My latest project at the Chester Beatty has been dedicated to the conservation of a 14th century Mamluk manuscript from Egypt, CBL Ar 5655. This beautiful manuscript, a ‘Manual on the Arts of Horsemanship’, dated 1353 AD is a beautiful example of the popular manuscripts made during the Mamluk sultanate, depicting the Arts of Horsemanship as part of military training. The illustrations are simple but clear and informative with a learning purpose. The British Library holds a similar volume, dated 1371 and by same author, Muḥammad ibn ‘Īsá ibn Ismā‘īl al-Ḥanafī al-Aqṣarā’ī.
The Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517) governed Egypt, Syria, and the west of the Arabian Peninsula, including the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Chester Beatty manuscript is not bound in an historic Mamluk binding. It was rebound, probably in Central Asia during the 19th century, in an Islamic–style partial red leather binding, sometimes referred to as muqawwa (1). The current binding is edged with leather around the upper and lower boards and envelope flap, over green silk panels. A pressure-tooled red leather central medallion and two pendants are recessed into the boards and adhered to the green textile on the boards, with another one on the envelope flap. The gilding on the edges of the leather and the spine suggest some Western bookbinding influences.
The current binding displays several interesting features. Visible at the damaged corners, the binding boards appear to be made with two pieces of pasteboard adhered to one another with a layer of leather in the middle, forming the new sturdy boards. The leather is now sandwiched between the two layers of board, suggesting it was previously adhered to one of the paste boards.
This raises the question as to whether an historical board was re-used. It is almost impossible to tell as the attachment is strong and any lifting might damage the leather. However, Marco di Bella suggests that thicker board is specific to central Asia (2) and this could explain why two boards were laminated. Underneath the pink paper pastedown, adhered to the inner boards of the binding, a mottled but repetitive effect strikes-through indicating that a decorative doublure or pastedown has been left intact beneath.
The textblock has been sewn with a pink silk sewing thread at three stations, creating a link stitch to secure the quires. A coarse cotton spine lining has been adhered to the spine. The spine lining does not appear to be extended, suggesting that it does not function as an element of board attachment. However, the presence of paper strips on either side of the spine lining adhered to the leather spine covering, suggests some strengthening of the attachment. How precisely this worked is unclear. The chevron patterned endbands, now broken, were woven on leather cores at the head and tail of the spine. The secondary sewing uses two colours: a pink thread and a silver thread, made from wrapping a yellow thread with silver foil.
The current structure of CBL Ar 5655 is failing due to almost complete deterioration of the binding structure. The spine lining and the endbands are nearly completely detached and two thirds of the textblock sewing is broken. The upper and lower pastedowns are broken at the joints.
Due to the very poor structural condition of the binding, the manuscript has not been exhibited recently, and although often requested for loan, it has not been allowed to travel. Eleven separately mounted illustrations from the manuscript were conserved recently, and due to its particular significance and the high demand for this object, the conservation and preservation of the manuscript was prioritised by the Conservation team late last year.
As book conservators, we always ask ourselves what is the least interventive way in which we can treat an object and preserve its integrity. In the case of CBL Ar 5655, with a fully broken sewing structure made of weak and disintegrating silk thread, there was very little that could be done to fix the sewing in-situ. Although this option is always preferred and prioritised whenever possible, in this instance the textblock could not be strengthened by simply repairing the existing sewing, as the sewing thread itself was so weak. Secondly, by adopting a hands-off approach and leaving the manuscript in its current state, we would potentially be putting the manuscript at risk of further damage through handling.
So why disbind at all?
Although disturbing or removing original material may seem less important here as the manuscript has already been rebound many times, disbinding is still considered the last possible option by conservators due to the way in which it changes the object. Although the original Mamluk binding is now lost, evidence of sewing stations, thread and other codicological evidence, can teach us a lot about the manuscript’s past and the original sewing structure. As such, the interventive process of disbinding this manuscript—even at this point in its long and eventful life—allows the structure to be studied carefully and for all information to be recorded for future reference.
Julia Poirier, Book and Paper Conservator
(1) Akimushkin, O. (2001) Central Asian Manuscripts’ Bindings (1730s — 1930s). Manuscripta Orientalia. Vol. 7, No 3, September 2001, pp. 4-8
(2) Di Bella, M. (2012). “Islamic Bookbinding”. In The Treasury of Oriental Manuscripts. Abu Rayhan al-Biruni Institute of Oriental Studies of Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan. UNESCO, p.113.