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Jake Benson

PhD candidate

J.W. Benson
+31 71 527 2171

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More information about Jake Benson

PhD Research

Naqsh bar Āb, “Design upon Water”: Paper Marbling in the Islamic World

Supervisors: Dr. Gabrielle van den Berg and Prof. dr. Petra Sijpesteijn.

Drawing upon my training as a bookbinder, paper conservator, and student of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish languages, I have extensively researched specific interrelated topics concerning the production of Islamic manuscripts. My two main areas of focus are on decorative paper production- especially the art of paper marbling- as well as technical aspects of bookbinding methods used in the Islamic world. These two major areas are further divided into several distinct sub-topics.

Project #1: Paper Marbling in the Islamic World

For over 20 years, I have examined the production and use of marbled papers, known as abrī in Persian and ebrû in modern Turkish, in the Islamic manuscript traditions in the late Timurid, to Safavid, Qajar, Mughal, Deccan Sultanate, and Ottoman periods. My approaches range from translation and textual analysis and criticism of primary textual sources in Persian and Ottoman Turkish concerning the art to an investigation of the material culture of marbled paper. My manuscript conservation training and practical experience as a professional paper marbler helps me to understand specific technical aspects of a marbled paper manufacture and use. This research is extensive, and comprised of several interrelated sub-topics:

Part I: Primary Textual Sources
The description, translation and interpretation of over 50 primary textual sources in Persian and Turkish on the art ranging from technical accounts detailing methods of production, biographical accounts of specific marbling artisans. An overview of these sources was presented at an international symposium on the history of marbling at Istanbul University in 2013. This research has shown that many technical advances were made in the Deccan, likely devised by a master known as Mīr Muḥammad Ṭāhir. Evidence for this includes two ornate prose missives addressed to this master written by Safavid-era artists Mullā Khalīl Vaqqarī and Yahyà Qazvīnī, who both apparently worked in the library of the shrine of Shaykh Ṣāfī in Ardabil under the prevailing governor, Zū’l-Fiqār Khān Qaramānlu (d.1610). Vivid marbled borders added to a 15th-century Timurid copy of the Manṭiq al-Ṭayr preserved in the Metropolitan Museum (MMA 63.210), likely added in Ardabil under Zū’l-Fiqār Khān’s aegis, provides physical proof of the advances in the art, in support of these exchanges. Preliminary results of this research were presented in two papers delivered at the International Society of Iranian Studies (ISIS) and the Historians of Islamic Art Association (HIAA) conferences in 2012. Publication was delayed by the discovery of important new evidence, described in the next section.

Part II: The Khush Khatti Album and identification of related leaves
An album featuring brilliant marbled paper borders, currently preserved in the University of Edinburgh (Ms. Or. 373) was recently identified as containing a preface that exclusively praises the above-mentioned master, Mīr Muḥammad Ṭāhir, remarking that “…among the fine things of this album are the abri borders…” Since the structure of the album is largely intact, it has helped me to understand the structural form and format of this and other Deccani albums. Further dispersed leaves from this same album were subsequently identified in the Free Library of Philadelphia, San Diego Museum of Art, Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, and the National Museum in Delhi. Because of the highly complex nature of these interrelated corpora, a specially constructed database records each dispersed leaf- together with any transcriptions- in order to identify other related leaves, hopefully leading to their eventual digital reunification. After a careful study of the coloration, and pattern formation of the marbled papers in the album, they were found to be very similar to the borders of the above-mentioned manuscript of the Manṭiq al-Ṭayr. A paper describing this album is in preparation for the forthcoming Historians of Islamic Art (HIAA) biennial symposium to be held at the Courtald Institute for Art, London, in October 2016.

Part III: Abrī as a trope in Persian poetry
Working under Dr. Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, I identified, translated and interpreted instances of the term abrī in over 30 Persian poems, primarily written in India during the 17th-18th centuries. This research builds upon prior investigations by Dr. Annemarie Schimmel, Iraj Afshar and  Najeb Mayel Heravi, among others. The poems range from inspired praise of marbled papers colorful qualities, to the equation of abrī with clouds and rain, which in turn implies a cloud of sadness, tears shed due to separation of the lover from the beloved, a common trope in classical Persian poetry. In contrast, the negative views in five verses of Ṣā’ib Tabrīzī complaining of it as something fake, dry and lifeless, like a cloud that bears no rain, are also explored. I some instances, I have identified how specific marbled works reflect these views, such as the interpretation of poems written upon a sheet of abrī. The preliminary results of my research were presented at the biannual conference of the International Society of Iranian Studies (ISIS), in Montreal in 2014, followed by the 6th International Ebru Congress in Istanbul in May 2016.

