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Topics: Topics: Manuscripts
Libraries > Manuscripts

Ancient Egyptians recorded texts on rolls of papyrus, a type of paper made from a marsh plant. They used black ink for the main text and wrote from right to left. Some rolls have been found as long as 90 feet with detailed illustrations in beautiful colors. The papyrus roll was the standard form for manuscripts from the Pharaonic period through the Greco-Roman period.

In the Coptic period, some manuscripts were still written on papyrus, but the most popular material was parchment, made from the skin of an animal. Pages of papyrus or parchment were combined to form a "quire." Several quires were bound together between a wooden or leather cover to form a codex, similar to the modern book form. Manuscripts made for individual use tended to be smaller, while large-format manuscripts were made for liturgical use as a reading book to be placed on the lectern.

Coptic manuscripts were typically written in black ink with red ink used for the headings or titles, which were usually written in capital letters. Other colors, such as blue, green, yellow, gold, and silver were used for decorative designs, crosses, and full-page illustrations. The text was written in either one or two columns. Historically, Christian texts in Egypt were written first in Greek, then Coptic, followed by Arabic. Some Coptic manuscripts were written in two languages, either Coptic-Greek or Coptic-Arabic.

The Coptics typically used two sets of numbers to paginate the manuscript. One number referenced the folio, or front and back of the page. The number was usually placed on the upper outside corner of the back side of the page. The other number was for the quire, traditionally placed at the beginning front page and on the back of the last folio. The number was written on both top corners of the page with an ornament in the upper center.

At the end of the manuscript, the Coptic scribe usually wrote a concluding paragraph called a colophon. It included a small prayer and typically listed the date of completion, the scribe's name and profession, the place of writing, purpose of the document, and who owned the completed manuscript.

The arts of calligraphy, illustration, and book-binding flourished in the Islamic era. The codex was adopted as the standard format for the Qur'an. Parchment was the preferred writing material for Islamic works and a few Qur'ans were recorded on dyed parchment. Sheets of parchment were folded into four pages and placed within one another to make a quire. A quire usually consisted of five double sheets and several quires were sewn together to make a book. Covers of wood or papyrus were covered with leather and decorated with colored wood, bone, or ivory. The upright quarto size, which is the size of a standard sheet of paper divided into four, was widespread with larger sizes being used mainly for special editions.

Arabic scripts were written from right to left, typically in black or dark brown ink. Red, green, or gold dots were used to indicate short vowels and diagonal strokes were used to distinguish certain consonants. Chapter headings were highlighted by gold illumination and gold medallions set apart groups of five or ten verses. Colored inks and silver and gold were used for ornaments and illuminations.

Titles of books were initially short, but as time progressed, they became longer and sometimes consisted of rhyming phrases. Titles and the authors' names were given in the preface. Quires were marked with consecutive numbers written out in words and pagination of individual pages occurred much later. Manuscripts usually ended with the name of the scribe, the date completed, and sometimes the place. Autographed manuscripts and copies made by learned men or recognized calligraphers were considered valuable.

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