First Arabic Printing Press Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Arabic-language printing began at Aleppo in Syria in the first decade of the eighteenth century, although the first printing press in Lebanon had been established in 1610 by Maronite Christians, who produced an edition of the Psalms in Syriac.

Summary of Event

The history of Arabic printing began in Germany, Italy, and France, when fifteenth century Arabic-language woodblock printing was replaced by Arabic-language Arabic-language printing type fonts. These fonts were easily exported to Christian missionaries, through whom they reached the Middle East. In 1595, Franciscus Raphelengius developed an Arabic font that was used through 1895. The prospect of printing in a language that read from right to left with twenty-nine letters, twenty-two of which had four variations in typography, was at first daunting. In 1613, though, Raphelengius published an Arabic grammar to guide printers’ efforts to publish accurate texts. [kw]First Arabic Printing Press (1702 or 1706) [kw]Press, First Arabic Printing (1702 or 1706) [kw]Printing Press, First Arabic (1702 or 1706) [kw]Arabic Printing Press, First (1702 or 1706) Printing press;for Arabic language [g]Syria;1702 or 1706: First Arabic Printing Press[0110] [g]Lebanon;1702 or 1706: First Arabic Printing Press[0110] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1702 or 1706: First Arabic Printing Press[0110] [c]Science and technology;1702 or 1706: First Arabic Printing Press[0110] [c]Religion and theology;1702 or 1706: First Arabic Printing Press[0110] Athanasius Dabbas Ibrahim Müteferrika Raphelengius, Franciscus Kirsten, Peter ՙAbd Allāh Zākhir Raimondi, Giambattista

Meanwhile, in Breslau (Wrocław), Peter Kirsten improved upon Raphelengius’s type, and in 1608, the type was approved by the Swedish government for Arabic-language printing. Key to the success of European printing in Arabic was the Medici Oriental Press, Medici Oriental Press established by Giambattista Raimondi, whose edition of the Gospels was imported into Lebanon in 1588. At the demise of the Medici press, François Savary de Breve’s Breve, François Savary de type succeeded the Raphelengius-Kirsten type and influenced missionaries’ press work in Lebanon and Syria, as well as in France, Spain, and Romania.

Arabic printing in the eighteenth century targeted two groups: missionaries, who needed portable religious texts and scriptures, and philologists, who wanted to collect and study Arabic texts and needed modern type for their scholarship. In 1786-1787, Catherine the Great of Russia made an Arabic Qur՚ān Qur{hamza}{amacr}n[Quran] available for her newly conquered Turkish subjects after the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji Kuchuk Kainarji, Treaty of (1774) (1774). The text was based on a translation of the Qur՚ān from Latin into Arabic that was first printed in Venice in 1694. It was not until 1878 that G. S. Sablukov would publish the first Arabic-to-Arabic translation of the Qur՚ān.

The rise of printing in Syria, Lebanon, and the Ottoman Empire as a whole was a political phenomenon as much as it was a cultural one. According to differing sources, the head of the Byzantine Orthodox Church, Athanasius Dabbas, started the first printing press in Aleppo in either 1702 or 1706. His decision to found an Arabic press was partly a reaction to the importation of texts in other languages by both of the major Christian communities in Syria (Orthodox and Catholic). The output of the Aleppo press was small, at just eight texts in five years, and the origins of the type used and of the printing press itself are uncertain.

The Aleppo press, despite its small output, set an important precedent. From 1733 until his death in 1748, ՙAbd Allāh Zākhir operated a press from the monastery of St. John the Baptist in a Lebanese hill town, As-Suwayr, for the Jesuit missionaries. Zākhir designed his own type based on imported books. Like his predecessor Dabbas, with whom he had differences in matters of Orthodox faith, Zākhir published eight titles in press runs of roughly eight hundred. Zākhir’s press issued a total of sixty-nine Arabic titles, including a widely used edition of the Psalter that was first printed in 1735 and remained in print until the business’s cessation in 1899.

A key figure in Arabic printing history, Ibrahim Müteferrika, was captured from Hungary in 1692, became a translator in Turkey, and opened a printing press in his home in 1727. He introduced movable type to Turkey, and he likely printed his books on paper imported from Poland. Between 1729 and 1742, he issued seventeen titles in Istanbul with the support of the government. His business was patronized by Seit Mehmet, who, like his father, was open to European influences, especially to works in French. Under Seit Mehmet Paşa (r. 1718-1730), Müteferrika printed a variety of secular works, including histories, a multivolume dictionary, geographies, navigational works, and maps.

