Did the Ottomans Ban Print?

Matt Treyvaud of No-sword sent me a link to Anton Howes’ essay Did the Ottomans Ban Print? from his newsletter Age of Invention; it’s an investigation of why the printing press seemingly didn’t take root in the Ottoman Empire and specifically of whether there was actually a ban on “printing in Arabic characters, or perhaps the Arabic or Turkish languages, or perhaps printing outright” (there are various claims about this). It’s a long essay, and somewhat unsatisfactory because Howes is limited to sources he can access in languages he can read — I’d love to see what an actual Ottoman historian had to say on the subject. But it’s worth a read if you’re interested in digging into the details of the available evidence (and finding out about the skulduggery practiced by rival religious groups); here’s his conclusion:

So the principal evidence of Ottoman suppression of printing is overwhelmingly related to its use by non-Muslims. We have, of course, only some of the vaguest hints to go off. But I think a rough, albeit speculative picture is starting to come together. It appears that in the mid-sixteenth century Ottoman authorities might have been worried about the profanation of Islamic religious works by non-Muslims printing in Arabic script, so they prohibited the Jewish printers from doing so. Following the 1590s attempt of the Medici Press to sell them works in Arabic script that were secular, however, they became suspicious about the foreign Christians’ ultimate aims, blocking such books during wartime, and then during peacetime on the grounds that foreign, heathen printers would be benefiting at the expense of local Muslim scribes. This wariness then extended to the non-Arabic script presses of the empire, too, especially when foreign powers seemed to be behind the unrest. Thus, it was in response to the missionary or commercial agendas of Europeans, that Europeans learned of the justifications for not allowing the printing of Arabic script.

What this doesn’t explain, however, is the absence of printing among the Turks themselves. After all, if the evidence we have mainly relates to the suppression of non-Muslim printers using Arabic characters, why didn’t Muslims themselves print? That’s the question I will try to answer in the next post.

If Matt sends me the follow-up thus tantalizingly promised, I will add an update here. Thanks, Matt!


  1. From Vaux’s paper which I linked to in the Armenian thread, I learned that the first Turkish-language novel was printed in the Armenian script. Dunno if there’s a connection.

  2. George Grady says

    Designing movable type for Arabic must be pretty challenging.

  3. somewhat unsatisfactory because Howes is limited to sources he can access in languages he can read

    Yes I find that a strange admission. Howes has found translators for many of his sources. And this doesn’t make sense:

    “(it’s not the easiest thing for me to check, especially as I’ve had to rely on a lot of help to read any of the Hebrew at all). ” [viz check that according to an eye witness, Hebrew was printed “without any points”, likely referring to vowel points known as nikud.]

    You don’t need to read Hebrew to be able to tell whether it’s printed with nikudim. There’s less than thirty letter forms, and the nikudim are clearly additions to those forms, not separate letters. Or perhaps he means Hebrew printed only with Waw and Alef indicating vowels? (So not nikudim in full.) I agree that’s harder, but not very much so.

    Designing movable type for Arabic must be pretty challenging.

    Howes doesn’t suggest there’s any technological difficulty. If you can do Hebrew nikud, you can surely manage Arabic(?) Howes says there was maybe a concern that printed Arabic would not look so aesthetic as a cursive hand. But again I look at old printing in English with those fused double-‘f’s and fancy ‘s’s. Modern printing seems a lot less aesthetic.

    More likely it was religion/hearts and minds:

    “The Medici Press was founded in 1584 … The press was not the first Catholic attempt to print works in Arabic script. “

  4. ə de vivre says

    Ironically, that is also the title of an article by a historian of the Middle East who is in a position to read primary sources: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/674962

    I’m posting this mostly as a reminder to myself to look at it tomorrow to see what she says.

  5. For Arabic typography, you need all the initial/medial/final/isolated forms, and you’re set. Nastaliq was impossible to set in metal.

  6. After I first read this I got curious and ended up finding a thesis on the history of printing in Morocco: The Kingdom of the Book. Apparently it didn’t start until 1864, making the Ottoman Empire look positively precocious – astonishing given the kingdom’s proximity to Western Europe and the presence of hundreds of thousands of Morisco refugees. I wasn’t very convinced by the author’s vague ideological explanations for this, though, at least from the parts I read.

