On the late adoption of the printing press in the Ottoman Empire

The printing press with movable type was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany circa 1439. Ottomans were first introduced to the printing press by the Sephardic Jews in Istanbul in 1494. Ottoman Empire granted protection to Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. The refugees from Spain and Portugal had brought the printing press technology with them to Istanbul, Salonika, Edirne and Izmir.

ibrahim_muteferrikaThe printing press was used only by the non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire until the 18th century. In 1726, Ibrahim Muteferrika convinced the prime minister, the clergy and Sultan Ahmed III to establish a printing house to publish books in the Arabic script. The official Ottoman language was a mixture of Turkish, Persian and Arabic. The writing was done in the Arabic script. Muteferrika was given the permission to publish non-religious books only. He printed his first book in 1729.

We are a talking about a 290 year delay since the invention of the printing press. The 290 year delay is unforgivable but that’s not the saddest part. The adoption of the printing press took another century. Şükrü Hanioğlu [1] explains that the number of books printed in the following century was miniscule.

“The late arrival of the printing house in the empire has often been cited as one of the major causes of the relative decline of Ottoman science and culture in comparison with Europe. It should be noted, however, that the major Ottoman printing houses published a combined total of only 142 books in more than a century of printing between 1727 and 1838. When taken in conjunction with the fact that only a miniscule number of copies of each book were printed, this statistic demonstrates that the introduction of the printing press did not transform Ottoman cultural life until the emergence of vibrant print media in the middle of the nineteenth century”

When I talk with the Turkish intellectuals the following subjects come up often:

  1. Why the printing press was adopted so late in the Ottoman Empire
  2. Why Islamic Renaissance never took place

Both subjects are contentious subjects among the Turkish intellectuals. The first one should not be controversial. We have clear historical evidence as to why the adoption of the printing press was delayed. It is clear from the historical evidence that the professional manuscript scribes were violently against the printing press because they did not want to lose their jobs. The calligraphers/scribes were copying books by hand. This was a relatively big industry employing many scribes.

It is not so clear that the clergy of that era were against the printing press even though historians [2][3][4] show evidence that it was the case. In the current intellectual climate of religious fervor in Turkey the prevailing opinion is that the clergy of the 16th , 17th, 18th centuries were not against the printing press. They say that the printing press was rejected because of the strong opposition of the calligrapher/scribe class. This begs the question: if the clergy were not against the printing press why Muteferrika or others were not allowed to print religious books?

[1] Şükrü Hanioğlu, “A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire”, Princeton University Press (2010)

[2] William J. Watson, “İbrāhīm Müteferriḳa and Turkish Incunabula”, Journal of the American Oriental Society 88 (3): 435–441 (1968)

[3] Miroslav Krek, “The Enigma of the First Arabic Book Printed from Movable Type”, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 38 (3): 203–212 (1979)

[4] Richard Clogg,  “An Attempt to Revive Turkish Printing in Istanbul in 1779”, International Journal of Middle East Studies 10 (1): 67–70 (1979)

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