In the School of Wisdom: Persian Bookbinding, ca. 1575-1890


Bedil, an Indian mystic who died in 1720, warned in a Persian lyric poem (or ghazal) of the ephemerality of possessions. Each verse, more or less independent, is a puzzle curled with double and triple entendre:

  a glass mirror, pure wine is the font of wisdom
    the gossiped brow, now furrowed, is a ripple of drink
  art-seizing Turk, you seek intelligence of the heart
    as if gems, set along the rim of a mirror, constitute a veil...

al-Sahifah al-sajjadiyah. Cover

Prayers of the Fourth Imam
Text: Iran, 1276 AH/1859 CE
Binding: contemporaneous with the text
Paint, gold, silver, and varnish on papier-mâché boards
MS Or. 219

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The poem, continuing to unspool over twelve more couplets, is suffused with an atmosphere of unsettledness: truth is unspoken, knowledge is opaque, and death always near. Its middlemost verses are representative:

  this burning sea afflicts the soul [lit. “roasts the liver"]
     the moisture that you see are kabab drippings [lit. their “tears"]
  just as minting coins in one’s name isn’t a given
     it’s obvious that every engraved gem is a mark on water

For the reader, little may seem "obvious"—as often happens when confronted with someone else's afflictions. Yet Bedil's allusions are carefully curated. Gemstones (for example), an apparent symbol of wealth and durability, were sometimes inscribed with rulers' names—including some Mughal emperors, under whom the poet lived. Yet gemstones had been believed since antiquity to be formed from congealed liquid; thus, Bedil disconcertingly suggests that they could always revert to their original fluid state. This is subliminally underscored by the ghazal's rhyme scheme, incorporating a pair of syllables that, if taken alone, literally mean "is water."

Bedil finally comes to rest on a chiasmus of imagery in the concluding lines, juxtaposing states of accumulation and lack:

  wisdom is ignorance of inadequacy
    just as threads subdue a miser
  when faint of heart, Bedil collects books
    in the school of wisdom, we are the book's binding

The last hemistich brings us to a new moral: wisdom is not saved by a binding, a material thing, but rather by the individual. A pun in this final line (again involving water) further suggests that the physical book will be washed away, as good as gone. Yet, reading closely, we are left with a contradiction—both the miser, settling for scanty clothes, and the poet, assembling a large library, are equally misguided.

Manuscripts spend most of their lives closed and a book’s privileged form, during Bedil’s time, was always in memory. The size of one’s library was never a measure of one’s learning; in the words of Abivardi, a more deadpan lyricist, “Books on the back of an ass bring no profit.”

Such warnings were nevertheless empty: Persian manuscripts continued to be made, collected, and used in large numbers, even after the introduction of print. These were naturally subject to substantial wear and tear, for which the outer covers were the first line of defense. If the text was meant to live on, bindings were always a book's disposable component.

This disposability was, counterintuitively, especially true of fine bindings. The early modern period was one of great artistic experimentation, whether using stamped, cut, and polychromed leather or the ascendent medium of lacquer. Such techniques yielded precious if fragile covers. Although some bindings lasted centuries, others were replaced every few decades. Few of Columbia's seven hundred or so Islamic codices have bindings older than 1800, whether the text was copied a millenium or just a century earlier. Even those that are newer sometimes remain attached to their volumes by only the width of a finger. The following pages highlight examples of new and especially replacement bindings from the early modern period, supporting practices of collecting and memory.

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