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A summary of ‘tarsh’ at the Marriott Library

Arabic paper no. 19:
The text block contains twenty-nine lines of minute, unpointed text in angular kufic.
Unfortunately, the print is unclear to the point of illegibility. Click to enlarge. (Muehlhaeusler)

“The importance of these prints derives not only from the fact that they are early witnesses to the use of printing in the Middle East, or their textual and artistic content but also from their rarity.”

Mark Muehlhaeusler, “Eight Arabic Block Prints from the Collection of Aziz S. Atiya”

Aziz Suryal Atiya and the Development of the Middle East Library

When the name of Western Americana, Rare Books, and University Archives was changed to Special Collections in 1971, it reflected a shift in the holdings at the newly constructed J. Willard Marriott Library. In addition to the growing emphasis of rare books, Special Collections Director Everett Cooley was also made responsible for the impressive Middle East Libraryunder the premise that it was a “specialized” collection. The Middle East Library was established alongside the Middle East Studies program in 1959 with the arrival of Aziz Suryal Atiya.

Atiya was a prominent scholar, writer, historian, and librarian whose expertise spanned the fields of the Crusades and Islamic and Coptic studies. In 1950, he became the first academic from Egypt to receive a Fulbright Exchange Professorship, a position that allowed him to travel to the United States and lecture at 13 distinct American universities, including the University of Utah. Atiya’s lecture on St. Catherine’s Monastery attracted the attention of then-U president, A. Ray Olpin. Olpin was so impressed by Atiya and took every opportunity to visit him as he moved across the country on his lecture tour. He even invited him to give the commencement speech during the 1956 graduation ceremony.

Arabic paper no. 35: Seven lines of clear naskh, partly vocalized, but not fully pointed. The text consists merely of standard formulae and phrases. Click to enlarge. (Muehlhaeusler)

By the end of the 1950s, Atiya’s tour was coming to an end. He was preparing to go back to Egypt with his wife and two young children but Olpin proposed another plan. “Why don’t you come and stay with us all your life?” he asked Atiya. With the approval of his wife and kids, Atiya accepted Olpin’s offer to establish the Center for Intercultural Studies at the University of Utah. The position was not only a full professorship with tenure, but it also came with substantial funding from the Federal Government’s National Defense Education Act. The center’s focus, thanks to Atiya’s leadership, would be on the Middle East.

With William Mulder hired as the administrative director, Atiya could concentrate on establishing a curriculum, selecting instructors to teach Arabic, Turkish, and Persian, and finding unique expertise from other departments such as History and Geography. As he organized the center, however, Atiya realized that the George Thomas Library had few materials on the Middle East, so he sent for his large, private collection of books, journals, and antiquities to be transferred from Egypt to Utah. In its humble beginnings, Atiya’s library composed the core of the Middle East Collection. That is until Olpin extended a sum of $20,000 and told Atiya to “take a quarter off and go get us some books.”

Olpin did not expect Atiya to return with forty crates, each measuring a cubic meter. Atiya recalls seeing Olpin shaking in his shoes at the sight of the shipment, probably thinking, “How much do we owe you? I gave you only twenty thousand dollars.” Atiya would respond, “You didn’t give me enough time to spend all your twenty thousand dollars!” With his knowledge of the book market in Egypt, Atiya had gone shopping at a time when the other Middle East centers were still dormant and had not yet begun collecting. To Olpin’s surprise, Atiya returned to Utah with three thousand dollars unspent.

Arabic paper no. 1559: Sixty lines of text in very angular kufic, divided into two paragraphs of twelve and forty-eight lines. The first paragraph begins with the basmala, followed by the first half of the sahada, an oath bi-sirr al-suwar, followed by the names of various suras. The second paragraph consists of three discreet sections, divided by the borders between the pieces of paper. Click to enlarge. (Muehlhaeusler)

An excerpt from a summary of the center, dated 1962, remarks on “the story of the collection to date” as a “modern parable of the talents of slender means husbanded into large returns. It is the result of timely purchases, several handsome gifts, special allocations… a dramatic book-buying expedition into the Middle East itself involving intimate knowledge of where to find out-of-the-way treasures.” Also included in the summary is a description of about 1,500 Arabic papyri, parchment, and archival documents dating back to the eighth century as “one donor’s gift, now being processed for scholarly use in a special room in the Museum of Fine Arts.” The donor, listed as “anonymous” in several other documents from the Middle East Center archives, was very likely Atiya himself.

