Thursday, August 13, 2009

Baghdad Paper

'Not all the consequences of Islam's great expansive push were as grand, perhaps, as the confluence of some of the world's great intellectual traditions, but they proved at least as vital. One such was the acquisition of the wondrous Chinese technology of paper, an enormous aid to the intellectual enterprise just beginning to take shape at the Abbasid court. Arab tradition tells us that a prisoner of war from the battle of Talas, where in 751 Muslim forces decisively defeated those of the Tang dynasty for control of Turkic western China, brought the art of papermaking to the Central Asian city of Samarkand. The Chinese prisoner taught his captors how to produce paper from linen and hemp. The story itself is most likely apocryphal, but its general account of the flow of paper technology from China and Central Asia to the Arabs still rings true.

The result was a relatively inexpensive, resilient, and convenient medium for recording information of all kinds - from tax rolls to love poems, from philosophical tracts to star tables. Samarkand soon became the leading Muslim center of papermaking. The art also flourished in Syria, Yemen, North Africa, and the Spanish city of Jåtiva, which specialized in the production of heavy, glazed sheets. The first mention of a paper factory in Baghdad dates to 795, and the Abbasid capital later boasted a fine stationers' bazaar, the Suq al-Warraqin, featuring hundreds of stalls with high-quality wares. In fact, Baghdad paper was highly prized around the region, and some Byzantine Greek sources even refer to paper as bagdatixon, directly associating the product with the city on the Tigris.

Christian Europe, meanwhile, relied on the painstaking task of reproducing its books and maps on animal skins that had been stretched, scraped clean, and then dried. The resulting parchment was unwieldy, difficult to work with and store, and expensive to make. Paper was none of these, and its ready availability and ease of use and transport accelerated the production and spread of manuscripts throughout the Abbasid Empire and beyond. This in turn allowed the rapid and efficient interchange of ideas and knowledge, prompting demand for further scholarly works, research, and writings. Papermaking also fostered a profound culture of the book among the Arabs. Knowledge and scholarship had always been prized by Muslim society. Now, book bazaars and specialty shops became a regular feature of urban life. Book production, bookbinding, and transcription services all flourished alongside writing, research, and translation. The work of individual calligraphers was prized by discerning buyers, while many of the best copyists also served as editors or authors in their own right. Books were costly to produce, and rare editions were coveted by both intellectuals and the rich and powerful. Price gouging and forgery were not unknown hazards for the unwary, while authors at times found themselves at the mercy of scribes holding out for more money before handing over their completed manuscripts.

Patronage among the elite for authors and their books soon led to the creation of great libraries, some of which were open to the public and featured reading rooms and copying materials. In Damascus, the Umayyads had created the first Arab library, collecting Greek and Christian works on alchemy, medicine, and other sciences. The Fatimid sultans of Egypt were also great collectors of books and patrons of affiliated academies to propagate their Shi’ite beliefs. By the late tenth century, the second Fatimid ruler, al-Aziz, maintained forty rooms filled with books, with the so-called ancient sciences represented in eighteen thousand volumes. When Baghdad’s al Mustansariya madrassa*, or Islamic school, was founded in 1234, its initial endowment was said to have included eighty thousand books donated from the personal library of the caliph. Even private collections were vast, often numbering in the tens of thousands of volumes. These were commonly left as charitable bequests on the death of the owner to mosques, shrines, or schools, where they could be properly looked after and made available to scholarly readers.’

--Jonathan Lyons, The House of Wisdom

*The word “madrassa” (pronounced médrésé) means “school” in modern Arabic.

Now contrast Baghdad in 800 with Baghdad in the year 2006.

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