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In Honorem: Deacon Abdalla Zakhir made the first Arabic Press — Eastern Christians were key to Arab Renaissance

Abdalla Zakhir, the Gutenberg of the East
The Monasteries of Lebanon & their Communities were key to Arab Renaissance because they made Arabic a moveable printable script 300 years after Gutenberg

The Invention of Printing

Johannes Gutenberg who invented the first printing press was born in Mainz, Germany, 1400 and was a goldsmith by trade and was a master calligrapher. He moved to Strasburg, at a time when he was contemplating his invention for printing. He was successful in realizing his invention in 1450. Strasburg recognized his magnificent achievement by erecting a statue of him carrying a book with a quotation from the Old Testament “And there was light.” This expression duly described that great inventor who made it possible for various classes of society tp have access to knowledge when books were very rare and very expensive requiring massive efforts by many transcribers. Before this invention, monasteries and monks took on the burden of copying books and presenting them to kings and princes or for preserving in their libraries.

A painting of Deacon Abdalla Zakhir, Melkite Greek Catholic Monastery of Saint John Sabigh, The Showyri. He made the first Arabic printing press in the Arabic-speaking East in 1734.
A painting of Deacon Abdalla Zakhir, Melkite Greek Catholic Monastery of Saint John Sabigh, The Showyri. He made the first Arabic printing press in the Arabic-speaking East in 1734.

The First Printed Book that Contained Arabic

Arabic did not appear in print until Martin Roth, a Dominican Priest, printed a book in Latin in 1486 by Bernard von Brandenburg from Mainz of his travels to the Holy Land. The publisher created illustrated plates where the Arabic script was represented in the book for the first time and included the full Arabic alphabet accompanied by Latin annunciation guide. The extent of printing Arabic did not go farther than including a few sentences. At that time, there was no need to print in Arabic in Europe until the reclamation of Granada (Spain) from the Muslims. At that point in time, the newly appointed bishop of Granada summoned learned men from the university city of Salamanca headed by Juan Faliria and asked him to prepare two books for missionaries who did not know Arabic. The books were published in 1505 and 1506 (using illustrated plates). The first was entitled “Ways of Teaching and Reading Arabic and its Knowledge” and the second “A Dictionary of Arabic in ‘Kashtaliyya’ Script.”

The First Printed Book in Arabic, Using Movable Script in the West

Thumbnail of Book of Hours
The thumbnails herewith are linked to detailed images of the same. Click to view
Thumbnail of the Book of Hours

"It is generally accepted that the first book printed from movable Arabic type was the Kitab salat al-sawai also variously known as Septem horae canonicae,1 Horologion,2 Precatio horaii,3 Preces horariae4 etc., and usually translated as the Book of Hours. This work was presumably commissioned and published at the expense of Pope Julius II (A.D. 1503-13) and intended for distribution among Christians of the Middle East."5

This blessed Book of Hours was completed on Tuesday, September 12th of the year 1514 of our Lord Jesus Christ, praised be his name! Amen. It was printed by Gregorius of the House of Gregorius of the city of Venice; printed (kh-t-m-t) in the city of Fano (Fan) during the reign of His Holiness Pope Leo, occupying the throne of St. Peter the Apostle in the city of Rome. Let him who finds an error rectify it and God will rectify his matters through the Lord. Amen.

Further, it is evident from a Latin preface of an Arabic print dated 1517 that such translations and printed materials were meant for the Christians of the eastern Mediterranean who by the 16th century had begun to give up their usage of the Aramaic language in favor of Arabic. An Arabic translation of the psalms by Abd Allah ibn al-Fadl, a Melkite bishop6 testifies to that, while it is known that the Melkites were using the gospels and other parts of the New Testament in Western Aramaic as late as the 10th and 11th century7 and much later.

First Printing Presses in Lebanon & the East

What facilitated modern renaissance of the Arab speaking world was the spread of printing from Lebanon at the beginning of the 17th century. The first press that was imported into Lebanon, during the reign of Prince Fakhr Eddine Maany the Great, by Maronite Monks of the Monastery of Saint Quzhayya in 1610. The second press of the whole East was that of the Monastery of Saint John Sabigh, The Showyri, Khunshara in 1734. The third press was Saint George’s Press of Beirut in 1751. The Monastery of Quzhayya was also known for a second press that was brought to the monastery by Brother Seraphim Beirouthy in 1814. The latter was known for printing liturgical books, specifically the Holy Bible which was reprinted several times.

Psalms and Religious Books

Quzhayya PressThe Monastery of Quzhayya commenced printing books in Arabic using transliterated Syriac script especially the Psalms and other religious books. This subject was under study by the Institute of the Holy Spirit in Kaslik.