    ə de vivre: Thanks for the link – inconclusive but useful. I should have known Bernard Lewis would be involved somehow. What rather appals me about this is that apparently there aren’t any full records of the early Ottoman firmans to check – what happened there? I like “Aywan Kutanbark” (i.e. Ivan Gutenberg.)

  7. I’m pretty sure I recently watched a program on Nova about this same question whose conclusion was essentially that the rudimentary typesetting capabilities of the early forms of the printing press were less useful for the complexity of Arabic letter forms, and even where well executed just couldn’t be used aesthetically for the one document anyone cared about, viz. the Quran.

    I don’t remember the scholars involved in the show. I do remember how I thought it was rather facile like all (science) programming nowadays – and another reminder why we seldom watch television.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t know how reliable this piece on the history of printing in India that I just googled up is. https://osmomag.com/history/history-of-printing-press-in-india/ But taken at face value it says that for a very long time the only folks running printing presses in India (including in local languages and local scripts) were Christian missionaries, which raises a similar question of why local non-Christian folks with political or cultural power did not think it a technology worth pursuing for their own purposes.

  9. ə de vivre says

    I thought I’d heard an episode of the Ottoman History Podcast on this exact topic, but it seems that there have only been very closely related episodes:

    A New History of Print in Ottoman Cairo. “We often regard print as a motor of social change, leaving revolutions in its wake, whether political and religious. For historians of the Middle East, this line of thought always leads to the (predictable) question: why didn’t Muslims or Ottomans or Arabs adopt print? In this episode, Kathryn Schwartz discusses why this question is often poorly posed and then delves into an in-depth look at how and why people used print in one particular historical context—nineteenth-century Cairo. Touching upon topics such Napoleon, Mehmed Ali, and the Bulaq press, we explore how print slowly and haphazardly embedded itself into various aspects of Egyptian learned life. This fresh history casts nineteenth-century Egypt in a new light by examining the technological adaptation of print not as an act of unstoppable and transformative modernity, but as a slow and incremental expansion of already existing practices of book production.”

    Ottoman Qur’an Printing. “Printing in Ottoman Turkish first emerged during the eighteenth century. Yet, even when print had arrived in full force by the middle of the nineteenth century, it remained forbidden to print the text most sought after by Ottoman readers: the Qur’an. In this episode, Brett Wilson discusses the rise of print and Qur’an printing in the Ottoman Empire as well as the emergence of Turkish translations of the Qur’an in the late Ottoman and early Republican eras.”

    It sounds like there was some kind of ban on printing Qurans, but I haven’t had time to relisten and get the whole story.

  10. Anton Howes says

    Thanks for the link! Regarding my admissions of lacking certain languages, which I can now see were written a bit ambiguously: I could check a work for nikudim myself, but the issue was my finding scans of the Hebrew works by the Soncino press in the first place, for me to check – largely as to even google them I needed some Hebrew.
    I was also able to check all the known primary sources in Turkish, with help. The issue, which I briefly mention, is that there are precious few of such known sources in the first place, and they don’t tell us much. Essentially just two works written c.1650 by Ottoman officials, and the 1701 proclamations cracking down on Armenian presses, which I mentioned (incidentally, this was well worth having retranslated, as in the secondary literature this is sometimes misquoted as 1720-21 due to a typo).

  11. Thanks for coming by and clarifying!

  12. Part 2 is now online!

  13. David L. Gold says

    Anton Howes will find his research easier if he can get access to the publications of אברהם יערי (Hebrew name) ~ Abraham Yaari (English name), most of which are in Hebrew and at least one of which has also appeared in an English translation (Hebrew Printing at Constantinople: Its History and Bibliography).

    נפתלי בן-מנחם published a (complete?) list of Yaari’s publications in volume 42 of קרית ספר, the periodical of the National Library of Israel (pp. 252 – 258).

    The first book printed in the Ottoman Empire in any language seems to be ארבעה טורים, the colophon of which is dated 4 Tevet 5254 (13 December 1493).

    “… the history of printing in Morocco: The Kingdom of the Book. Apparently it didn’t start until 1864..”

    From 1516 (?) to 1524, שמואל בן יצחק נדיבות and his son, יצחק בן שמואל נדיבות, printed fifteen books in Hebrew in Fez.

