Tools of the trade.

THE Education Hall at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) is packed, much to my surprise. It’s a Saturday morning and there are more than 100 attendees for Dr Mandana Barkeshli’s talk on Persian Bookbinding.

Barkeshli was the first head curator of IAMM and is currently the chairman of the Islamic Manuscript Association (TIMA) at Cambridge University. While waiting for her talk to commence, I scan the room, my gaze settling on a number of academicians and students in the crowd.

Suddenly, a murmur of anticipation rises as Barkeshli heads to the rostrum. She is looking lovely in her chic red coat of quilted patterns with a scarf knotted at her chin, totally dispelling my idea of the serious bookish professor of bookbinding.

Originally from Iran, Barkeshli was key to the establishment of IAMM, having arrived at the invitation of Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Albukhary to assist in the setting up of the museum in 1998. Smiling serenely, she shares that she originally planned to stay only for a while before returning to her university in Tehran. However, Malaysia quickly became a second home to the professor and her family. Loving the multi-culturalism of the country, she began work, on conservation, in earnest.

“Bookbinding has been one of the most respected crafts of Persia for centuries, as prestigious as the goldsmiths of our famous bazaars,” shares Barkeshli, adding: “The connection between the royal courts and the sahhaf basi, the bookbinders, has existed for generations.”


This revered craft of ancient Persia has a history dating back to pre-Islamic times. It’s essentially the traditional craft of binding new books and decorating the cover with embossed or painted designs. A lesser but equally important aspect of bookbinding is the repair of worn-out manuscripts due to damage by termite or worms, fire or water, or simply because of time and constant usage.

Manuscripts were hard to obtain, very costly and time-consuming to produce, so restoration became a very important spin-off from the book-binding craft. Due to their status, it is safe to assume that bookbinders received high salaries and earnings from their craft.

There are families whose descendants were bookbinders (sahhaf) and they themselves have become masters today, following in the footsteps of their forefathers after six generations. For example, there was master Mola Hossein Sahafbashi and his son who were chief bookbinders of the Astan-e Qods Razawi shrine in Mashhad during the Qajar period. The former’s grandson, Muhammad Hossein Atiqi, was himself a master. His three sons are today renowned conservator of rare manuscripts in Tehran.

It was important for these masters, comprising bibliognosts, hadith relaters and literary scholars, who owned specialised libraries of importance, to continue the tradition. So highly skilled, they’d developed a natural sense of touch and a professional eye that could distinguish papers and bindings of different periods and origins. In fact, they’ve collected samples of papers and recorded the evolution of paper-making over centuries.

According to Barkeshli, whose lifetime work is dedicated to conservation and restoration work, the study of the bookbinding profession, its techniques and tools, is akin to the study of the history of Persia as different periods brought about new innovations to the trade. From the Sassanian period in the 2nd century to Islamic Conquest thereafter; from the Seljuq Dynasty at the turn of the first millennia, and then the Ilkhanids of the 13th century; the Timurids of the 14th century, the Safavids of early 16th century and the Qajars in the last 200 years, many techniques and tools of the trade were continuously developed.


In the case of bookbinding, one does judge a manuscript by its cover. The Islamic style, which really saw the flourishing of the bookbinding art, had some key characteristics, which include the absence of sewing support for the end bands, making the book more flexible when it needs to be left open. It also has the fore-edge flap to mark the page. This style became the standard throughout the Islamic world.

Book covers of the Seljuk Period tended to be leather-treated in the Zarbi method, a block stamping ornamentation technique produced by pressing a heated ornament onto dampened leather. These tend to have simple borders or are trimmed with emulsified gold.

It was during the Timurid period that book-binding became more elaborate. The Sukht, which featured ornate covers of elaborate designs were cut out from a separate piece of leather, tinted with colour and then glued onto the openings. Tools became more detailed such as those for motif-making and heating. Meanwhile, more brushes or rolls were developed. Another technique that was around utilised mosaic or filigree. The use of silver and gold was also introduced.

Book flaps, which served as a bookmark mainly for the Quran, became a common feature by this time. Invention of the lacquered bookbinding by Maulana Mirak Istafani also occurred during this period and continued well into the Safavid dynasty.

The Safavid period saw the introduction of cloth bookbinding due to its versatility of design and price. In this period, telapus or gold was used even more. The quality of bookbinding during this period was extremely refined. Dampened leather was covered in gold then pressed with hot plate to produce a relief of designs featuring trees, flowers, birds, clouds.

It was during the late Safavid and Qajar era that Persian bookbinding became the epitome of excellence in bookbinding worldwide. Bookbinders suddenly reached an almost cult status. This was the time when lacquered bookbinding introduced intricate designs on the cover and utilised the various techniques perfected in Iran by then.


The need for restoration of old bindings and manuscripts was viewed so important that the pious and wealthy individuals bequeathed charity in the form of waqf, or endowment to ensure repair work continued. For example, a deed in 1218 (A.H. (1803 A.D.) allocating the sum of 300 dinars was endowed from the rent of an orchard in Ardakan of Yazd for the mending of Qurans kept in the Sofla or (Zirdeh) mosque in that town.

Today, Barkeshli’s work is dedicated to conservation and restoration work that are executed with scientific knowledge in museums, archives and private sectors. Determined to see the survival of traditional ways in this era, Barkeshli recently managed to remove the pigmentation caused by serish glue (made from the powder of the dry root of a plant with short stems and long pointed leaves and clustered flowers which grows in most areas in Iran) using scientific tools.

Says the professor: “The traditionalists were very reserved about new scientific ideas. We had to convince them that science can help. For example, the preferred adhesive is serish glue despite its slightly yellowish nature. With science, we managed to make the use of serish popular again.”

Walking through the gallery, Barkeshli looks earnest as she inspects each of the manuscript on display. Turning to me, she says softly: “My interest in conservation, miniature painting and bookbinding is a life-long passion, not merely work. I truly hope that all this effort and awareness conducted by IAMM about the bookbinding tradition will help to ensure that bookbinding will continue well into the next century. It will be an achievement indeed in today’s highly digital world.”

ninotaziz believes that our legends and folklores are the memories of our ancient civilisation and that our heritage is a gift from the past. She can be contacted at

“The traditionalists were very reserved about new scientific ideas. We had to convince them that science can help.” - Dr Mandana Barkeshli

Islamic Bookbinding Exhibition

WHERE Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM), Jalan Lembah Perdana, Tasik Perdana, KL

WHEN Until Dec 31, 2017

398 reads

Related Articles

Most Read Stories by