Early Arabic Printing in Europe: A Selection of Books (1514–1694)

Throughout the Bronze Age and well into the Iron Age, Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia made clay tablets “from the sedimentary earth deposited on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates” [1] a Medium of writing in Cuneiform.

In addition, papyrus served as writing medium to Egyptians. Papyrus were cut into narrow strips and placed together to form two layers one horizontal and the other vertical.[2] The cells of papyrus fibers were crushed and squeezed under pressure extracting a glue like substance which helped the fibers of the two layers to stick together. Papyrus gradually disappeared and was replaced by Parchment. Then in the 1st century CE, the Chinese invented the art of manufacturing paper from the macerated fibers of vegetal plants, monopolized this manufacturing process, and kept it secret.

It was transmitted to the Arabs around the middle of the 8th century CE. The story tells that during the Muslim conquest of Transoxiana, between the 7th and 8th centuries the representative of the Abbasids in Khorasan, Persia commissioned the governor of Samarkand to subdue a Turkic tribe. This tribe had alliance with the Chinese and other tribes, which bring a large segment of the Turkestan region under Chinese hegemony. A fierce battle resulted; the Chinese and their allies were defeated. Chinese papermakers were captured and brought back to Samarkand.

The Abbasids who then established themselves in southern Spain introduced the art of paper making into Europe. In parallel, several centuries before its use in Europe, the Chinese invented the block printing and the movable type. The latter was not much used by the Chinese, due to the nature of their script.

Written evidences have shown that Arabs have known block printing. However, the moveable type that will be detailed in this exhibition and the wooden printing press which was modeled after the wine and olive press was invented by Gutenberg.

Timeline:

  • 1453: The Turks invade Constantinople. End of the Greek empire of Byzantium
  • 1455: Printing of the Gutenberg Bible
  • 1473: The Book V of Qanun fi al-tibb of Avicenna, translated by Gérard de Crémone in the XII centuries, is edited in Latin in Milan
  • 1512: The Fifth Council of the Lateran is gathered; among other questions, the Church of the East is on the meeting’s agenda
  • 1514: An Arabic print is born . . . [3]

Exhibit Curator: Dr. Mariette Atallah

Acknowledgments: With much appreciation to Mrs. Mary Clare Leader for text editing, Mrs. Mona Assi and Ms. Dalal Rahme for technical support, Ms. Basma Chebani for transliteration, Mr. Elie Kahale and the digitization team for digitization, Ms. Sara Jawad for design and Mr. Bassem Fleifel for copyright clearance.

American University of Beirut / University Libraries / Bliss Street / P.O.Box 11-0236 / Riyad El-Solh, Beirut 11072020 Lebanon / ulcontactus@aub.edu.lb