Nature Made Absent? Environmental History and Arabic Manuscript Studies

This is the presentation I gave recently at the 2019 conference of the European Society of Environmental History in Tallinn, Estonia (21-24 August). The theme was “Boundaries in/of Environmental History” and the paper was given in James L. Smith’s panel:

What follows is my presentation with images as far as I can use them.

Nature made absent? Environmental History and Arabic Manuscript Culture

My subject today is this: books and paper containing Arabic script. On the one hand, among these are some of the major textual sources for doing environmental history of the Middle East. For instance, a research group in Freiburg, Germany, has extracted over 7,000 weather records from a 15th-century Damascene journal. Or Sara Tlili has explored the Qurʾan and other works for what they tell us about the status of animals in premodern Arabic culture. 

Today, I want to go a different direction. My main question is, what is the place of the environment in the constitution, expansion, and preservation of this literature itself? Why do authors address the environment as a generality outside their own textual production and rarely as it pertains their own practices as writers? This means, I address the topic through the materiality of writing? 

Enno Littmann, Vom morgenländischen Floh, Leipzig: Inselverlag, 1925 [Facsimile reproduction from 1972].

In 1925, the German orientalist Enno Littmann published this rather beautiful collection of diverse “Middle Eastern” fairy and folk tales, poems and riddles, as well as excerpts from European travelogues all of which mention the flea in one respect or another.

In its structure and materials, as well as its lack of a scholarly synthesis it resembles a number of premodern Arabic works dealing with the environment. As those, Littmann’s book raises questions as to how we can delineate literature from other fields of writing. And to which degree we can adapt modern literary theory to say something meaningful about such literature. 

One final point that this book can exemplify is its materiality. This is not, in fact, the original publication. It is a 1972 facsimile reprint. Whereas such a one-to-one reproduction was not possible in Arabic manuscript culture, and print reproduction was for a long time the nightmare of scholars in the region, they created their own superstructure of knowledge production which obscured its ecologic and economic foundations. 

My main witness lived in Damascus between the 15th and 16th centuries. Muhammad Ibn Tulun was the author of 18 works each on plants and animals respectively. One of his works is concerned with the rooster. Based on a selection of Prophetic traditions and passages from earlier authorities, he describes the macrocosmic connection between the mundane animal and its cosmic counterpart, an angel who took the shape of a gigantic rooster. When he calls to prayer or flaps his wings, all roosters respond the same way. 

Another of my favorite examples was an unexpected find in a biographical dictionary, a Who’s Who so to speak. In the middle of one biography, Ibn Tulun changes the topic and speaks about the crayfish, its habits and appearance, the medicinal, almost magical properties its body parts hold, and finally condemns the consumption of crayfish in a summer retreat close to Damascus. This text is devoid of references to sources and framed as an impromptu lecture he delivered. But what he says about the properties is oddly reminiscent of what Albertus Magnus says about red corals, which, in turn, was based on an Arabic geograhic work from India.

Both texts create knowledge about the environment. But the texts dissociate themselves from the environment at the same time. The medium for this dissociation was paper, whose introduction, according to Jonathan Bloom, was more important in creating abstract knowledge than print. After all, once information could be put on the proverbial blank page, it was possible for this information to be relevant across time and space as well as dissociated from the concrete context of the production of that knowledge. 

Perhaps, in a premodern setting with limited resources we should view writing and preservation as acts in defiance of nature. People copied and continued the works of other authors precisely because environmental dangers, among others, threatened the survival of knowledge. Writing promises a way in which knowledge can transcend natural limitations, both in time and space. We can still engage with Ibn Tulun’s words to this day. But at the same time, the materiality of writing makes it vulnerable, and the only way to fend off these dangers is to keep writing and copying what others have written. That might be why Ibn Tulun’s writings on natural phenomena often, on the surface, consolidate a canonical view steeped in Prophetic traditions instead of natural observation. Their main concern was to keep the wisdom of the ancients alive despite the passage of time.

In the remaining time, I would like to outline two promising routes for bringing environmental history into research on Arabic manuscript culture: paper as the main medium and preservation as one main activity. In the former, I will rather stress the reliance on geography and agricultural production. In the latter, environmental factors rather factor as a threat to overcome.

Spread of paper-making in the Islamicate World

Paper and Paper-Making

Paper making spread within two hundred years over much of the Eastern part of the Islamic Caliphate. Where possible, paper making usually followed paper imports. Egypt for instance, imported paper from Syria and itself exported paper as far as India. 

Paper has several advantages over earlier writing materials. It endured longer than papyrus under most conditions and, as it survived folding better, it proved more viable for the codex book. It was much cheaper to produce than parchment and had the additional benefit that it absorbed ink, making forgeries more difficult. The Abbasid Caliphate had adopted paper early on as the exclusive writing material for its own records and documents. As with print, its use for book production was a later, secondary development. Perhaps most importantly, paper “could be produced in virtually unlimited quantities anywhere.”((Bloom, Jonathan. Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, 49.))

The spread of paper-making did not happen in a vacuum. On the contrary, it was connected to changes in agricultural production in the respective regions. On the one hand, Jonathan Bloom identifies the Chinese water-driven trip hammer mill for husking rice as the dominant prototype for paper mills. The spread of paper making thus correlated to the introduction of rice in different regions of the Middle East. In order to harness water power for the paper mills, they were put on boats, so that they could be closest to the main current when needed.

