Written between 1304 and 1306 A.D., the Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an is an incredible work of art before the printing age. Named after the ruler who commissioned it, this book was written by Muhammad ibn al-Wahid, the only surviving momento of the scribe’s work, and illuminated by a master of the time.
And then came the age of printing. 440 years after the birth of Guttenburg and around 400 years after the printer, Charles Dicken’s Sketches of Young Couples was created. A satire about the women of England’s rampant spree of marrying young bachelors, Dickens used this novel to discuss, and make fun of, the idea of marriages.
Then, 60 years later, Jacob A. Riis took to the streets with his camera to take picture for How the Other Half Lives, a novel in the same style as Dickens, but with a significantly different tone. Instead of being a satire on Marriage, Riis wrote about how people lived below the poverty line, and showcasing to his more fortunate audience just how terrible being poor really was.
The 500 year gap between these books may appear vast, insurmountable, even, but these two books hold similar ideals with that of the Baybars’ Qur’an, but hold many, many more similarities with one another.

Two ‘Modern’ Books

The two books who are obviously familiar are Sketches of Young Couples and How the Other Half Lives. However, despite the familiarity with one another, these two works offer distinct points of view, differentiating one another from the 60 year difference in, mainly visual techniques.
The majority of similarities, and the most impressive part of these works, comes from the text itself. The structure of the text is remarkably similar:

The text of the page being similar, the book quality and size is much different. The Riis work is significantly larger than that of the Dickens work, implying that this work would be something much more impressive to see in a bookshelf, as well as much easier to find. It was a book that its audience was to sit down and focus upon, to understand the struggles of the times. The Dickens work, meanwhile, is smaller, and was even originally bound with a paper cover. This book was read for pleasure by men in the 1800s, and was small enough that to carry it around was not to a detriment of enjoyment.
Unsurprising with the books of the time, the Dickens novel was already browning and falling apart. More surprising was the quality of the Riis book, which was still white in color, despite being only 60 years younger than the Dickens book. This is more the mark on the popularity of paper made of wood pulp at the time; in only 60 years, the paper goes from looking nearly pristine to browning like a banana.

The images presented by the two works are important to notice as well. Dickens needed to utilize woodblocks to the greatest extent possible; through a magnifying glass, the cross-hatching can be noticed, and such the secrets of the illustrations can be found. Nonetheless, the work’s images are of fantastic quality, showmanship of the growing and growing mastery of the woodblock. The nature of the images allow them to take whatever shape is needed, with many of them conducting themselves into ovals in order to handle the task.
However, the development of the camera and new technologies used to print out blocks of realistic images creates a brand new element for the Riis work, and to great effect. The prevalence of actual pictures is important to Riis’s message to the Middle Class; that this disgusting environment exists in their world, nay, within their own city! A much more essential message than Dicken’s warnings against marriage.
Overall, the new technological hop from 1840 to 1900 allowed for new image technology, and the larger text created an illusion of importance for Riis’s work, but by now, the style of the text had already been determined for an American audience.

From the Past to the Future

The Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an holds within it about 35 pages dedicated to prayer and beautiful, guilded artwork, handcrafted by the time’s most professional illuminators.
But how does this ancient, beautiful art hold up against the aforementioned works?
For a start, there’s the choice of materials. The parchment of the Qur’an differentiates from the modern-day wood-pulp paper, in that it was, obviously, much more arduous to create and more expensive, but the piece still is very easily legible, despite the fact that it has had over 500 more years to corrode than Sketches of Young Couples. This, as well as the gold used to illuminate the work, showcases that this was designed to be a very, very important work for, likely, a singular person of the upper class, as compared to the mass-produced books of the future.
The Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, when it comes to the text, is significantly different than that of the other two works.


The evolution from the 14th century to the 19th has been quite revealing about how the Printing Press changed the reality of scribes and book work, as well as imaging. A quintessential part of mass production, the printing press caused the doom of many heavily scribed and illuminated works and, over time, made the easy-to-make wood-pulp paper the popular option, much to the chagrin of those who wish to preserve these written works for long periods of time. But even in 60 years, between Sketches of Young Couples and How the Other Half Lives, technology changed massively, for the better, allowing books to have incredible accuracy with their imaging. Who knows what medium will take over in the next 60 years, forever changing our power of observations; it will certainly be different then it was 500 years previous.


Dickens, Charles. “Sketches of Young Couplesby Charles Dickens.” Sketches of Young Couples (by Charles Dickens), Authorama, Apr. 2013.

ibn al-Wahid, Muhammad. “Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an.” Turning the Pages™ - British Library, British Library.