Time to talk about book stamps

Instinctively, what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘book stamp’? Is it an Ex Libris with a careful inscription and perhaps an illustration as well? Or is it a functional tool that serves basically the same function as an ownership note? In contrast to those, there is little literature on book stamps, and maybe that is why this post deserves to be written—and published?

In the following, let’s address three points I consider central to the study of the book stamp in a primarily Arabic-language context: 1) how do they look, 2) where were they placed, and 3) which purpose did they serve?

Before we begin to answer those question, it should be noted that book stamps have been ignored. They are treated to an extent in manuals for Arabic codicology like Gacek’s or Deroche’s books. They are also mentioned, if not described, in online manuscript catalogues like that of the Staatsbibliothek Berlin. Already Wilhelm Ahlwardt mentioned the presence of stamps in his catalogue for the same collection towards the end of the 19th century. And until some time in 2018, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin even hosted a database on stamps and seals, which has unfortunately not come back online yet.

Nevertheless, it is safe to say that research on book stamps bearing Arabic inscriptions is still in its infancy. One reason is that large-scale projects on provenance have often drawn a line before the time period, I believe to be the one when stamps began to become prevalent, namely the mid- to late 19th century. That seems to be true at least for Egypt, Syria, and their surrounding regions, whereas Iran and the Ottoman core provinces had adopted the book stamp much earlier. This difference is grounded in other characteristics of the respective library landscapes in those regions (ask me in a comment if you’d like to know more about those).

Qestion 1: How do Arabic book stamps look?

Now, let’s turn to the first question: how do Arabic book stamps look? Surprise, there is no easy answer. Just look at the two examples below! The smallest and simplest ones might only measure about 1 cm in diameter and might only display an owner’s first name (ism). Others could be much larger and would display a much larger text. And in between we have a great variety of shapes, sizes, and amounts of information given about a person or institution (in the case of waqf and, later, public libraries).

Book Stamp of sultan Selīm, Süleymaniyye Kütüphanesi, MS Laleli 3747, fol. 193a

The most common shapes for book stamps are certainly the circle, the oval, the octagon, the rectagon, and the square. At least, those are the most common ones I found in a sample taken from the Egyptian Taymūriyya Library. The most common size is between 1 x 1,5 cm (depending on the shape), although several were larger, measuring around 2,5 to 3,5 cm.

By far the most common color of stampings is black. Other colors include shades of red and blue, much less frequently green. The same stamp could, however, be used with different inks to produce different colors. Aḥmad Taymūr, the owner of the Taymūriyya Library, used, for instance, black, red, and blue ink at different times to mark his ownership in/of his manuscripts.

Eye-shaped book stamp, MS Tarikh Taymur 631, p. 387

Book stamps most often announce the name of a manuscript’s owner or its legal status, namely when they were endowed. They also often give a year. Although we cannot always be certain to what event that year entails, often enough it would signify the establishment of a book endowment. But there are other cases such as one earlier stamp used by Taymūr which bears a year in which he would only have been five years old. We’ll return to this point in regards to the third question.

They might also hold additional information about a person, and the writing would often be structured by horizontal lines or decorated with surrounding simple floral motives. At the edge, one or two lines usually surround the stamp’s imprint.

Question 2: Where were book stamps placed?

Duh, the name gives it away: they were placed in books. If that was your first thought, you are correct. As we have already seen, they were sometimes used to signify ownership, and we might thus surmise that they would be placed—within the book—similarly to ownership notes. Those are most often found on one of the earliest folios of a volume.

Yet, they are not exclusively found in a place where you might expect them. There are cases where a stamp is imprinted on the first folio of each quire (which incidentally allows you identify quires using only scans). In other cases, a book might have served to test out the stamp. In one case, the same stamp is imprinted several times on a small paper slip, for which we cannot say at which point it became part of its current manuscript.