  14. Here’s an important paragraph from Part 2:

    The Arabic alphabet may have a similar number of letters to the various alphabets that were used in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But Arabic is a cursive script, with its letters connected into words using ligatures, and with very different characters for letters at the beginning, in the middle, and at the ends of words, as well as for letters that stand alone. This meant having to design, cast, and re-cast many more types. From the get-go, it meant that an Arabic-script printing press had a much higher capital cost. And it meant that the process of typesetting each page was significantly more time-consuming, resulting in higher running costs too (or, put another way, much higher capital costs for each book). The typical case of type used in Europe was only about 3 feet wide, with about 150 or so compartments. A typesetter could pick out the letters while more or less standing in place. One of the earliest Arabic-script printing presses in the Ottoman Empire, however, reportedly had a case of 18 feet, with some 900 compartments — six times larger, and probably even more cumbersome, requiring the poor typesetters to walk up and down, rummaging around for the types they needed for each page.

    (If you’re going “But what about…,” click the link and read his further explanations.)

  15. Yes, I wanted to write about Morocco – I have a vague memory that the local Jewish typography(es) were the pioneers if printing on the other (from Europe) side of Mediterranean, but I was not sure and did not remember details. So I did not post.
    The first book printed in the Ottoman Empire in any language seems to be ארבעה טורים, the colophon of which is dated 4 Tevet 5254 (13 December 1493).
    Where was it printed?

    And thank you for the (re-)post, langaugehat. I have been wondering what was the story behind the ban for years.

  16. David L. Gold says

    @ drasvi. You are on the right track.

    The father and son had learned the Jewish printing trade in Lisbon.

    When the government of Portugal ordered all Jews either to convert to Christianity or to leave the country, the two left for Fez with all their equipment and not too long thereafter became the first printers not just in that city but also, it has been said, in Africa.

    If you cannot consult Abraham Karp’s From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress (1991), press here: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/first-book-in-africa-judaic-treasures

  17. Trond Engen says

    I have wondered why the printing press didn’t lead to the development of a non-cursive Arabic script. The model of Hebrew would be at hand, as a proof of concept if not a ready template. And it’s not like Arabic cursive scripts didn’t differ in letter shapes.

  18. @Trond Engen: The special role of the Quran in Islamic culture probably played a role in the decision not to develop a modern, non-cursive Arabic typeface. However, there must still be much more to the story.

  19. I have wondered why the printing press didn’t lead to the development of a non-cursive Arabic script.

    The paragraph following the one I quoted above:

    One solution to the cost of all those additional Arabic characters might have been to use a less joined-up Arabic script. But this was the sort of thing that would have required an especially reckless entrepreneur — one who would bear the costs of designing an unfamiliar typeface, cutting the punches for it, using those punches to create new moulds, using those moulds to cast the new type, and only then printing with it, all with the hope that works printed with their novel ligature-less script would actually sell. (And that’s assuming potential customers were even able to understand it!)

  20. a modern, non-cursive Arabic typeface.

    Geometric Kufic

  21. From that article: “Legibility is not a priority of this script.”

  22. David L. Gold says

    “I have wondered why the printing press didn’t lead to the development of a non-cursive Arabic script.”

    Anton Howes mentions that subject before and after this sentence:

    Following the rise to power of the “three pashas” in a coup in 1913, the Ottoman government tried to impose a new, simplified Arabic script without ligatures, apparently with the idea that this would make the work of military telegraphers easier.


  23. Russian pre-Petrine longhand had crazy ligatures too.
    https://vgd.ru/STORY/36.gif etc
    I feel so lucky that my genealogy docs are all dating to 1700s and later, but not earlier 🙂 But anyhow it didn’t interfere with the adoption of printing.

    Hebrew, like Arabic, has special word-ending letter shapes. Latin has upper case too for the (mostly) word-initial letters, and some ligatures like sz or w, but it wasn’t ever an issue?

  24. David L. Gold says

    “Hebrew, like Arabic, has special word-ending letter shapes.”

    Yes, Yidish has five graphemes that have word-final allographs (adopted from the Hebrew alphabet), which were abolished in the Soviet Union in 1932.

  25. Legibility is not a priority of this script.

    Actually, many decorative scripts are hard to write (with a pen) rather than to read.