On the other hand, for a paper industry to be competitive, it required both a strong local textile industry and a large enough population to turn textiles into rags. Muslims improved productivity greatly by introducing linen rags as the new base material. Those were usually made from flax or hemp, both rather undemanding cash crops, from whom textiles and oils were produced. Paper making left or was at least connected to noticeable changes to agricultural landscapes. 

Ibn Tulun only talks about paper formats, never about other properties of it. One reason might be that the paper industry in most regions seems to have declined during the 14th century and never recovered. Bloom names three main reasons for the disappearance of local paper industries: 1) the high mortality rates during the Black Death and consecutive outbreaks of the plague; 2) the disastrous invasions of Timur Lenk in 1400 resulting in a ‘brain drain’ of skilled artisans; and 3) the increasing competition of Italian paper products since the mid-14th century, which never allowed the local industry to recover. This commercial competition went beyond paper. The influx of cheap European woolen products competed with the local linen production, therefore fewer rags were available for paper making. 

Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, MS 21201 bāʾ, fol. 11a.

But Ibn Tulun still used local paper for all but one of his manuscripts. Whether this was a deliberate decision or an economic necessity I cannot say. This paper shows individual fibers and is rather thick and sturdy. The images do not give that away all that well. All irregularities they make visible, were the result of lapses in preservation.


Scholars addressed paper once it was in their reach, in the paper, used books, or scrap markets, the madrasas, mosques, chanceries, or in private houses. Or rather, they address the texts or books made out of paper. After all, a book constituted both general knowledge to be acquired and a very specific object which connected the peruser to the great ancestors. And the survival of books and works alike was often precarious. 

Detail of Columbia University, MS Jeffery 50, fol. 1a: in the upper left corner it reads “yā ḥafīẓ yā kabīkaj”.

Therefore, different admixtures were added to the paper, inks, or book bindings to ward off pests. For the same reason, we often find the invocation “Ya kabikaj” in manuscripts. Apparently, this magical practice originates in the much more practical approach in India to put the leaves of this bitter plant in between pages as a measure against worms. When knowledge about this practice was disseminated beyond the book-unfriendly climates of the subcontinent, the actual plant was replaced by its name. 

Water was more of a double-edged sword. Madrasas and other institutions with libraries were usually built close to a source of running water for obvious reasons. One, they were often places of devotion as well, and running water was required for ablution. Two, a water source was a safeguard against fire. Three, these structures provided drinking water to their surrounding neighborhood, And four, a canal, fountain or water basin alleviated the summer heat and thus allowed for the continuation of education. And while paper needs a certain amount of humidity, the winter rains and snow falls would leave their marks on those manuscripts.

Muḥammad Ibn Ṭūlūn, al-Tawjīh al-jamīl li-asrār āyyāt min al-tanzīl, Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, microfilm made from MS Majāmīʿ 758.

Water damage was endemic and was addressed as such as early as the 13th century by another Damascene author, Ibrāhīm Ibn Jamāʿa, when he discusses how books should be stored and organized in a library:

“the conduct in keeping books is grounded in respect for their pieces of knowledge, their eminence, their authors, and their augustness. The most eminent ones are to be kept at a higher point than all the others. Then divide them into degrees [by their worth], and if there is the Holy Qurʾān (muṣḥaf) among them, store it with most care, it should be covered to endure longer, or stored in a clean niche, facing the reception room (majlis); the next are ḥadīth collections like the Ṣaḥīḥ al-Muslim, then the tafsīr of the qurʾān and the ḥadīth, then the uṣūl al-dīn, then those of fiqh, then grammar, […].”

Muḥammad Ibn Jamāʿa, Kitāb kifāyat al-mutakallim fī adab al-ʿālim wa-l-mutaʿallim, Columbia University, MS x893.7 Ib65, fols. 38b-39a.

On the surface, this hierarchy is grounded in the veneration Muslims had for their respective normative and educational texts. The hierarchy displays also a concern over the environmental effects on those books. And those should be kept to a minimum by all means possible. As Ibn Jamaʿa outright states, these measures were meant to make the most valuable books “endure longer”. Incidentally, the Qurʾan manuscripts would often be made of the best paper. This concern is voiced even more strongly when he talks about how to copy a manuscript:

“…don’t put it on the wet carpets on the floor; put it between two books or other objects or on the book stool known as Kīlā. Otherwise it will speed up the tearing of its binding, if [the book] is put on an even surface. It should be on a stool (kursī) or on wood or a pillow. There should always be something between it and the ground.Use wood or stones or bricks both below and above it.”

Muḥammad Ibn Jamāʿa, Kitāb kifāyat al-mutakallim fī adab al-ʿālim wa-l-mutaʿallim, Columbia University, MS x893.7 Ib65, fols. 38a-39b.

Whereas the environment in Damascus was certainly not as aggressive to books as humid India, books needed protection against the environment all the same.


To paraphrase the words of one of cinema’s greatest scientists, Ian Malcolm: Nature always finds a way (to get into your books). Perhaps I would even go as far as saying that its academic counterpart, environmental history, always finds a way to say something new about subjects of historical inquiry. 

As I tried to outline today, it could find with manuscript studies more an intersection than a boundary especially if we turn away from viewing manuscripts as neutral carriers of information. The analysis of paper and other writing materials can offer insights into wider agricultural and technological interventions into the environment. The study of damages in manuscripts can add information about environmental effects.

Last year, a first conference in Rabat established the new field of a social codicology thinking about how and why people engaged with manuscripts. And perhaps it is time for a field of environmental codicology, which would both investigate historical archives and work towards preserving currently endangered archives.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Nature Made Absent? Environmental History and Arabic Manuscript Studies", in Damascus Anecdotes, September 1, 2019,

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