In an oral history interview with Everett Cooley from 1985, Atiya disclosed his passion for collecting the specimens, stating that “these papyri were my life.” The massive collection of papyri, paper, and parchment fragments had been considered, at times, the fourth largest of its kind in the country, and took Atiya his whole life up to that point to acquire. “Everywhere there was a scrap of Arabic papyrus, I pocketed it,” he says in his interview “because Arabic papyri, unlike the Greek and Coptic, which were involved in Biblical material, were less in demand by collectors.”

However, growing tensions in the Middle Eastparticularly between the United States and Egyptthreatened to close the nascent center, whose founder and leading voice was, after all, an Egyptian. “What can I do to save the center?” Olpin implored Atiya. “Do something spectacular.” And spectacular was what he did. Using his collection of Arabic papyri, paper, and parchment fragments, Atiya came to Olpin with a plan: “Give us a room to build up this collection and preserve it for all eternity.” A room was indeed set aside in the John R. Park Building, on the top floor within the Museum of Arts and under the management of Horsfahl. The papyrus project gave the Middle East Center renewed status and allowed Atiya to stabilize the rest of the programs and curriculum.  By that point, Atiya had collected so many fragments he did not know what he had, until his wife, Lola, began to work on their preservationtreating each piece and mounting it under glass, “thus saving the papyri from perdition, and eventually saving the center itself.”

The fragments now form the Arabic Papyrus, Parchment and Paper collection, which is one of the largest of its kind in the United States, containing 770 Arabic papyrus documents, 1,300 Arabic paper documents, and several pieces on parchment. To make them usable to scholars, Lola Atiya spent two yearsallegedly losing a third of her eyesightcarefully unfolding, flattening, and encasing the fragments in glass for protection. The fragments date from the eighth century CE through the Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk, and Ottoman eras, and include legal, literary, and magical texts, administrative records, tax receipts, contracts, private letters, official business correspondence, sections from the Qur’an, and several multilingual documents. However understanding the content of the materials proved to be a long and arduous process without the expertise of a papyrologist that was also conversant with papyrological paleography. In 1967, Atiya sent a proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a grant to hire a papyrologist who would help identify, translate, and publish the findings. Unfortunately, the grant proposal was rejected and although Atiya had support from university administration, funding from within the institution never came through.

Arabic paper no. 1560: Text is divided into two portions, of eleven and ten lines, respectively. It is printed in what resembles ornate ‘Eastern’ kufic, with somewhat angular shapes for ra’ and very exaggerated forms for ‘ayn. The text is fully pointed and event has some vocalization. Of the first section, only three lines are preserved entirely. It contains invocations against various non-physical afflictions, i.e. vindictiveness of others, abuse, and the evil eye. Click to enlarge. (Muehlhaeusler)

Despite the disappointment, the Middle East Library at the University of Utah was ranked sixth by the Association of Research Libraries in 1974, with 27,000 items in its holdings. It followed closely behind the likes of Princeton, Harvard, Michigan, Hoover Institution, and Columbia. During the following decades, interest in the collection continued to grow. In 1997, Donald P. Little of McGill University, with a grant from the Fuqan Foundation, surveyed the collection and assessed that it represented five percent of all the Arabic papyri collections in the world. In his report to the foundation, Little concluded that the collection was “an extremely important segment of the medieval Arabic heritage and an invaluable resource for scholars interested in the history and culture of Islamic Egypt.” In a later survey, conducted in 2004 by Gladys Frantz-Murphy of Regis University, the collection was considered “by far the largest collection of pre-modern Arabic documents in the United States,” and “also the most diverse.” Today, the Arabic Papyrus, Parchment and Paper collection, is fully digitized and available to researchers all over the world.