Part IV: Marbled paintings and drawings
This portion is focused on the systematic review and identification of over 40 masked and marbled paintings and drawings. While previous scholars have attributed these works to the Deccani Adil Shahi Sultanate in Bijapur, such conclusions were not informed by a comprehensive study of marbled paper production in the Subcontinent, leading many to erroneously attribute the art exclusively to Bijapur today. Several examples dating to the early 18th century, likely from Hyderabad, challenge this ascription, but nevertheless show that it remained linked to the Deccan. Preliminary research about this aspect of the art was recently published in an essay, “The Art of Abrī: Marbled Album Leaves, Drawings, and Paintings of the Deccan” for the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Catalogue Sultans of the Deccan 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy (157-59) and related captions.   

Project #2: Technical Aspects of Islamic bookbinding

My investigation of Arabic and Persian primary textual sources is greatly informed by my training as a professional bookbinder and conservator. The examination of specific passages concerning specific procedural steps sheds new light on the physical structures of different types of Islamic manuscripts in various geographical regions as they evolved over time. In my current position, I have been able to explore these features in detail. Specific sub-topics encompass:

Part I: Pre-16th century Islamic binding methods
The opportunity to work at the Dar al-Kutub has allowed me to examine many manuscripts dating to the late Ilkhanid (especially 72 Maṣāḥif Raṣīd) and Mamluk periods (principally 58, 60, 61, and 62 Maṣāḥif Raṣīd) that are in near-original state. Despite exhibiting some damage, these examples have only minimal repairs, and some have not been restored at all. I then discovered that several features of these bindings such as hinged doublures sewn together with the textblock to provide a secure board attachment; facing the boards with leather and decorating them before attaching it to the doublures, and the specific proportions for cutting the envelope flap were described in a technical account attributed to al-Muẓaffar Yūsuf (d. 1295), the second Rasulid ruler of Yemen in a chapter on bookbinding in his Kitāb al-Mukhtar‘a fī Funūn min al-Ṣun‘ā, ‘The Book of Inventions in the Arts of Handicrafts’. Dar al-Kutub also has some of the earliest examples of applying gold leaf to leather and then punch-cutting it and applying it to the surface as the earliest form of gold tooling. Other forms of leather appliqué, inlay, and onlay work, as well as early examples of cut leather filigree, were made using techniques prevalent in the Coptic and even earlier Pharaonic periods. A poster delineating these physical features in relation to this technical account was presented at the 12th Annual conference of the Islamic Manucript Association in Cambridge.

Part II: Post-16th century Islamic binding methods
Prior to joining the TIF-DAK Project in Cairo, I studied a form of binding in which the spine, portions of the flap and edges of the boards are partially covered in leather, while the boards are faced with paper, cloth, or leather of a contrasting color and/or grain. These leather-edge bindings are frequently found on Ottoman Turkish manuscripts; although, they were also produced in Iran and India as well. My essay “Satisfying an Appetite for Books: Innovation, Production, and Modernization in Later Islamic Bookbinding” identified the exact construction of these bindings, in addition to traditional nomenclature in Persian, Turkish, and Arabic, published in Persian Languages, Literatures, and Cultures: New Leaves, Fresh Looks. K. Talatoff, ed. London: Routledge, 2015.

Part III: Modernization of bookbinding in the 19th century
The second part of “Satisfying an Appetite for Books” concerns the many changes and that took place in the 19th century, from specific technical advancements to stylistic trends in India, Iran, and Turkey. The information is derived from both technical accounts as well as the study of physical evidence, such as the incorporation of photographs into otherwise traditional Persian lacquer bindings. I translated a Qajar government resolution detailing specific reforms of the bookbinding trade enacted by then-Minister of Sciences, Prince Itiżād al-Salṭanah- a half-brother of Nāṣir al-Dīn Shāh- in 1862, published in “Satisfying an Appetite for Books.”

Part IV: Identification of binding fragments
A major project in my work at Dar al-Kutub has been the sorting, identification, cleaning, sleeving, and boxing of a collection of roughly 2,000 binding fragments and traditional slip cases. Among the discoveries are a number of boards of the rab’a manuscript of the Ilkhanid ruler Ūljaytū, 72 Maṣāḥif Raṣīd, and many other boards from the Mamluk period, including valuable fragments from 73 Maṣāḥif Raṣīd, commissioned by al-Ashraf Qanṣūh al-Ghūrī (d. 1516), as evinced by his name on the foredge flap. The information was recorded in a specially constructed bilingual Arabic-English database for the Dar al-Kutub staff to help identify the fragments and more fully document their condition and suitability for conservation.

CV pdf


PhD candidate

  • Faculty of Humanities
  • Leiden Institute for Area Studies
  • No relevant ancillary activities
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