    Which is not an issue for a typogrpahy

  26. The penmanship of the Blue Quran (along with the indigo and gold coloration) is incredibly beautiful, but the book doesn’t look like it would be straightforward to read from, at all.

  27. There must be people who understand this better than I do, but the problem with moveable type for Arabic script is not just that there are initial, medial, final, and standalone versions of letters, but that the letters are not arranged on a baseline the same way that Latin letters or Chinese characters are. Sometimes they are on the same baseline, but most often they cascade down from upper right to lower left, and occasionally one can even be on top of another. While there is some variation in how certain combinations may be presented, I understand that readers were used to seeing certain combinations in certain configurations and (given how dots are often omitted, much to the sorrow of learners like myself) the shapes of those configurations were what made those combinations instantly recognizable. So it’s not that books were luxury items and people liked pretty books and didn’t like ugly ones — that was true everywhere before printing — it’s that the writing system had to be distorted to fit on a baseline for the purposes of moveable type in a way that made the letters almost unrecognizable to someone who learned to read from handwritten manuscripts. That made printed books significantly harder for people to read. Or so the argument would go.

    (There’s a separate question about why woodblock printing was not adopted, since woodblock printing did not suffer from the same drawbacks as moveable type. Perhaps Arabic script is harder to carve than Chinese characters, which can be written for the most part with straight brushstrokes.)

  28. As always:
    one complex system A (Europe) adopted a certain invention and another one B (Muslim world) did not. Why? We can:

    – compile an infinitely large catalogue of points of difference between the two systems.
    – find the parameters (~1/2) whose values for a culture A seems to be “less favourable” than the values for B.
    – add to that half those parameters whose values can plausibly be less favourable
    – filter out the parameters (many!!!) who, when taken alone, seem to contribute little (in hope that even if they when taken together mean a lot, their values can be derived from one of “important” meta-parameters)
    – consider the few remaining parameters.

    Then we name one variable of choice that we personally like (e.g. technology) and call it “the explanation”. Or else we can say: it resulted from interplay of multiple factors, blah-blah-blah. This is our methodology and it sucks:) Eventually we have Arab nationalist and Russian rulers who adopt very superficial (like shaving beards) or even the worst European practices in hope to “modernize” their lands.

  29. Stu Clayton says

    This is our methodology and it sucks

    A grand summary of how the makers of grand summaries go about their business ! Nice.

    Meanwhile, it can’t hurt to investigate the various allegations about what the expression “it sucks” connotes, before using it again. There is a hat thread where it came up.

  30. Lars Mathiesen says

    It’s either lewd or innocent. (Middle is excluded, I think). If it’s lewd (though bleached almost to innocence) I think most people know what kind of lewd, and kind of enjoy it. If innocent, well, can’t we have our little fantasies?

  31. A grand summary of how the makers of grand summaries go about their business !

    Of course not. I also think, Arab nationalist and Russian rulers do not follow this algorythm:) This part was rhetorical. But distinguishing between explanations and observations about differences is still a good idea.
    P.S. if some of my comments look as if I anm saying that everyoine is an idiot, it is because I actually think that everyone is an idiot. But I am included and the above was an attack on a flaw in my own thought process.

  32. Yes, we are idiots all. The world would be much better off if more people realized that. (The default is “I am a genius and the rest of them are idiots.”)

  33. Stu Clayton says

    I think most people know what kind of lewd

    There’s no good reason to assume that. Let everyone inform themself if they care to, and make up their own mind what they want to do. The commenter referred to is not a native English speaker, and in the past has expressed opinions on gender-talk that are incompatible with frat-boy humor.

  34. Lars Mathiesen says

    Well, if we indulge in the etymological fallacy, we are all ἰδιῶται in most of the things we do.

  35. Stu Clayton says

    And it would be idiotic to try to be different. A community of idiots ! Now there’s a nice paradox.

  36. January First-of-May says

    I think most people know what kind of lewd

    I actually thought of the wrong kind of lewd before I remembered that the usual extension is it sucks ass.

  37. the wrong kind of lewd
    Made me think about “the light side of the Force” and “the dark side of the Moon”

  38. @January First-of-May: A friend in college once elaborated further on the metaphorical use of “sucks ass,” upon coming back to the dorm after seeing the film Batman and Robin. She said that her ass must have been really clean, since the movie had spent two whole hours sucking it.

