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By: A.I. Makki

  Of all things that make our lives enjoyable and comfortable, there are only few more important than paper!

  How ignorant the world would have been without the daily newspapers and books, and how much we would have missed if we had been unable to write to one another. And how could the daily business of our lives be conducted without the use of paper?

  Today, life is different from what it was a few hundred years ago because of the discoveries, and useful things invented by scientists. However, if the scientists had not recorded their findings on paper, the world would have been poorer in knowledge. If our histories had not been printed in books and stocked in libraries, we would have been completely ignorant of what life was like in the days of our forefathers. We would not have had the pleasure of reading about the achievments of great men, their history, and their struggles against tyranny, oppression and injustice. We would have been unable to appreciate the fruits of liberty that we all now enjoy.

  Most of our homes would have looked bare and disappointing without the help of bright wallpapers to adorn their walls. Even today, despite the promise of computer manufacturers to provide us with “paperless offices,” we all use paper more than ever before for communication, wrapping, filtering, construction and hundreds of other purposes.

  From papyrus to parchment to paper – the story of how people have written their words is a fascinating one. The first known writings were done on stones, ivory, and on bark of trees. In ancient Babylonia, an immense commerce was carried out in which all transactions that were happening were recorded by indenting characters on clay bricks, and baked later to preserve a record for future reference. However, the filing of these clay tablets proved a difficult task, as they were large, weighty and occupied a lot of space.

  The ancient Egyptians discovered the use of papyrus as a writing material around the year 5000 BC, from the papyrus plant, which grew in large numbers along the banks in delta of the River Nile. They took the reed of the papyrus plant and split it into thin strips, which were laid flat with their edges touching one another. Another layer was placed at right angles over the first and pounded together, and then smoothened with stone to give a coarse, but serviceable writing surface. Thousands of ancient manuscripts made from papyrus have been preserved to this day in Egypt, which gives us much of our knowledge about their ancient culture.

  Papyrus became the principal writing material in Egypt, and later the Egyptians started exporting it to the different centers of civilization across the world. However, the Europeans did not discover the use of papyrus as a writing material until the year 200 BC. They used animal skins for their writing, which they called parchment. In order to make a parchment, the hair and wool on the skin of the animal was first removed, later soaked in lime to clean its surface thoroughly, and then smoothened by chalk. Parchments were expensive to make, but they had several advantages over papyrus. They could be folded up without cracking, unlike papyrus, which had to be rolled up as a scroll, making it easier to handle for an ordinary reader, and they could be used for writing on both sides without wasting any space.

  However, if we had to depend on parchment to record our thoughts and write our storybooks, then we should have been content only with a very few, as the making of parchment was an elaborate and a time consuming affair. Parchments would have been thicker and heavier to handle and would have occupied a huge space, and we would have needed large bookshelves and strong bookcases to hold even a small library.

  The first real paper – the material we write on today – was invented in China about the year 100 CE. It was a sheet composed of fibers “felted” together from an assortment of strange ingredients, which included mulberry and bamboo fibers, fishnets and rags. The inventor of paper was a Chinese official named Ts’ai Lun who first perfected the art of making paper in the year 105 CE. The Emperor Ho Ti was so pleased with his invention that he made him a rich and an important man in his court. Unfortunately, his success made the inventor arrogant, and he became involved in a dangerous intrigue. It is said that he committed suicide by drinking poison rather than be shamed by pubic exposure.  The Chinese jealously guarded the process of making paper for nearly six hundred years, even though their merchants were exporting it to the countries in the Far East, and carried it with them for trade along the Silk Route.

  With the advent of Islam, the Arab armies were soon extending their rule into the heartlands of Central Asia under the command of Qutaybah ibn Muslim. Crossing the River Oxus in 711 CE, they captured the legendary caravan cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and other strong holds along the Silk Route in the present day Uzbekistan. Pushing further east, the Arab armies occupied the fertile Ferghana valley in the year 713 CE. Their Central Asian conquests soon put them on a collision course with the Chinese and thirty-nine years later, they were at war with them.

  The Battle of Talas, which took place in the year 751 CE, between the two superpowers lasted for five days, and their armies met in combat near Dzhambul, in the present day Kazakhstan, in a battle to decide which of superpowers – Muslim or Chinese – would dominate Central Asia. During the first four days of the battle, neither side managed to win a conclusive victory over the other. On the fifth day, the mounted bowmen of Qarluq Turks, who had earlier entered into a secret alliance with the Arab military commander Ziyad ibn Salih joined the Muslim armies and attacked the Chinese armies from the rear, so the decisive victory was won. The Chinese army fled the battlefield leaving the Arabs to rule Central Asia for the next two hundred years.

