The Imprint of the Pilgrimage: John Carswell’s Coptic Tattoo Designs

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Earlier this year, thanks to a bookseller in a distant seaport town I tracked down a copy of a book I’d been looking for for many years – one of the 13 original copies of John Carswell’s Coptic Tattoo Designs. I’d first heard of the existence of it while I was a student of religion at Reed College in the 1990’s, in professor Michael Foat’s class on the Coptic Language. While doing background reading for that class I came across a copy of the second, expanded edition of the book. The colophon of that copy had a tantalizing note which stated that the original edition was published privately in Jerusalem by the author in an edition of only 13 copies. I’d been looking for it ever since, and had almost given up on ever seeing a copy before this.

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Sometimes discovering a book after such a prolonged search can be anti-climactic, but it wasn’t in this case. What the colophon of the second edition didn’t note was that this first edition is essentially a different work. The second edition is offset printed, and while being a beautiful and historically important work and sought after in its own right, is essentially an academic study. The 1956 edition is a bound collection of 71 original prints made directly from the wooden blocks which the Razzouk family uses as template guides, at least one of which dates back to 1749, and was published in Jerusalem, rather than Beirut.

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The book has a remarkable auratic quality like no other book I’ve seen. The paper still bears the indentations of the original blocks, which can be felt by running one’s fingers over the verso of each page. Feeling the imprint of these ancient blocks, it is impossible not to imagine the generations of pilgrims whose skin these blocks touched, many of whom have long since passed on from this world. In many ways books become a stand-in or metaphor for the human body, the terms used to describe books often anthropomorphic – the spine, the crown, the foot. In this book, the each page seems to almost become a reverse extension of the skin of the pilgrims, preserving the very imprint of a tradition that, being mostly inscribed on more mortal skin, would otherwise pass from our memory. 

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The second edition is a scarce and coveted work in it’s own right, but this first edition is of near mythological rarity. The first example we’ve seen in ten years of searching. OCLC locates no holdings; KVK locates one holding, at the IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority).

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The colophon of the second edition states that this first edition was limited to ten numbered and three lettered copies. This example bears no colophon or imprint information, but the one page forward here matches the brief description of the first edition in Carswell’s foreward to the second edition. It is unknown whether this copy has been rebound without the limitation page, and furthermore, since we’ve been unable to compare this with any other example, we’re unsure whether or not this example is in the original binding or not, though we suspect that this is an early rebind, or perhaps a later binding of sheets from the first printing. We welcome anyone who has seen an example of the first edition to get in touch for comparison.

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J. C. [John Carswell]. Coptic Tattoo Designs.

[Jerusalem]: [John Carswell], [1956]. First edition. 4to, offset printed title page and 1 p. introduction, signed “J.C.”, followed by 71 prints from the original woodblocks on 56 leaves. Bound, possibly at a later date in red leatherette, and titled in gilt at the spine.

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