Jake Benson (Leiden University)
NIT, Istanbul, Turkey
31 Oct 18:30
Known as ebru in Modern Turkish today, marbled papers were called kāġaẕ-i abrī (“clouded paper” in Persian)- or more simply as abrī -in more than seventy Persian, Ottoman, Chaghatai, and Urdu sources. The advent and early history of this art in the Islamic world are enigmatic. While some claim it is very old, the earliest evidence only dates to the end of the fifteenth-century, suggesting it emerged from a context of prodigious and multifarious decorated paper production during the Timurid era.
The earliest technical account from India, dated before AH 1014/1605 CE, describes marbling on a water bath with organic colourants, resulting in a limited range of pale, softly swirled, or turbulent patterns. A second method describes dispersing mineral pigments on a mucilaginous bath extracted from fenugreek seeds. If spattered, the droplets would randomly fall and form pebble-like designs, but if applied in individual drops and bisected with a bristle or stylus, simple leaf-like motifs designs could be formed.
Such simple drop-motifs are found on our earliest dated evidence, a pair of marbled leaves, one bearing a note stating that they were a gift “from Iran” to Sultan Ghiyath al-Din Khalji of Mandu in AH 901/1496 CE. This is contemporaneous with an attribution for the invention of abrī to the Timurid munshi Abdullah Murvarid of Herat (d. AH 921/1515 CE). Other bisected drop-motifs arranged rows arranged in alternating colours and rows are found on a practice sheet signed by Jamal al-Shirazi in AH 920/1514 CE. Both examples prove such simple drop-motifs are among the earliest abrī designs, some 250 years before Hatip Mehmed Ef. (d. AH 1187/1773 CE).
The similarity of primitive styles manufactured a large geographic region makes it challenging to ascertain provenance for many early abrī papers. Mir ‘Ali Haravi (d. AH 951/1544–45 CE) frequently composed poems and riddles upon softly swirled patterns, a practice imitated his students and followers. Similar papers found in découpage manuscripts in Topkapı Palace dated AH 946/1539–40 CE, but we cannot say where the papers were made. In contrast, a copy of Sharḥ al-Wasīṭ completed in Kütahya in the AH mid-Jumada al-Ūlā 966/late-February 1559 CE, may indicate the earliest indigenous Anatolian manufacture. Early European friendship books that incorporate Ottoman papers prove the art was soon practised on a modest industrial scale by stationers in Istanbul. Many of the designs are extremely similar to early pebbled patterns used by Shah Mahmud Nishapuri (d. 1566–67) in Mashhad, and even a Bijapuri miscellany written in 1572–80, making it difficult to distinguish local from regional trends.
In circa 1600, patterns become more sophisticated, a style called haft rang abrī (seven-colour abrī), attributed to an enigmatic figure named Mir Muhammad Tahir, a member of the Safavid elite who emigrated to the Deccan in India, where he attained mastery over the art. Muhammad Tahir’s methods spread rapidly throughout the eastern Islamic world, and evidence suggests that Ottoman artists readily adopted his pattern-making procedures. Yet the earliest, anonymously written Ottoman Turkish technical account, Tertîb-i Risâle-yi Ebrî (Composition of a Treatise on Marbling), an artists' miscellany compiled from earlier sources sometime after 1615 recounts how Indian materials like soapberry were unavailable, implying that readily available local materials such as ox gall were substituted instead. In doing so, early Ottoman marblers developed their own unique methods and approaches with their own distinct tradition of marbling that ultimately flowered into the contemporary practice of ebru.
Image: "Allusion to Sura 27:16", Manṭiq al-Ṭayr (Language of the Birds) of Farid al-Din`Attar (d. 1220) transcribed by Sultan ‘Ali Mashhadi in AH 892/1486 CE.
Abrī borders attributed to Muhammad Tahir, from the Deccan region of India in circa 1600 CE were later added to the manuscript after it was endowed by Shah ‘Abbas to the shrine of Shaykh Safi in Ardabil, Iran in AH 1017/1608–09 CE.
15 1/2 x 8in. (39.4 x 20.3cm)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1963 63.210.47 (fol. 47r)