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The Story of Islam's Gift of Paper to the West

By HOLLAND COTTER The New York Times


Saturday December 29, 2001

09:00 AM EST  

It was through Islamic culture in North Africa that paper arrived in medieval Europe, where it took on an explosive life.

The paper on which these words were originally printed comes to you courtesy of Islamic civilization. Not directly, of course. Paper was invented in China around the first century. But it was Muslim merchants traveling the Silk Road in the eighth century who first brought the light, thin, pliable stuff west. And it was through Islamic culture in North Africa that paper arrived in medieval Europe, where it took on an explosive life.

Islam seldom gets credit for this contribution to Western life, one integral to advances in every aspect of the sciences and the humanities. Instead, accounts of how paper developed tend to jump from ancient China to 15th-century Germany and Johann Gutenberg's invention of movable-type printing, ignoring the centuries in between.

A new book called "Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World" (Yale University Press) fills that gap. Written by Jonathan M. Bloom, a professor of Islamic and Asian art at Boston College, it is an engaged, detailed, lucidly argued study of paper's progress.

The book is handsomely produced, as befits its subject. And as a bonus, at least a few of the stellar examples of works on paper illustrated in its pages can also be seen "live" these days in New York City museums.

Paper, in its elemental form of dried fiber pulp, was probably discovered by accident and was initially used in China for wrapping. But with a little refinement it soon became a standard writing material in government offices and scholars' studios. It was essential to the evolution of wood block printing, and in the Tang dynasty (618-906), thousands of books, religious and secular, were produced.

Even before the rise of Islam in the seventh century, paper began its westward move. In northwest China archaeologists discovered five fragmentary letters written in Sogdian, an extinct Central Asian language. Dating somewhere from the fourth to sixth centuries, they are early examples of paper carrying non-Chinese writing.

One of these letters is included in the exhibition "Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China, Fourth through Seventh Centuries" at the Asia Society and Museum, 725 Park Avenue, at 70th Street (through Jan. 6). Sent by a merchant to his family in Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan) but apparently lost in transit, it is as crammed with edge-to-edge writing as a modern aerogramme.

Muslims may first have encountered paper when Arab armies conquered Central Asia in the eighth century. They instantly saw its practicality, and a paper mill was set up in Baghdad. At he same time, paper spread to Persia, Syria and North Africa and finally to Spain in the 10th century.

As in China, its initial uses were bureaucratic rather than aesthetic. There were reasons for this. Paper was easier to manufacture than parchment, which was originally made from animal skin. It was less likely to crack or fray than papyrus. It also absorbed ink, making whatever was written on it difficult to erase or alter, an important consideration when it came to preserving imperial records.

Paper was also the ideal recording medium for a logocentric culture. Words, particularly the words of the Koran, were central to Islam. And while the highest value was always placed on an oral literary tradition, one based on memorization and recitation, writing took on an increasingly important role when paper became available.

Handwritten copies of the Koran were revered; calligraphy came to be seen as the premier Islamic art form, and this was true from a fairly early period. Mr. Bloom says the oldest known dated Koran on paper was copied in 971- 72 in Persia, and a page at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is from just two decades later: also Persian, it was copied in a flowing cursive script in 993. The page is not on view at the moment, but many other early examples of calligraphy are.

Paper's primary and most progressive role, however, was secular. It was the medium for maps, astronomical charts and battle plans, as well as for books in a wide range of literary fields, from popular fiction to philosophy. It was used for scientific, mathematical and musical notation as well as for architectural plans, facilitating experimentation in each discipline.

As a result of paper's ready availability, Islamic paper makers devised assembly-line methods of hand-copying manuscripts to turn out editions far larger than any available in Europe for centuries. Using paper, artists could easily trace and transfer calligraphic inscriptions and decorative motifs from one medium to another, to create the all-over look that became a distinctive feature of Islamic visual culture.

Finally, paper formed the material basis for the Islamic art form best known in the West, miniature painting. Here again the Met offers spectacular examples, including illuminated pages from one of the most exquisite surviving versions of the Persian epic known as "Shahnama" or "Book of Kings," created in the courts of 15th-century Persia.

Though the cause is unclear, papermaking virtually ended in many Islamic countries by the 16th century, and printing was only tentatively picked up in the 18th. By that time Europe was publishing the dominant accounts of world history. In them Islamic contributions were all but ignored, even though, as Mr. Bloom suggests, without Muslim influence Europe might have remained ignorant of paper until Marco Polo reached China in the 13th century.

Is this really possible? Mr. Bloom is the first to acknowledge that some of his conclusion are speculative and that he "may have tweaked circumstantial evidence" in his favor. But his purpose is less to point out what Europe might not have been in the absence of Islamic help than to show how brilliant and inventively adaptive Islamic civilization was. The proof is there in the pages of his crystalline book, in the gorgeous trail of paper-based art that runs through New York museums and, less exaltedly but no less truly, in the newspaper you hold in your hand. 

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