January 5, 2017

The oldest Arabic writing on paper ever found has been found in Tajikistan


A fragment from one of the letters. With permission from Michael Shenkar.

A fragment from one of the letters. With permission from Michael Shenkar.

This week in the journal Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, the discovery of the earliest known Arabic writing on paper was announced by a trio of scholars: Ofir HaimMichael Shenkar, and Sharof Kurbanov. The three letters were found in Sanjar-Shah, an historic landmark in the Sughd province of Tajikistan that has been an area of modern archaeological research since the 1950s, and is connected historically to its more famous cousin-site in Samarkand. These ruins in the valley of the Zeravshan River are rich repositories of history, combining influences from Chinese dynasties, the conquests of Alexander the Great, and various settlements located along the Silk Road, including the pre-Islamic, culturally Persian Sasanian Empire.

The documents discovered trace back to the eighth century CE, when the area was under the rule of the Abbasid Caliphate.

The discovery consists of three letters to the Abbasid Caliph’s local commander, an Arab, and written on paper produced in China. Sadly, the texts don’t contain much intrigue, featuring mostly propitiating sentiments from loyal subjects:

“I am writing [undecipherable] and the amir, may God honor him, is in the same state and condition and in a state of continuity of God’s favor upon him…”


“God placed [undecipherable] from me negligence, for what [undecipherable] for/to you the most exalted and noblest pleasures of repose and the great truth.”

The paper on which these letters were written is among the most exciting aspects of the story. Chinese paper was invented around the dawn of the Common Era, and during the time of these letters (which are themselves written on paper imported from China), the city of Samarkand began manufacturing it in large quantities and trading it westward. The Guardian published a great article about Samarkand paper a few years ago, and many artisanal papermakers still work in the region.

It has not been announced when or where these documents might be on public display.



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.