CHAPTER 5 >>



  1. Papyrus
  2. Leather
  3. Parchment
  4. Paper
  5. Linen
  6. Wood
  7. Bones
  8. Ostraca


4.a.1. Papyrus:

The plant:

  • Cyperus papyrus l. in Latin, bardî, abardî or fâfîr, babîr and barbîr (from Greek papyrós) in Arabic.
  • Papyrus was grown of course in Egypt (especially the Nile Delta), in Palestine, Babylonia and Sicily. Around the 11th century papyrus stopped being used as writing material and became a rare plant in these regions [Abu 'l-Abbâs al-NABÂTÎ, 13th century].
  • The material extracted from the plant and used for the papyrus is called qirTâs (from Greek xartês), waraq al-qaSab or waraq al-abardî.
near Syracuse
[high resolution]


The production:

  • First the papyrus cane was cut lenghtways into two halves. Then strip after strip was removed from the medulla, the inner strips having a higher quality.
  • These strips were then laid crosswise in two layers, a horizontal one lying on top of the vertical. Then they were pressed (either with or without an adhesive made of seeds of the blue lotos (Nymphaea coerulea Sav.).
  • After the pressing the sheets were smoothed out with a wooden stick.

The sheets:

  • They had an average size of 25 cm (width) x 20 to 58 cm (length), but were in no way uniform.
  • The single sheets were stuck together, often 20 in numbers, the right side of the first overlapping the left side of the following. Mostly no cross pattern was seen afterwards.
  • The first sheet was normally integrated in a inverse manner - i.e. the fibres lay in a right-angle to the horizontal fibres of the rest of the roll - for the following reasons:
    • for the cover it looked nicer and provided a better protection, as it was made of a thicker and coarser material. This cover sheet was often used as the space for the protocols.
    • the protocols: the protocol texts were used for standard religious formulas, the name of the caliph or another magnate, the name of the manufacturer and the place of manufacture - based on the model of the Latin-Greek emperors.
      In pre-Islamic times the protocol served as proof of authenticity, but in Islamic times it was prescribed by the government. It thus seems to have served as a control for the state.


The manufacture:

  • The manufacturers naturally delivered the papyrus in form of rolls. This roll is called qirTâs in Arabic (from the Greek xartês), a sixth of it being the tûmâr (from Greek tomárion). The roll could be divided into smaller parts, such as thirds, fourths, etc.).
  • This division was made for practical reasons, because writing to persons of different social status demanded distinct sizes of papyrus. The following examples show the conditions in the time of the Umayyads, who preferred to use papyrus in their chancellery:

    - letter to the caliph: 2/3 tûmâr
    - letter to a governor: 1/2 tūmār
    - letter fo financial governors and state secretaries: 1/3 tūmār
    - letters to traders: 1/4 tūmār






  • For Islamic times there are in contrast to classical sources just rare descriptions of the consistence of the different papyri. High quality products are the exception. A look at the existing papyri shows a range from fine to coarse and from yellow to brown in all shades.
  • The high quality papyrus was very expensive (e.g. in the 8th century it cost about 1.5 dînâr - equal to the annual rent of a shop).
  • These high costs made people use the papyri several times, either by washing out the scripture or more often by using the back-side. In higher social classes this certainly wasn't regarded as good form.
  • Finally, the papyrus was first used on the side with horizontal fibres, because this was the finer one, and just on less important occasions on the side with vertical fibres, the coarser one.
  • The front with its horizontal fibres is called recto in papyrology, the back with its vertical fibres is called verso.

<< §4a


4.a.2. Leather:


  • In Arabic called jild or adîm.
  • Leather had been used in Egypt for many centuries, but it was also used by Arabs and Persians.
  • It was usually made of skins of sheep and calves.

<< §4a


4.a.3. Parchment:


  • In Arabic called riqq / raqq, qirTâs or jild.
  • Made of animal skins.
  • Rarely used in the Umayyad and Abbasid chancellery.
  • There are big differences in the size and quality of parchments.
  • The flesh-side was always used as recto, the hair-side as verso - in case of lack of space on the recto.
  • Palimpsests - documents whose writing was extinguished for re-use of the parchment - are attested as well and are called Tirs in Arabic.
  • Parchments as documents were rolled and tied up with a strong piece of string.
  • Parchment became redundant by the introduction of paper.

<< §4a


4.a.4. Paper:


  • In Arabic called waraq al-Sîn or waraq Sînî [mentioned like this in the Fihrist of IBN AL-NADÎM, 10th century].