Printing did not reach Egypt until the 1798 Napoleon’s campaign and invasion of Egypt when he brought the first press to that country. This clearly demonstrates that the Arabic-speaking Middle East is indebted singularly to the Lebanon for the introduction of printing presses to that part of the world.

The Press of Saint John Sabigh, the Showyri

This press was invented or made by Deacon Abdallah Zakhir and was documented by the magazine “Al Sharq” in 1900.

Abdallah was born in 1684 in Hama and was known for his skill as a goldsmith, the profession of his father. At the age of 17, he went to Aleppo and completed his Arabic studies under the guidance of Sheikh Suleiman Al Nahawy. He also studied philosophy, theology, Greek and Latin. He worked for a short while for the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch who had acquired a press in Aleppo but for unknown reasons the project was abandoned and he left the Patriarch's employ and came to Lebanon.

He left Aleppo to Lebanon in 1722. He lived for a while in Zouk Mikhael and, thereafter, went to Aintourah were a French mission had established a school. He was well received there and stayed for a short while. During this time, he was thinking of building a press.

After working on developing further his plan, he presented the idea to the monks. They encouraged him to go forward with his plan and provided him with a special facility as well as funding purchases for lead and other primary tools to build the press. However, his stay at Aintourah did not last long. He moved to a small Monastery of Khunshara, the Saint John Sabigh, the Showyri, on a high hill in a warm solemn and quiet valley between high mountains . There, he presented his plan to the Abbot, the Archimandrite Nicholas Sayegh. He started thence the serious execution of his plan in 1734.

The Press

Abdallah Zakhir’s press parts were hand crafted from the wood of the forests that surrounded the monastery. According to the monks, Zakhir bought the central metal drums for the press from Aleppo or they may have been the gifts which were provided to him by the Monks of Aintourah, mentioned earlier. Further, he crafted the fonts from the same lead and other metals acquired earlier and which were similar to those used in presses of recent history (before electronics).

In addition to crafting Arabic fonts, he crafted Latin and Greek fonts because he mastered both classical languages, as well. That was specifically required of him by the Melkite monks for their Byzantine prayers in Greek, as well as their studies in Latin.

He went about creating various fonts using lead. He cut the lead thread, with a special scissors, into standard lengths about 1 inch each. Thereafter, he carved the alphabet typefaces with a special (goldsmith ?) engraver.

Zakhir used natural materials to produce ink. He used some plants and minerals that he gathered from areas around the monastery to produce red and black ink. Often such “ink resources” were as small as grains of wheat. He ground them in stone pestles or squeeze them to render their staining fluids. He mixed the concentrates with pomegranate juice and soot from the monastery chimneys according to his needs. He let the mixtures sit uncovered to dry out and concentrate; thereafter they became ready for printing.

Zakhir’s First Book

Zakhir’s first book “Mizaan Al Zamaan” (the scale of time) appeared in February 1734. It was a collection of prayers. Other books followed, especially books on theology and religious rites, such as “Qowat Al Nafs” (the strength of the soul) in 1772, and “Murshid Al Khati2” (guide of the sinner) in 1774, as well as a large collection of prayer books and others. All of these are preserved in the Monastery along side his skull and his hand crafted clichés.

View the Abdallah Zakhir's Museum at Saint John Sabigh, the Showyri, Lebanon, where printing equipment devised by Deacon Abdallah Zakhir are kept and displayed for visitors.

Translator's Note: The author of this website is in possession of one of Zakhir’s books entitled “Nuboowaat al kanaayis al mutadammin qira2aat al sawm al kabir al muqaddas…” (Readings for lent, Good Friday and those of Christmas, the Apparition and major feasts). This print is dated 1833 and there are samples from it in this web page.

Close-up look at Samples of Zakhir's Books with Engraved Graphics
Introductory Page
First page (annotated in English) - view
Another page
A second sample page - view
Another page
A third sample page with red & black ink - view
Introductory Page
First page (annotated in English) - print quality
Another page
A second sample page - print quality
Another page
A third sample page with red & black ink - print quaility
(Click to view large images or to access high quality for high resolution printable versions)
To download the print quality files -- less than 1MB --
Control-Click for older Macs or Righ-Click for Windows & new Macs

From my (site's author) privately owned book printed on Zakhir's Press: Readings for Lent dated 1833)

Valentin Volney on Zakhir

The famous French traveler Valentin Volney who visited Lebanon in 1783 and 1787 and stayed at the Monastery of Saint John Al Showayr wrote: “Zakhir new the benefits of the press. His literary prowess carried him forward to take on a project that was three pronged and that involved the skills of writing, casting and printing with which he realized his dream. He showed a rich knowledge and capacity to carve owing to his craft as a goldsmith. His efforts were crowned with success when he published Kind David’s Psalms in 1733. The pages were very well put together and the typeface was very clear and beautiful. The book was so well liked that even those who lobbied against him bought the book for themselves. The fonts in that book looked very similar to handwritten calligraphy.”

