ scripts, book forms], religions, political upheaval, movement of people, and the establishments of imperial bureaucracies. Based on discussions with other Mellon Sawyer visitors lecturing on eastern manuscript traditions, the establishment of imperial bureaucracies and the spread of religion appear to have been the primary forces behind the invention and spread of paper, the promulgation of scribal bureaucracies and the establishment of manuscript culture in medieval China [see lectures by Michael Friedrich, Susan Whitfield, TH Barrett and Abdurishid Yakup]. We hope the Mellon Sawyer mapping project [forthcoming, late 2017] will graphically illustrate how such factors overlap and intersect.

Melissa Moreton [UI Mellon Sawyer Postdoctoral Fellow]

Secunda examines a model of an ancient Roman wax tablet during the Mellon Sawyer Seminar meeting.
Models of ancient wax tablets by bookmaker Sarah Luko, MFA candidate at the UI Center for the Book.