There is, however, one case of stamping which can be explained more thoroughly than those (assumed) outliers. You can find an example of this type of stamping in an earlier post. In this case, stamps stood in for a signature or, rather, supported the claim made by the signature next to it. Thus, stamps could not only signify ownership but also certification.

This brings us to the second part of this question. Not only is it important to know where in a book a stamp was placed but also where on a page it was placed. In 2018, Zahir Bhalloo gave an interesting talk on the placement of signet rings under contracts in Early Modern Iran which got me into thinking about the placement of book stamps, as well.

What can we deduct about the uses and purposes from stamp placement? At the moment, I can only give preliminary observations. Predominantly, stamps did not replace ownership and other notes but complemented them. When a note is written in the shape of an inverted triangle, the stamp is usually place towards the lower end, next to the signer’s name and date. They also appear next to a signature in texts on transmission of knowledge, particularly Hadith. In other cases, stamps do appear on their own but in most cases I can only guess that they were probably placed wherever free space was available.

Question 3: Which purpose did book stamps serve?

I have already alluded to some of the possible purposes. The real question is why book owners and collectors shifted from handwritten notes to stamping at the respective times when they did. And hidden behind this question is the one posed above: why did the book stamp did arrive earlier in the Ottoman core provinces and Iran than in Egypt or Syria?

Let’s start with what we have established so far. Book stamps served as certification of ownership or identity, and in this they came to complement or even substitute handwritten notes. I have also alluded to the importance of imprints of signet rings in documents, and I believe that the rise of the book stamp in Egypt and Syria is closely tied to the introduction of such “official-looking” proof of identity. This might account for the large numbers of small stamps, which were, in fact, signet rings of middle-ranking scholars or administrators.

After all, a stamp requires additional investment. I have no idea what a personalized signet ring would have cost, but in addition to this expenditure you would also need a vessel for the ink used, which would be different than the ink well used for a reed pen. For one, it would need a larger opening.

This expenditure was easier justified in a larger royal, waqf or public library, which might be why we see stamps earlier in the Ottoman core provinces. Only with the advent of the stamp in provincial administrative practices does it also appear more frequently in manuscripts circulating in the Arab provinces. I suggest that this was an Ottoman innovation, which, by the early 19th century, was accepted more widely in other documentary practices such as that of Hadith transmission.

One difference between the practices in the core provinces and the Arab provinces remained that, in the former, the stamp stood by and for itself, whereas, in the latter, the stamp was mostly added to the prevalent practice of penning ownership notes. Only where the size and/or status of a library justified a large stamp with elaborate inscriptions, was the earlier practice abandoned. But most stamps do not appear in many manuscripts. The signet ring was thus used by owners of smaller book collections to emulate those practices in larger and more high-profile libraries.

This is important since we should not discount fashion as an important factor for the spread of the book stamp. Having one’s own stamp became coveted because Ottoman sultans and high officials created their own grand stamps, which they might have first seen in exchanges with Iranian rulers. With governors and chief judges regularly changing, those symbols of power would have been visible in the Arab provinces as well. And thus, they could serve as status symbols even if emulated on a much simpler scale.


We should note that the book stamp never replaced the ownership note in the Egyptian or Syrian context. In my limited survey of the Taymūriyya Library I have identified two hundred manuscripts bearing stamps. That is, two hundred out of 1,600 manuscripts I surveyed. Should we take from this that the book stamp was seen as a—controversial—innovation?

In any case, the book stamp can be regarded a ‘paper technology’, as it changed how people engaged with both books and documents. Its reach was limited, however, and it was superseded by other paper technologies around 1900. Not only did print allow bookish people to accrue larger libraries than before but also the increasingly international trade in Arabic manuscripts extracted large numbers of books from local and regional circulation, in which the use of the book stamps described was embedded. This notwithstanding, the book stamp was an important step in manuscript history and deserves its own scholarship.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Time to talk about book stamps", in Damascus Anecdotes, October 11, 2020, https://thecamel.hypotheses.org/2152.

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