Müteferrika knew Latin, French, Hungarian, German, and English, which enabled him to translate many practical and theoretical works, imported from private collections as well as early libraries, and to print them in reasonably priced editions for a variety of readers. Müteferrika’s press was a key component of the Tulip Age Tulip Age of the Ottoman Empire, which was characterized by Turkey’s return as a center of learning and the arts. The 1727 royal proclamation, in effect licensing Müteferrika to print, listed ten reasons that printing benefited the empire. Chief among the benefits listed were that printed books lasted longer than scribal copies, were cheap and potentially plentiful, and would aid in the spread of Islam and in the preservation of the Ottoman Empire.

Napoleon Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I;Egypt Bonaparte brought an Arabic press to Cairo in 1798 to print political literature. Nearly immediately upon entrance into Egypt, the printer Marc Aurel and the philologist Joseph Marcel began Arabic language printing at their press, Imprimerie Orientale et Française. [p]Imprimerie Orientale et Française By January, 1799, the press had a staff of eighteen printers and three proofreaders, and its books were available in five languages, including Turkish. The building that housed the press was destroyed in 1800, when the citizens of Cairo revolted against Napoleon. When the French left Egypt in 1801, they removed their printing equipment. Indeed, two contemporary studies of the Egyptian government composed in 1785 and 1801 discuss the role of scribes in the preparation of government records and reports, making no mention of printing or of printed books.


Arabic-language printing mirrored religious, political, and cultural tensions present in the Middle East between 1702 and 1801. Islam forbade Arabic-language printing and the printing of religious texts, while Christian Catholics and eventually American Protestant missionaries (after 1820) relied on Arabic-language texts and book printing. While Turkish leaders embraced the French version of Western culture and the printing press of the Transylvanian convert Müteferrika as part of the Enlightenment, the Syrians drove out the mainly French Jesuits, and the Egyptians destroyed Napoleon’s printing shop. Culturally, the printing press represented the educational changes that would soon occur, leading to increased literacy, Literacy;Middle East the first newspapers and magazines in Arabic, and the desire for books of all types, creating a reading public that slowly formed and spread across the Arab world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ahmad, Maqsoud. “The Arabic Printing Press in Turkey and the Arab East.” Islamic Culture: An English Quarterly 61, no. 1 (January, 1987): 79-86. Provides an overview of the development of the Arabic printing press beginning in 1514 in Fano, Italy, under Pope Leo X and ending with the state of Egyptian printing in 1868.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Antonius, George. The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1946. Provides useful background on the history of the Arab world and culture from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Atiyeh, George N., ed. The Book in the Islamic World: The Written Word and Communication in the Middle East. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Examines the role of the book in the sociocultural world of the Middle East; includes Christopher N. Murphy’s translation of the 1727 document by Seit Mahmet Paşa allowing Müteferrika to begin printing in Arabic type.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ayalon, Ami. Reading Palestine Printing and Literacy, 1900-1948. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. Addresses the links between education and consumership of books; includes historical background.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cahn, Michael. “The Printing Press as an Agent in the History of Linguistic Ideas.” Proceedings of the Conference of the German Association of University Teachers of English 15 (1993): 47-58. Discusses, using historical examples, how printing presses act as a source of change when a language first appears in print.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hanebuut-Benz, Eva, et al. Middle Eastern Languages and the Print Revolution: A Cross-Cultural Encounter. Westhofen, Germany: Verlag-Skulima, 2002. An important collection of essays printed in English and German with many illustrations of woodblock and movable type printing. The key essays are Geoffrey Roper’s “Early Arabic Printing in Europe,” Dagmar Glass and Roper’s “Arabic Book Printing and Newspaper Printing in the Arab World,” and Harmut Bobzin’s “From Venice to Cairo: On the History of Arabic Editions of the Koran.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hanna, Nelly. In Praise of Books. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2003. Chapter 4 is a study of book ownership, readership, and printing in Egypt from the seventeenth through the eighteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hitti, Philip K. History of Syria: Including Lebanon and Palestine. 2d ed. London: Macmillan, 1957.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Lebanon in History from the Earliest Times to the Present. London: Macmillan, 1957. These two works are comprehensive histories of Syria and Lebanon, providing useful historical and cultural details about the early Christian periods.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, Stanford P. Empire of the Gazis: The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire, 1280-1808. Vol. 1 in History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Useful summary of the Tulip Age, Turkey’s place in the Enlightenment, and the career of Ibrahim Müteferrika.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, Stanford P., trans. Ottoman Egypt in the Age of the French Revolution, by Huseyn Effendi. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Ottoman Egypt in the Eighteenth Century: The “Nizamname-I Nisir” of Cezzar Ahmed Pasha. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962. English translations of two contemporary accounts of the Egyptian government and its role as a source of wealth for the Ottoman Empire. Discusses the roles of the scribes in government document production.

Tulip Age

Construction of Istanbul’s Nur-u Osmaniye Complex

Ottoman Wars with Russia

Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji

Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign

Discovery of the Rosetta Stone

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Categories: History