By Alex Teoh
“It is from Terengganu that we find the most brilliant illuminated Quran in the whole of South East Asia”
-Annabel Teh Gallop
The spread of Islam to South East Asia in the 1400’s influenced the literary tradition of royal courts and religious centers in early kingdoms of Java, Aceh, Melaka, and Brunei. Traditionally scripts were written on locally available materials such as palm leaves, textiles, bark paper, bamboo, and wood. However, with trade and colonization, European paper became available and became popular as a writing material.
Because the Quran is the central text of Islam, the hand copying of the texts and teachings was practiced in local religious schools. For the royal patronage, beautifully illuminated copies of the Quran with gold decorated leather covers were commissioned.
With religious books, a new book format was introduced, along with bookbinding. Islamic book binding has its influence from the Middle East. Compared with the western bookbinding structure, Islamic books have some unique characteristics. These include the envelope flap, cover boards squared with the text block, and no raised band at the spine.
Over the centuries, many Quran and religious manuscripts were produced in local script and with localized design in the sultanates of Brunei, Indonesia (Java, Palembang), Philippines (Sulu), Malaysia (Terengganu), and Thailand (Patani). Many of these manuscripts are now in the collections of museums, libraries, and private individuals, both in the region as well as overseas.
As emphasized by specialists of Islamic illumination, the art of illumination of the Terengganu Quran is highly developed. The Terengganu Quran is known for its “brilliant illumination… exuding a jewel-like radiance, with truly virtuosic decorative details, painted in rich hues and adorned with copious amount of gold, executed with precision and finesse.” Dr Annabel Gallop further stresses, “The quality of the workmanship is unparalleled throughout the (Indonesian) archipelago, and Terengganu Quran are highly sought after in the other Malay kingdoms. To this day, Quran manuscripts from Terengganu can be found in royal collections in Palembang, Pontianak in West Kalimantan, and as far away as Bima on the island of Sumbawa” (Gallop 84).
The Terengganu Al-Quran featured in this article belongs to the Pahang State Museum Corporation in Pekan, Malaysia (The Pahang State Museum does not currently have on-site conservation staff; treatment of this manuscript was completed by a private conservator). It has full leather covers and is a hand-written manuscript with beautifully illustrated opening and ending verses. Even though no colophon is present, it can be dated to around the mid to late 19th century.
Unfortunately, the condition of the Quran is very poor and displays many marks of deterioration commonly found in the local warm and humid conditions. The book covers are worn, weakened by surface abrasion and many insect infestation holes. The spine is torn and missing; it is wrapped in white canvas cloth and attached with double-sided tape. There is evidence of an envelope flap which was torn from the leather cover. Some gold medallion decorations on the cover are missing, loose, and detached. The cover is in poor condition, as the cover paste board has disintegrated. The doublure (the covering of the inner book cover) is a textile with a floral design. The textile doublure is badly torn, very weak, and heavily soiled.
The text block consists of western paper with sewn end bands. The watermark and countermark on the paper is PROPATRIA, DZ & Z. Due to age, the spine of the text block has become concave. The paper pages suffer from tears, creases, and folds. The front illuminated page is torn and detached. About two-thirds of the paper pages suffer from various degrees of iron gall ink corrosion, causing the paper to deteriorate. Surface dirt and insect remains are found overall. Insect infestation damage is present in the form of large holes and tears. The binding along the hinge areas is weak.
SOME MAJOR TREATMENT CONSIDERATIONS
Missing Envelope Flap: From the evidence of torn edges on the back leather cover and no remains of the envelope flap, a survey of similar Terengganu Quran was done. Visual inspection and comparison of Terengganu Quran in the collections of several other museums and libraries in Malaysia and Singapore confirm that the back covers typically have an envelope flap. This finding was further confirmed by expert Dr. Annabel Gallop of the British Library.
Textile Doublure: Various options were evaluated for the conservation of the existing textile doublure. One possibility was to replace the doublure with a new textile material or strong end papers. Another option was to conserve the existing doublure, despite its condition and weakness. The latter option was preferred, as the textile doublure is a unique feature not usually found in illuminated manuscripts from this style and period. As this is an Islamic holy book, careful consideration was taken in choosing the type of lining support for the textile. Strong, flexible handmade paper with silk backing was selected. The silk material is plain with no images of creatures or humans.
The Quran was initially cleaned to remove dust, dirt, loose bits of torn paper and insect infestation remains. Extra caution was taken on iron gall ink corroded pages. The text block edges were also cleaned. The front illuminated page was flattened, tears were repaired with Japanese tissue and methyl cellulose, and it was then housed in an archival sleeve.
The textile doublure was removed and cleaned. As previously described, the doblure was then lined with paper and silk to add strength. The leather covers were cleaned, the old paste board was removed, and the leather was consolidated with Klucel-G. The canvas on the spine was removed and adhesive remains were cleaned.
The text block was strengthened, and loose pages were resewn. Because the spine of the text block had become concave, a thick card was shaped to the curve of the spine and secured to the cover spine. A new matching leather cover (chosen to closely match the original colour) with an envelope flap was made. The text block was then reattached to the new leather covers. The original leather covers and the gold medallion were then reattached.
The aim of this conservation and restoration treatment was to stabilize the condition of the Terengganu Al-Quran. Even though certain condition issues still exist, including insect holes and iron gall ink corrosion, the Quran can now be handled, exhibited, and properly stored in a cool, stable, and clean environment.
REFERENCES FOR FURTHER READING
Gallop, Annabel Teh. “The Art of the Malay Qur’an.” Arts of Asia 42, no.1 (January-February 2012): 84-95.
Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. Islamic Bookbinding. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 2017.
Schepper, Karin. The Technique of Islamic Bookbinding, Methods, Materials and Regional Varieties. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
Alex Teoh was trained in the UK at Camberwell College of Arts, University of Arts, London as a paper and book conservator. Since returning to Asia in 2007, he has been involved in various conservation and restoration projects in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. His current focus is on the local material culture of the written text in South East Asia, including the use and conservation of daluang (bark paper) in Javanese and Malay manuscripts, local book bindings, and the use of local spices and herbs as pest deterrence. Alex can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org