Remnants of very early Islamic bindings, together with a great number of Qur'anic manuscript fragments on parchment, were found in the roof of the Great Mosque of Sana'a, the capital of the Republic of Yemen, during the restoration of the west wall of the mosque in 1972. Several years later, work began under a German cultural aid project, and I was in charge of the conservation of the manuscripts for 8 years. Being a trained bookbinder I had always been interested in the binding fragments. After the termination of the German project, I started this research first with a grant from the Getty Foundation, U.S.A., and I am grateful to be able to continue these studies with funding from the Max van Berchem Foundation.
The outstanding importance of the manuscript find has already been well established, but the bindings are at least of equal interest since very little is known about the manufacture of the Islamic book in its earliest times. The only comparable body of early Islamic bindings was found in Kairouan, Tunisia, and the very detailed descriptions by G. Marçais & L. Poinssot, published as "Objets Kairouanais" in 1948, has been a standard reference ever since.
There are no written dates, but the Sana'a bindings are estimated to date approximately from the 9th to the 12th century A.D., and, except for one instance, they were all disconnected from their respective textblocks a long time ago. There are 96 objects : 51 pieces originate from bindings with wooden boards (called "box books" or "book boxes because of their construction), where the text was always written on parchment leaves. These are certainly the oldest group. Only in 4 cases are both the front and back covers preserved, in other instances just one or the other has survived, and there are many fragments. 41 pieces are examples of the latter, more familiar binding style with paper boards, a pentagonal flap, and the textblock would have been paper. In addition, there are 4 fragments of which I do not know what they really are.
U. Dreibholz. Drawing of the back cover of a binding
At first the objects had to be organized - sorted, put into a certain order, numbered, matching pieces had to be aligned, etc. They had to be cleaned, and documentation is, of course, the main objective. Beside precise descriptions of all the important features, this also comprises photography, which is difficult for these bindings because one has to photograph them in raking light in order to bring out the relief of the tooled patterns, but at the same time one has to take care to obtain even illumination of the whole piece. (I make 35 mm and large format B/W photographs and large format color transparencies for the publication; 35 mm color slides are made for lectures. I am also putting a lot of emphasis on microscope photographs, both in color and B/W.) Documenting also includes pencil rubbings of the tooled covers and translating them into drawings - a delicate task because the covers are often very abraded and the exact designs are not easily recognizable. Describing the tools and stamps used for these decorations is yet another aspect, a great undertaking if I want to match the meticulous work done by the two French scholars in Kairouan. I also have developed a survey form (divided into "technical aspects" and "decoration") for a better overview, easy reference, quick information retrieval, or simply for comparisons.
Although these bindings are separated from their textblocks a lot of observations on the structure of the early Islamic book can be gleaned from the above-mentioned manuscript material because it is basically contemporary with the bindings. The composition of the gatherings and the placement of the hair and flesh sides of the parchment within the gatherings are of great interest, and since there are fragment groups from close to 1000 different volumes of the Qur'an this should really provide some significant insights. The sewing methods on some of the textblock fragments can be studied, but subsequent layers of repairs may mask the original technique. I have also collected samples of sewing threads and they will be described in terms of their various build-ups: how many threads were combined in which way (twisted to the left to form an S-twist, or twisted to the right to form a Z-twist) to create the final thread for sewing the bookblock or the endbands.
U. Dreibholz. Photograph and rubbing of the back cover presented in the previous illustration
At last I have the intention to collect as much information as possible about these bindings, which should be included in the publication. This would comprise an art historian's point of view and extensive scientific testing of the materials used - leather, wood, metal, parchment, paper, threads.
I want to present one of the most interesting book covers as an example - by photograph, rubbing and. It is the back cover of a binding (the front cover is lost) with a beautiful Kufic inscription - "al-mulk lillah" = the world belongs to God - in the center, surrounded by two borders composed of rows of single stamps. But if the cover is held in the correct position the script is actually upside down ! (The pictures here are turned around in order to show the script properly.) This is certain proof that the cover was recycled; most likely it was a front cover at some time. The bookbinder who reused it was probably illiterate because it is improper to write the name of god onto the back side of a book, moreover in a reversed position. But there is evidence of even earlier recycling: the holes visible near the bottom edge, where the cover leather is lost, are now blocked and have no correlation whatsoever to the upper area where the cover leather is still intact. Therefore, they point to a former use of the wooden board before the present leather with the inscription was applied. (The holes may have served to connect the bookblock to the cover in a previous binding, and from the way the holes are positioned it may have been a Coptic binding !) This recycling and re-recycling is fascinating, as are many other aspects of these bindings, and I really hope I will make a substantial contribution to our knowledge of the book in early Islamic times.