Image of CBL Per 219, open concertina binding structure.

Part 4: The Nasir al-Din Shah album, binding

24 March, 2021

Following on from my previous blog posts which introduced the Mughal muraqqa’ album known as the Nasir al-Din Shah album, I have discussed the techniques used for its decorative features and the construction methods of the folios. This final blog post will look at the album’s binding.  

Many Mughal muraqqa’ have been dismantled into single folios, either soon after their original production to allow some of the artwork to migrate to other albums, or throughout their life as they passed through different owners’ hands and perhaps underwent many alterations. Few albums remain bound to this day and little study has been carried out to understand the structure or stylistic particularities of those that do survive intact. [1] 

The subject of my blog posts, the Nasir al-Din Shah album folios in the Chester Beatty (CBL In 50.3-12, In 11A.1-2 and In 07B.28), underwent extensive reworking in 19th century Iran, in the atelier of the eponymous Qajar ruler Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848-1896). The amount of work carried out at this time indicates that the album must have been disbound as part of the process. This is also supported by the presence of detached single folios from the album in different collections around the world today. However, most of the folios of the Nasir al-Din Shah album remain in a bound format [2] at the Gulistan Palace Library in Tehran, Iran. Unfortunately, there are no images of the current binding available for study, so it is difficult to ascertain much about the album’s current form, particularly whether the folios are housed in a reused historic (if not the original Mughal Indian) binding, or if the album was rebound in a contemporary Qajar binding. Nonetheless, by examining the folios in more detail–particularly the gutter edges where they would have joined a binding structure–we can dig deeper into the album’s original construction.

Image of Right: CBL In 03, binding of the Akbarnama, c.1603-05; Left: CBL Is 1537, Mughal lacquer binding.
Right: CBL In 03, binding of the Akbarnama, c.1603-05; Left: CBL Is 1537, Mughal lacquer binding.

The descriptions we read regarding Mughal muraqqa’ bindings usually address the decorative features more than the album’s physical construction. These descriptions are often quite vague or simplistic about binding structure, for example, the folios were either ‘loosely placed’ [3] or ‘simply bound’ between luxurious and ornamented leather or lacquer covers. There is little suggestion as to how exactly the pages were bound. 

Early Mughal muraqqa’ albums may have had pressure-tooled and gilded leather covers with decorated recessed panels representing trees, animals and birds. These can be seen on imperial Mughal manuscripts from the early 17th century, such as the c. 1605 Akbarnama, CBL In 03.  

Lacquer binding techniques developed in Iran in the late 15th century. The Iranian lacquerware technique consists of painting on pasteboards with opaque watercolour and occasionally gold. The painted pasteboards are then coated with layers of clear or tinted varnish. Depth in the design is achieved by using many layers of paint and varnish. 

This technique came to India soon after its invention (e.g., CBL Is 1537) [4] and became especially popular in the Mughal court from Shah Jahan’s reign onwards. Several manuscripts originally bound in lacquer covers can still be found, including the emperor Shah Jahan’s spectacular Padshahnama produced in 1656-57 and now in the Royal Collection Trust, Windsor. [5,6] 

Muraqqa’ structures

We also know that muraqqa’ albums were sometimes bound in concertina format. This seems to be a common feature of Ottoman Turkish and Iranian production, as observed in the Chester Beatty collection, but it is also seen in Indian examples. [7]   

A concertina textblock is formed of single folios joined together by adhering a fold of the margin paper onto the next folio, or with a paper, leather or cloth hinge at each fold, thus creating a long zigzagging row of paper which folds in on itself like an accordion. This folded textblock is then sandwiched between two boards, allowing the viewer to see either side of the textblock when the concertina is opened fully (e.g., CBL Per 219).  

Image of CBL Per 219, open concertina binding structure.
CBL Per 219, open concertina binding structure.

A second concertina method for binding individual muraqqa’ folios can be used to create the standard codex form. This technique probably evolved from the simpler concertina structure described above. [8] Individual folios are hinged together with leather or cloth strips as is seen in the first concertina structure. The hinging material could also be extended around the edges of the folios as a decorative and protective way to finish the edges. The hinging materials for the folios varied, but both colourful textiles and thin leather strips were used. Both offer a strong and flexible hinging material which could be used to join consecutive folios.  

Then, a spine lining–usually a piece of textile or leather–was adhered to the spine, and a full binding constructed around the textblock. This adapted the concertina into a more standard codex form, where the folios hinge at the spine alone (e.g., CBL T 426, CBL T 445). Neither the concertina or codex muraqqa’ format require sewing to secure the folios, and no endband remnants have been observed. 

Image of CBL T 426, an 18th century album of Ottoman calligraphy in a concertina binding and a detail of damage showing the textile spine lining.
CBL T 426, an 18th century album of Ottoman calligraphy in a concertina binding and a detail of damage showing the textile spine lining.

Structural evidence in the Chester Beatty folios

When looking closely at the Chester Beatty folios of the Nasir al-Din Shah album, as well as the Late Shah Jahan album—which I have been working on in parallel—we can observe through the remnants of hinging material adhered to the gutter edge of the folios, a codex structure similar to that described above. In this case, the hinge seems to be made up of two different materials: two paper strips, which sandwich a thin white woven cloth—probably cotton—in the centre.  

