Ottomans and their books
ISTANBUL- Hürriyet Daily News | 9/16/2011 12:00:00 AM | Niki Gamm
Books were important in Ottoman times and any man who could read and write had vast professional opportunities ahead of him in theOttoman government
Today there are thousands of handwritten Ottoman manuscripts still in existence. The most likely place to find them is in libraries.
There are among the many books at the 9th Beyoğlu Antique Book Fair a few pages here and there written in the Ottoman script. Ottoman manuscripts for sale on the open market have become rarer and rarer over time. The most likely place to find them is in libraries like Suleymaniye Library and the Sultan Ahmet III Library at Topkapi Palace Museum. Here and there are private collections scattered about Turkey, although many have been sold off to foreign libraries.
The book was important in Ottoman life and any man who could read and write had vast professional opportunities ahead of him in the Ottoman government. But because there were no printing presses that could reproduce the Ottoman script until the 18th century, everything had to be done by hand. Ibrahim Muteferrika printed 17 works between 1729 and 1742 when his printing press was shut down. It reopened in 1784. The opposition of the clergy who believed that scripture, i.e. the Quran, had to be hand written and the vast number of scribes whose livelihoods were threatened shut Muteferrika down.
Today there are thousands of handwritten Ottoman manuscripts still in existence. In producing a book the author showed others his erudition, grasp of the Ottoman language and clarity of hand writing. [Very few women were educated and even fewer wrote.] The idea was to then present the work to someone high up usually in the government hierarchy in the hope that this person would approve of it and perhaps give a monetary reward or even a job. If a book was approved, the person to whom it was presented might wish to have copies made to give to others or to keep in his own library. Copies weren’t always exact and perhaps later material might be added to the original or comments made by the owner of the book and written in the margins might be incorporated in the text as well.
Although paper originated in China, it is the Turks who brought it west with them from Central Asia. The process is similar to the making of felt – soak plant fibers in water and then pound them together and let the page dry in the shade. The addition of Arabic gum would make the sheets white while including henna in the process for example would turn the sheets the color of the jujube or a cinnamon red. Cotton was the choice for the plant fibers.
Ink was handmade and it didn’t require anything very complicated. Linseed oil or candle soot was used for black although occasionally red ink was made. The soot would be refined and then purified water added. Boiled pomegranate juice helped the ink flow and the sap from vine branches added a glossy look. The ink would then be put in an ink stand that had raw silk in it. This protected the nib of the pen and kept the ink from spilling out if it were overturned. There’s a room above the main entrance gate to Suleymaniye Mosque in which the soot of the fires used for heating in the winter would be collected from the walls. It was deemed especially efficacious.
Pens were made from sturdy reeds and each calligrapher had his own set of differing sizes and shapes. Reeds would be gathered from marshy lakes and rivers and then buried in horse manure for four years to harden. The end of the reed would be cut at an angle. Even the slightest variation in the cut will mean that the pen can’t be used for one or the other of the types of calligraphy in a book. The pen will probably have to be sharpened again during the course of writing. The late Professor Ali Alparslan, one of Turkey’s best calligraphers in the modern era, also stressed that if the pen had been used to write the Quran or Quranic verses, the shavings could not be thrown away. Such was the sacred connection between the pen and the holy book of Islam.
Bookbinding became a craft at which the Ottomans excelled. Their book covers were made of leather. Starting from Central Asia through Iran and finally arriving in Anatolia with the Seljuk conquest, the development of bookbinding was particularly helped because of the high regard in which the Quran and religious books were held. The binding helped preserve the contents. It not only covered the front, back and spine but also had an extra flap that wrapped over the exposed pages. The designs on the covers differed from place to place and at the beginning were done by hand. Later molds were developed with which the leather could be stamped. Where and when the binding was made can still be determined today.