Ottoman Printing

Here is an interesting essay by Anton Howes on his Age of Invention blog, proposing a reason why printing by moveable type never really took off in the Ottoman Empire. It’s quite long, so I skip to the conclusion:

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.

So it would appear that moveable type in the Ottoman Empire was like the fax machine in the Soviet Union! A followup post points out another drawback of printing in Arabic script, which has:

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.

As I tell my students, the Chinese may have invented moveable type, but it’s much more useful with an alphabetic than an ideographic script, for which you need to know some 3000 characters before you’re barely literate, so the printer’s tray would have taken up an entire room. Looks like there was a slightly similar problem with Arabic.

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