This is unlikely to be the original Mughal guards, but rather an addition to the folios made during the later restoration and re-binding in Iran. Without access to the 19th century Qajar re-binding, it is difficult to tell for certain when the paper guards were adhered to the Chester Beatty folios.  Although there are no notable disturbances to the paint layer at the gutter edge of the folios, the outer margins vary in size quite a lot, suggesting that some of them may have been trimmed at some stage. This would mean that any earlier or original hinging materials were replaced with newer ones at some point in the folio’s life, likely in Iran. 

However, earlier remnants seem to have survived. A narrow length of cotton hinging material was found between the layers of CBL In 07B.28. This seems to suggest that historically the folios were attached in pairs, using a hinging material sandwiched between the two sides (recto and verso) of the folios, to create a central guard of white cotton (as we saw in my third post, the recto and verso of each muraqqa’ folio was prepared separately). This cotton joined two folios and created a bifolio that could be secured in a codex structure with the addition of a spine lining and binding, as explained above. 

Image of CBL In 07B.28, detail of the cotton hinge found between the two layers of the folio (recto and verso).
CBL In 07B.28, detail of the cotton hinge found between the two layers of the folio (recto and verso).

The current 19th century guarding system reproduced these features using two paper strips and a cotton hinge. These too have been adhered between the recto and verso of the folios during the remodelling of the folios. On folio CBL In 11A.1, where the hinge has just missed the trimming or disbinding knife, it reveals both a spinefold, and some glue remnants. This precious information provides evidence of the join between two folios, and indicates the hinge was secured with a glued spine lining adhered over the back of the folded bifolio. 

In the Late Shah Jahan album (e.g., CBL In 07B. 20-27; CBL In 07B. 29-39; CBL In 62.3&5; CBL In 50.2) we can see evidence of sewing and endband tie-down holes piercing these paper and cotton hinges, indicating that the bifolios were also sewn. This 19th century sewing was probably used to give additional strength to a large and heavy volume. Whether this was a common practice or a one-off example, is not known.

Image of Left: CBL In11A.1, detail of the surviving cotton spinefold and glue remnants; Right: CBL In 07B.28, detail of paper and cotton hinge attached on top of the original folio.
Left: CBL In11A.1, detail of the surviving cotton spinefold and glue remnants; Right: CBL In 07B.28, detail of paper and cotton hinge attached on top of the original folio.

As I have mentioned, the white cotton joining the folios was covered by paper strips. Using paper rather than cloth for the visible layer creates a seamless look across the opening of the album. The paper used is the same colour as the margins and blends in very well. The edges of the paper strips were also hidden with ruled red and black lines, a technique that is used throughout the folios. 

Much of the binding evidence visible in the Chester Beatty Nasir al-Din Shah folios today is from the Qajar re-binding. Much remains to be uncovered about muraqqa’, their original structures, the materials they were made with, and their bindings. However, it is only by starting to document individual objects thoroughly, that we can make a start in the right direction. 

Julia Poirier, Book and Paper Conservator 


Many thanks to Moya Carey, Curator of Islamic Collections, for her help and advice on this post.


[1] Recent studies of muraqqa’ are still stylistic and tend to focus on the decorative features rather than their bindings.  See, Jake Benson, ‘The Qit‘at-i Khushkhatt Album: Authenticity and Provenance,’ in Keelan Overton (ed.), Iran and the Deccan: Persianate Art, Culture, and Talent in Circulation, 1400–1700, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2020, pp. 337–365. 

[2] For a reference to the album’s history, we look forward to reading more of  Naciem Nikkah’s doctoral work, some of which was shared in the paper, ‘The Nasir al-Din Shah Album: A Narrative of Collecting,’ Colloque: Georges Marteau, sa collection et son temps, 19 November 2019, The Louvre, Paris. 

[3] For a reference to loose folios see,  accessed 15/2/2021. 

[4] Nasser D. Khalili, B.W. Robinson and T. Stanley, Lacquer of the Islamic Lands, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 234.  

[5] Elaine Wright, Muraqqa‘: Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library, Alexandria, VA: Art Services International, 2008, p. 42. 

[6] The manuscript was disbound in the 20th century to accommodate an exhibition of all the folios. 

[7] An example of an extant muraqqa’ structure in the Sir John Soane Museum was observed by Kristine Rose-Beers and Bob Proctor (Rose-Beers, Personal communication, October 2020). See also, O. Akimushkin, ‘“Muraqqa‘” Album of the Indian and Persian Miniatures of the 16—18th Centuries and the Models оf the Persian Calligraphy оf the Same Period,’ Manuscripta Orientalia, Vol. 1, No 3, December 1995, p. 63. 

[8] Jake Benson, ‘Satisfying an Appetite for Books: Innovation, Production, and Modernization in Later Islamic Bookbinding,’ in Persian Language, Literature, and Culture: New Leaves, Fresh Looks, Kamran Talattof (ed.), London: Routledge, 2015, pp. 365–94.  

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