History of production:

  • Paper was invented in China by TSAI LUN in 105 AD.
  • It could contain at this time old rags, tree bark, hemp shreds or fish nets.
  • The treatment of the paper improved constantly from using a plaster cover to the use of a more effective mixture of thickening flour and paste or of the thickening paste alone.
  • By the 8th century improved techniques of dissolving the cell nucleus by adding water to it gave the paper a nearly perfect surface.
  • The rag paper as a Chinese invention made its way westwards first to Chinese Turkestan which bordered on the Umayyad empire.
  • In 751 AD ZIYÂD B. SÂLIH, provincial governor under general ABÛ MUSLIM won a battle against the Chinese in the Farghâna valley. He took 20'000 prisoners, some of them paper craftsmen. He settled them in Samarqand, which from the 10th century on became the centre of paper production for at least the whole Eastern Islamic world.
  • The paper produced in Samarqand was either called Samarqand paper (al-kâghid al-samarqandî) or Khorâsân paper (al-waraq al-khurâsânî).


Types of paper:
   [according to the Fihrist of IBN AL-NADÎM, 10th century].

PAPER made of RAGS
enlarged, with evident pieces of old rags
(10th century AD)
[high resolution]
al-sulaymānī: named after SULAYMÂN B. RASHÎD, financial supervisor of Khorâsân under HÂRÛN AL-RASHÎD (786-809 AD)
al-TalHî: named after TALHA B. TÂHIR, governor of Khorâsân (822-28 AD)
al-nûHî: named after NÛH B. NASR, samanid ruler of Khorâsân and Transoxania (942-954 AD )
al-fir‘awnî: supposedly a designation for marking the competition with Egypt in the production of papyrus
al-ja‘farî: named after the wazîr JA‘FAR B. YAHYÂ B. KHÂLID B. BARMAK, governor of Khorâsân for a short time in 796 AD who introduced paper into the main chancellery
al-Tâhirî: named after TÂHIR B. ‘ABDALLÂH, ruler of Khorâsân (844-862 AD )
! CONSISTENCE OF THE PAPERS: according to the Fihrist they are all made of linen (supposedly linen rags!) !


  • Starting in the 10th century a number of capital cities within the Islamic world started to produce their own paper: Damascus, Tripoli, Baghdad, etc.). In Egypt this process started by all accounts at the end of the 11th century, but Egypt also seems to have imported paper from "frankish" countries (i.e. Italy and France).
  • The reason for the growing use of paper lies in the fact that it is less vulnerable to forgery (in contrast to the papyri or the parchments, which could be washed out or scraped off and rewritten without leaving traces).
  • This paper still contained rags (often linen), mixed with other material like hemp (Cannabis Sativa L.) or small amounts of lamb wool.
  • The quality of the paper was generally higher in the east than in the west. The highest quality came from Baghdad.

Steps of production:

    1. The raw material (linen rags, hemp, etc.) was cut up, cleaned and washed in lye.
    2. Then it was expanded by adding water, bleached and crushed after removing the water or in a paper mill ground.
    3. This intermediate product was dissolved in water and then put to a wide tub containing a sieve.
    4. In this tub the mush was mixed up thoroughly, and then ladled with a special sieve (KARABACEK found three such forms, all consisting of a wire mesh held together by a wooden frame).
    5. The paper was then removed from the mesh and tacked upon a wall.
    6. In the next step it was impregnated with a paste of flour and thickening agents and then dried. This procedure was repeated several times.
    7. The paper sheets were now pressed between two planks and smoothed with a polishing stone of glass or agate.
    8. Finally it was impregnated again with rice or wheat extracts diluted in water and smoothed once again.


  • The paper could be dyed as well with the following attested colours:
    • red: cinnabar or ochre (dissolved varnish of the scale insect)
    • rose coloured: al-waraq al-muwwarad, al waraq-al-‘ûdî (dyed by a brew of brazil wood)
    • blue: indigo, cobalt or aloe
    • yellow: saffron of a brew of lemon skin (Cortex limonis)
    • or simply a mixture of various colours
! PAPER SHEETS: the paper was sold in separate sheets, mostly in a dast of 25 sheets, or in a rizma (with five dast each). It was sold in rolls too. !