A Summary of Contemporary Research on Arabic Block Printing

Academic research on the Arabic Papyrus, Parchment, and Paper collection at the Marriott Library has been published over the last several decades and by multiple authors. Notable mentions include work by Jelle Bruning, Naïm Vanthieghem, Matt Malczycki, Mark Muehlhaeusler, and Kristina Richardson. The latter two have focused exclusively on rag paper fragments from the collection, which have been identified as printed rather than manuscript materials. According to Muehlhaeusler, “The importance of these prints derives not only from the fact that they are early witnesses to the use of printing in the Middle East, or their textual and artistic content but also from their rarity.” At the time Muehlhaeusler had published his article “Eight Arabic Block Prints from the Collection of Aziz S. Atiya” in 2008, there were no more than seventy specimens extant in the world. The seven specimens located in the rare books collection of the J. Willard Marriott Library increased that estimate by ten percent.

Karl Schaeffer was the first to conduct a comprehensive examination of block printing in the medieval Islamic world. His monograph, “Enigmatic Charms” (2006), reviewed the significant contributions of scholars, examined the historical evidence provided for printing, and consolidated the present state of information on the topic. According to Schaeffer, the first published notice on Arabic block printing had occurred as early as 1852, in an article that appeared in “Journal asiatique,” by Joseph Hammer-Purgstall. The article included a brief mention of a wooden block that was used for printing or, perhaps, stamping. Though, in this case, a stamp may not be technically defined as “printing technology,” it is likely that this article became the catalyst to the inquiry of the history of printing in the Middle East.

Arabic paper no. 1561:
A small fragment of this piece is preserved in Vienna, representing the top right-hand margin, with a fraction of the Coptic section of the border. The entire text is framed by a string of text within a double border. This text is in several scripts (anti-clockwise from the top left): Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, and Coptic. The script is unpointed kufic, with very angular shapes for dal and kaf, the emphatic letters are also angular and in some cases extremely prolonged. Click to enlarge. (Muehlhaeusler)

Schaeffer’s research follows this thread to the late nineteenth century when a new development was revealed. Held within the Viennese Museum of Art and History, several fragments caught the attention of Josef Karabacek, a researcher whose primary interest was in the history of papermaking. Karabacek identified some twenty paper fragments as “amulets” which contained printed prayers. Recognizing the importance of such a discovery, he decided to put them on display in a major exhibition in 1894. It would take another three decades, however, before the collection in Vienna was reexaminedthis time by an American researcher named Thomas Carter. In 1925, Carter published “The Invention of Printing in China and its Spread Westward,” the first work in English to place medieval Arabic block printing into a historical context, suggesting connections between the printing methods found in the Islamic paper fragments with those found in early Chinese examples. As his study paved the way for new research, additional fragments were located around the world.

Articles mentioning Arabic block printing continued to appear over subsequent decades, as noted by Schaeffer, “with just enough infrequency to elicit surprise when each one is published.” By the 1980s, however, it had been established that Arabic block printing could possibly be “the missing link” connecting the history of printing in East Asia with the history of printing in Europe. In fact, Paul Lunde used this term as the title for his 1981 article on the topic in “Aramco World.” Although for Schaeffer, the claims and conclusions remain tentative, “based as they are on slim evidence and fragile premises.” On the one hand, no physical evidence of printing mechanisms had been discovered. On the other hand, much of the textual evidence of the printing process could be considered problematic “due to opaque language and puzzling syntax.” Issues of translation have been focused on the word tarsh and its meaning.

Arabic paper no. 1562:
The print was produced in black ink, and decorative touches with red were applied later. A small fragment of the same print is preserved in Vienna, representing the the lower right-hand corner. The text contains two impressions of the same text, in two sections of thirty-four lines each. The script used is unpointed angular kufic. The text begins with a basmala but, unfortunately, the text is not only in minute letters, but also badly faded and damages, making it almost impossible to decipher continuous passages. Click to enlarge. (Muehlhaeusler)