    @drasvi: The moon has a far side, but not a dark side.

  39. Tell Pink Floyd that.

  40. John Cowan says

    the usual extension is it sucks ass.

    Per contra, there is it sucks a bag of dicks.

    but not a dark side

    Sure it does. It just changes from time to time, like the dark side of the Earth. The Sun, on the other hand…

  41. Of course, Pink Floyd. My first thought was that it could be a name of an album, then I realized that it reminded me these two phrases. I am not sure if I ever expressed opinions on gender talk. Some sorts of it make me sick, but it is not an “opinion”. If “it sucks” makes someone feel so, I will avoid it.

  42. Don’t worry, Stu wasn’t objecting, just making an observation.

  43. Well, I am a sexist if it makes things easier. I defined “sexist” and “racist” as someone ascribing undue improrance to race or gender or biological sex, but what is “due”? I treat men and women differently, emotionally at least.

    There is a theory that crap exists at several levels (society, culture, language) and these can reinforce each other. It is plausible. I think it can by studied scientifically or at least honestly. I am not going to promote gender-neutral expletives* on occasion of hurting one’s toe. I am not dismissive about such theories, I just think they are valid sociolinguistical quiestions.
    * Coitus!!!

  44. I treat men and women differently, emotionally at least.

    Pretty much all of us do, though ideologues like to pretend they don’t and get outraged when other people admit to it. The question is whether we accept that women and men should have equal opportunities in life (yes, of course conditions don’t permit it in many cases, this is about ideals) and nobody should be treated badly because of their gender. If someone thinks women, however smart or capable they are, should not be allowed in certain fields because they are women, that’s a problem.

  45. J.W. Brewer says

    Vintage Ben Zimmer post from the Log on “suck,” complete with an example contributed by yours truly suggesting yet another mode or genre of lewdness, and also including both lewd and non-lewd further examples contributed by others. https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3099

    The “dark” side of the moon is the side permanently and continuously deprived of illumination by earthshine, FWIW. Heliosuprematists may deprecate the importance of this fact, but it’s still a fact.

  46. The Medici Press was founded in 1584 … The press was not the first Catholic attempt to print works in Arabic script.

    Aaah! I did not think about this (and that is while I read – browsed through – many of them)! French Wikipedia has a page about history of printing in Arabic script. It also references this paper about the first book in Arabic printed in Europe.

  47. Chronologically, the first of these two documents is dated 15 July 1489 and contains a petition directed to the College of Venice by one Democrito Terracina for for a monopoly to print books in esoteric languages such as Arabic, Moorish (Maghribi), Syriac, Armenian, Indian (Abyssinian) and the “Barbary languages”. This request was granted to Terracina for a period of 25 years and gave him the exclusive right to publish in these languages and scripts during this time, imposing a severe penalty of 200 ducats in gold and the loss of the books on anyone infringing on this right. Twenty-four years later, i.e., one year before the expiration of the monopoly granted to him, Terracina died without having published any books.

    The second document dated 31 May 1513 concerns a petition of Lelio and Paolo Massimo, nephews of Democrito, requesting a renewal of the monopoly in their name for another 25 years, claiming that their uncle had worked hard and had had heavy expenses without having been able to reap the fruits of his labors. This request was likewise granted with the same stipulations, including the stiff fine for violators as well as prohibiting exportation and other transgressions of this patent.

    As a result of this monopoly granted to Lelio and Paolo Massimo, no book is known to have been published in these languages in Venice during this time, except two Armenian works which were published in 1513, apparently during the short interval between the death of Terracina which terminated the patent issued to him, and its renewal in May 1513 by his nephews.

    (the text in html form)

  48. Indian (Abyssinian)

    That’s a very odd pairing.

  49. John Emerson says

    IRRC Ethiopia was one of the Indias,
    along with the West Indies, East Indies. North America, and “India”.

  50. Discussion of connectedness (as an obstacle for मुद्रण) reminded me the map that I used to recommend as an introduction to Arabic script. Here, p 15 of the pdf and 11 of the book – though maybe I first saw it in a different book. Anyway, my first reaction was laughter, because it looked extraterrestial. It won’t work so well for people who know which state is where, but a Russian (familiar with all names but only some exact locations) can decipher it within soem 15 minutes and then remember most of letters (for a while).

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