<< §4a


4.a.5. Linen:


  • In Arabic called kattân.
  • It was in use in Egypt at all times.
  • The Arabs may have become acquainted with it through contacts with India.
  • Egyptian production is attested in Bûsîr and Samannûd in the Nile Delta.
with Arabic script
(9th century)
[high resolution]

<< §4a


4.a.6. Wood:


  • The use of wood in form of tablets (lawH in Arabic) ist attested for Egypt for many centuries.
  • The Arabs have used wood as a writing material since the time of the prophet Muhammad.
  • These tablets are attested for Egypt and Ethiopia until the 20th century.
with Arabic Inscription
(Dâr al-Kutub)
[ high resolution]

<< §4a


4.a.7. Bones:


  • Attested as writing material for the Arabs since the beginning of Islam until the Late Middle Ages.
  • The bones (‘aZm) used were mainly ribs (Dil‘) or shoulder blades (kitf).
with Arabic inscription
(Dâr al-kutub)
[high resolution]

<< §4a


4.a.8. Ostraca:


  • Called khazafa or shaqaf in Arabic.
  • The use of ostraca by the Arabs is attested from the time of the prophet Muhammad. However, they were not used as widely as Greek and Coptic ostraca.
(3d century AD)
[high resolution]

<< TOP OF PAGE | << § 4a


  1. The Reed pen
  2. The ink
4.b.1. The Reed pen:


  • In Arabic called qalam (from Greek kálamos) or mizbar.
  • Used by the Arabs for many centuries.
from al-Fustāt
[high resolution]


  • The best pens came from the reeds of the Egyptian swamps.
  • Pens from the Persian province Fârs, and the Nabataean reeds are considered to be of high quality as well.


  • There were different kinds of pens: thick and thin ones, hard and soft ones, having grown on rocky or swampy soil: each was used for a distinct purpose.
  • The average thickness of the qalam is between the size of a forefinger and the size of a little finger [according to the famous calligrapher IBN MUQLA].


  • Special importance is in the cutting of the reed, particularly in its rounded cut part (jilfa) and the cutting of its top. This art was often kept secret because "the writing depends on the qalam" [according to the calligrapher AL-DAHHÂK]:
    • The cut part (jilfa, khurTûm ) had to be long (about the length of a thumb joint or a pigeon beak) [according to the calligraphers IBN MUQLA and IBN AL-BAWWÂB].
    • The point of the qalam should be thin like "lips" (i.e. tips) of a pigeon's beak [according to the calligrapher JA‘FAR B. YAHYÂ’]; the right side of the point should be higher than the left one [according to the calligrapher IBN ‘ABD AL-HÂMID B. YAHYÂ].
    • The pens usually were split in the middle (as shown in some pens found in Edfû and in the writing itself - which is doubled in some parts.


  • The qalam was kept in a writing vessel (dawât), containing besides the qalam the following objects:
    • a penknife (mudya, sikkîn)
    • a cutting plank (miqaTT, miqaTTa)
    • a sprinkle box for sand (mitraba, mirmala)
    • an ink wiper (mimsaHa, daftar)
    • a whetstone for sharpening the penknife (misann)
    • a sea-shell or a copper vessel (misqât) for pouring water, sometimes rosewater (mâwardîya) into the inkwell
    • a wooden ruler (misTara)
    • a piece of wool or linen as blotting pad (mifrasha)
    • the inkwell (miHbara), which was a round vessel (jûna) with a pad of wool, linen or raw silk soaked in ink (lîqa), which was renewed every month
    • the spatula (milwâq) for the change of the lîqa
  • A different kind of writing holder was carried on the writer's belt with the inkwell and the pen case (miqlama) made of one piece.

of Sultan Salāh al-Dîn
(1362 AD)
[high resolution]


<< § 4b


4.b.2. The ink:


  • In Arabic called midâd.
  • The documents show mainly two kinds of ink:
    • a deep black ink, similar to Chinese ink (duhn Sînî, duhn and Hibr). It contained mainly fine soot or similarly treated charcoal
    • a more russet ink, containing large parts oxidized iron, similar to the ink made of gallnuts

Preparation [as described by al-Qalqashandî]:

  • At the time of the Tulûnîd Khumârawayh (884-96 AD) a black ink was made in this way:
    • oil of radish and flax seeds was added to a burning lamp and covered by a bowl
    • when everything had burned down, there remained a fine film of soot in the bowl
    • this soot was mixed with rubber and myrtle water, which gave a greenish tinge to the black colour
  • The ink made of gallnuts, often used for papyri, was prepared in this way:
    • 1 pound of Syrian gallnuts was crushed and put in a pot with boiling water
    • after cooking, 3 ounces of Arabian rubber and 1 ounce of ferric sulphate were added
! INK: when this ink runs low in the qalam, the writing appears in a brown yellow shade. !


  • Besides the black ink there existed different coloured inks:
    • red ink: made of cinnabar (zunjufr) made of an extract of pomegranates or of red chalk from the Irak (maghrâ ‘îrâqî)
    • green ink
    • blue ink: made of lapis lazuli mixed with water and rubber
! INK AND PAPER: the russet coloured ink could destroy the document (papyrus, paper, etc.). This never happened with black ink. The red ink faded fast. !