Scholars have referred to several Arabic texts written between the tenth and fourteenth centuries that contain passages, which may hint at a “printing process.” The first known passage appears in the “Fihrist”a catalog of books compiled in the tenth century by Ibn al-Nadim. The eighth chapter of the book is devoted to magicians and sorcerers in Egypt, commonly referred to as the Banu Sasan, and their khawatim, or stamps. Somewhat of a contemporary to Ibn al-Nadim was a poet named Abu Dulaf, who also wrote about the Banu Sasan and alluded to the production of their amulets and charms: “and of our number is one who engraves a pattern (tarsh) for mass-producing amulets, without shaping them individually and without smoothly them down.” In this passage, the word tarsh is believed to refer to the printing block itself. However, some researchers, such as Richard Bulliet, have argued that tarsh also refers to the material of the printing block, translating the word to mean “tin.”

The claim that these amulets were created from metal matrices further suggests that Arabic block printing might, in fact, be the “missing link” of printing technology as it moved from east to west. Commonly dated between the tenth and fourteenth century, the block prints thus find themselves as a middle point both geographically and historically. However, without physical evidence, only chemical analysis of such fragments could reveal insights into the production of these mysterious charms. Setting the precedent for such a study is the project “From Jikji to Gutenberg”comprised of a collaborative team of international researchers examining the origins of book printing from cast-metal type. This project not only traces the historical evolution of modern printing, it also highlights the universality of printing culture and its lasting impression on human civilization. In 2022, the J. Willard Marriott Library participated in research testing at Stanford University’s Linear Accelerator Center, SLAC, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, with

A faint mirror image of the whole print is visible in the background, turned by 180 degrees, suggesting the print was folded in half. The text is in unpointed, very angular kufic, printed in three blocks of nineteen, twenty-one, and twenty-six lines, respectively. Click to enlarge. (Muehlhaeusler)

samples provided from the rare book copy of “Specimen Pages of Korean Movable Types” by Melvin McGovern.The Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, SSRL, allowed Uwe Bergmann, Martin  L. Perl Endowed Professor in Ultrafast X-Ray Science, and Minhal Gardezi, a graduate student in Physics, the opportunity to conduct two, weeklong experiments using X-ray Fluorescence imaging during July and November of 2022. These experiments were the first XRF analyses performed on Gutenberg Bible folios, Korean printed book folios, and other examples of both Western and East Asian printing. Imaging results were able to pinpoint the existence of heavy metals, but the main goal was to determine whether the source of the metal came from ink, tools, paper, or type. According to Gardezi, “This latter option, if proven to be true, would be a major discovery, as it would imply documents printed hundreds of years ago still contain valuable information about the types used to print them. From a cultural heritage standpoint, this result alone would be exciting enough. However, for our collaboration, it could also potentially provide a basis for comparison between Western and East Asian early printing.”At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, Conservation Scientist, Jennifer Giaccai, continued the research by analyzing paper thickness and luminescence, as well as the binding media found in the various ink samples. Initial findings made a distinction between the types of ink used for printing. Confirming previous speculations, Giaccai was able to conclude that while the Gutenberg sample and the Confucius sample both used carbon-based black pigment, ink for Korean printing was water soluble and similar to the writing ink used in Korea at the time. Meanwhile, Gutenberg used an oil-resin base for his printing, which differed from the writing inks that were common during the fifteenth century. Combined with the research at SLAC, this knowledge can be applied to printing specimens from other parts of the world.

In 2024, we turned our attention to the Arabic tarsh. With the help of the Marriott Library’s Conservation Technician, Susan Schlotterbeck, the seven specimens of Arabic block printing from the rare book collection just concluded the first round of testing at Stanford’s lab and are now currently awaiting more results from the Smithsonian. Couriering the tarsh across the country involved monitoring these treasures both in transit and during the round-the-clock XRF scanning process. Condition checks were made at each step to make sure the items were protected and safely handled. “This was an incredible experience,” Schlotterbeck said upon her return, “witnessing the XRF beam line in action at SLAC and seeing the conservation science lab at NMAA was eye-opening!” This is indeed a very exciting time for our seven specimens and the study of Arabic block printing as a whole. We look forward to learning more about the research results and the insights into how printing technologies in the Middle Ages may have traveled from East Asia to Europe. Stay tuned for more on the Traveling Tarsh!