By Saulat Pervez
Muslims transformed the Chinese art of papermaking into a major industry as early as the eighth century!
Muslims learned the secret of papermaking from Chinese prisoners captured during the battle of Talas in 751 A.D. Before long, paper began to be manufactured in Samarkand, the very first Muslim hub of papermaking. By 793 A.D., there were many paper mills in Baghdad; as with all other major developments in the Muslim world, paper production soon spread to Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Sicily and Spain. From a Chinese art, paper was thus transformed into a major industry by the Muslims.
This was a revolutionary development, because the existing alternatives to paper were papyrus, which was fragile, and parchment, which was expensive; paper, on the other hand, was relatively cheap because it was made out of cotton – and Muslims made its manufacturing more efficient through the use of water-powered mills. This mass availability of paper enabled Muslims to commit vast amounts of translations and original research to paper; as a result, libraries and bookstores thrived and became a common sight in Baghdad and other Muslim cities.
For example, by the thirteenth century, Baghdad had thirty-six libraries and a 100 book dealers, some of whom were also publishers. The concept of a library catalog dates back to this period – books in these libraries were organized under specific genres and categories. Besides these, many nobles and merchants had private collections of books.
“We hear of a private library in Baghdad, as early as the ninth century, which required a hundred and twenty camels to move it from one place to another. Another scholar of Baghdad refused to accept a position elsewhere, because it would take four hundred camels to transport his books; the catalogue of this private library filled ten volumes. This is the more astonishing, when it is realized that the library of the king of France in 1300 had only about four hundred titles,” writes Frederick Artz in his book “The Mind of the Middle Ages”.
Furthermore, James Burke notes of Cordoba in Muslim Spain: “Paper, a material still unknown to the west, was everywhere. There were bookshops and more than seventy libraries.”
In fact, this was the case because the very first paper mill in medieval Europe was established as late as 1268 A.D. in Italy and appeared in other major countries, such as Germany and France, centuries later.