  This battle was both, a historical and political landmark in the world’s history. It had far-reaching technological consequences too; for a few technological developments have left a significant impact on the history of civilization after the discovery of paper by the Arabs. The Arabs have captured a number of Chinese prisoners of war and they soon found out that among the prisoners were two, who knew the art of making paper. The prisoners were promised freedom if they taught the Arabs the papermaking techniques. After learning the art of paper making, the Arabs lost no time in improvising on making paper – they were the first to make paper from linen – and built the first paper industry in Samarkand and Baghdad in the year 793 CE.

  The spread of paper and its manufacturing skills in the Islamic world between the period of 8th and 14th centuries spurred an extraordinary burst of literary creativity in different fields of knowledge such as natural sciences, literature, mathematics, Islamic theology, commerce and arts. Calligraphers used paper for the first time to write down the Holy Qur’an and the Traditions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). New types of literature, such as cookbooks and Arabian Nights were copied by hand on paper and sold to readers in the form of books. It is recorded that the City of Baghdad had a Stationer’s Market (Suq al-Warraqain) with more than a hundred shops that sold paper and books. Famous scholars of these days would frequent the Suq to purchase and rent books kept in their stock.

  During the reign of Caliph Harun-al-Rashid, (786-809) paper was widely being used by government official for keeping records. The early caliphs maintained huge libraries and they were further enlarged by Caliph Ma’amun (813-833), the son of Harun al-Rashid, who employed scholars and scribes in his Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) to translate Greek texts – written on parchment and papyrus – into Arabic on sheets of paper and had them bound into books.

  Later, the Arabs carried the knowledge of papermaking with them into all the major cities of North Africa and Spain. The Palestinian Geographer, Al-Muqaddasi records that paper had replaced papyrus as a writing material in Cairo by the year 985-986 CE, and the Persian traveler Nasir-i-Khusraw (1035-1042) records that the use of paper had become so widespread in Egypt that the grocers and dealers used it to wrap the goods sold to the customers. By the end of the 12th century, the City of Fez in Morocco had four hundred paper mills operating in it.  At the same time, papermaking industry was active in Jativa in Muslim Spain and from there the Arabs took the knowledge of paper manufacturing into Sicily. The fourteenth century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun writes that the art of papermaking in the Arab world had reached “a considerable degree of excellence.”

  According to legend, France learnt the art of papermaking from Jean Montogolfier who was taken prisoner by Muslims during the Second Crusade and returned after serving his captivity working in a Damascus paper mill. The Italians improved upon the Arab technique, by developing the use of waterpower and wire mesh while making paper. The Arabs were now exporting paper to Europe and passed on the knowledge of making paper to Germany in 1389. Ulmann Stromer hired the help of skilled papermakers from Italy and established a paper mill, which was run on two waterwheels. From Germany, the knowledge of papermaking spread into rest of Europe. At the end of 16th century, paper began to be manufactured in Britain. Then, it was made by hand, and it was very expensive.

  Paper manufacturing received a big boost after Johann Guttenberg invented the first practical mechanical printing press in 1455. Within the next fifty years, thousands of books were being printed all over Europe, and the demand for paper increased. By degrees, machines for printing and making paper improved. The Arabs had some knowledge of printing, which they had learnt from the Chinese, but the idea of printing books was not entertained until the eighteenth century. The Arabs preferred the fluid handwriting of the calligrapher to the printed word. Nevertheless, the first printing presses were established in Aleppo and Istanbul in the 18th century with the help of Europeans. In this way, knowledge first written on paper in Arab lands traveled a full circle to reach its original abode from where it had all started!

  By the middle of 18th century, it was discovered that wood pulp could be used to manufacture an excellent quality of paper, and wood pulp came from trees – an endless supplier of raw material. Today, the United States leads the world in paper production turning out millions of tons of paper every year. The other major producers are Japan, Canada, and Russia. Handmade paper from Finland is the most expensive paper in the world today and a single sheet of paper can cost as high as eighty dollars!

The Arabs not only had the most significant contribution in giving paper to the world, but also the word ‘paper’ – derived from papyrus – that was added to the English dictionary for the first time in the fourteenth century.  The word ‘ream’ in the English language, which is used to count paper, came from the old French ‘rayme,’ which in turn was taken from Spanish ‘resma,’ which originally comes from the Arabic word ‘rizmah’ meaning a bale or a bundle.

  So, the next time we sit on our breakfast table reading the morning newspaper over a cup of coffee, we should remember that had it not been for the Arabs, the morning news with its horror stories could have been delivered to us on parchments made from animal skin!

  And, you might not have relished the thought of reading a newspaper if you were living in Peru, for the early Indians of Peru made their parchments from human skin!


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