Poem in praise of Deacon Zakhir written by Father Nicholas Sayegh (English translation included)
Thumbnail of poem

For sure, Zakhir was unable to do all these projects by himself, had the monasteries not assisted him, especially the assistance of Deacon Suleiman Kattan is recognized. Zakhir died in 1748, yet the monks continued to use and run his press until the beginning of the 20th century when it could not keep up with modern presses.

Honoring Zakhir

At the two hundred year anniversary of Zakhir’s death, a special issue of “Al Maseera” (the procession) was dedicated to his memory. (Al Maseera, Volume 7, Number July 1948). Also, a special issue in his memory of “Hayat wa 3amal” (life and work) was published by the Melkite Greek Catholic Aleppine Order of Saint Basil. (Hayat wa 3amal, Number 9 – 10, September, 1948; 113 pages).

For that anniversary, a special seminar was held at the Institute of National Books in Beirut where a number of speakers participated. Also, a painting of Zakhir was ceremoniously unveiled at the Institute in recognition of his production of the first Lebanese press and first printer that used the Arabic script about 300 years after Gutenberg.


  1. Christian Friedrich Sohnurrer, Bibliotheca arabica (Halle, 1811), p. 231.
  2. Georg Graf, Geschichte der chriatlichen arabiachen Literatur (The Vatican, 1944-53), vol. 1, p. 636.
  3. Schnurrer, Bibliotheca arabica, p. 232.
  4. Giovanni Galbiati, "La prima stamps in arabo," Miscellanea Giovanni Mercati 6 (1946): 409.
  5. Krek, Miroslav, The Enigma of the First Arabic Book Printed from Movable Type, Brandeis University, JNES 38 no. 3 (1979).
  6. Georg Graf, Geschichte der chriatlichen arabiachen Literatur (The Vatican, 1944-53), vol. 1, p. 636.
  7. William Hatch, An Album of Dated Syriac Manuscripts, pp. 249, 250 (1946).
  8. Historic material translated by the author of this site, Salim George Khalaf, from a clipping of newspaper article in Arabic dating probably to the late 1960s. The newspaper may have been the Lebanese paper Al Nahar or Lisan Al-Haal.

Further information on printing in Arabic

Some observations on the perception and understanding of printing amongst the Arab Greek Orthodox (Melkites) in the 17th century!
paper presented at the
2nd International Symposium
History of Printing and Publishing in the Languages and Countries of the Middle East
2-4 November 2005
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
Carsten-Michael Walbiner
Katolischer Akademischer Asuländer-Dienst, Bonn

Introductory remarks

The present paper deals with the early perception of book-printing in the Arabic speaking
world. I will restrict myself for this undertaking on the Meliktes (= [Greek] Orthodox) of
Syria, and I think there are good reasons for such a limitation. Printing was a Western
invention and Syria was the playground for the closest relations and interactions with the
West in the whole Arab world. Local Christians played a central role in that process and the
Melkites formed the largest and most widespread local Christian community. Part of their
elite (clerics, big merchants) had developed a certain degree of internationality; they
maintained various religious and business relations with partners in East and West. Beside
them there was only one community of Arab Christians that was closer to the West: the
Maronites. But although the Maronites were in the 17th century (mainly) speaking and writing
in Arabic they preferred to use the Syriac script (Karshuni) for their writings which makes
their printing history more or less part of that of Syriac. Therefore the limitation on the
Melkites who were – at least in the bilad al-Sham – completely arabised in language and
script, although part of the clergy did also have a knowledge of Greek. As Arabic was the
language used in liturgy and daily life by the Melkites my paper is restricted to the printing in
Arabic although I have to allude from time to time to printing in other languages.

The concentration on the 17th century is due to the fact, that this was the period in which
Orthodox relations with forces outside the Arab lands (Western and Eastern Europe)
developed rapidly and thus the foundations were laid for the establishment of the first
Orthodox printing press in the Arab world (Aleppo 1706).

The following remarks might seem a little bit isolated from the cultural and church history of
the time, but a conference contribution of merely 20 minutes does not allow such a general
frame setting. Anyhow, I should at least provide you with the key features of the printing
history of the Arab Orthodox which will help to understand what I have to say (see foil).
Furthermore my presentation might appear as a simple accumulation of facts, dates and
anecdotes. But as there does not exist a treatise in Arabic on printing like the one written by
Ibrahim Müteferrika in Turkish there is no other approach then collecting widely dispersed
information which will not necessarily produce a sound picture.

The introduction of the printed book to the Arab lands

Book printing appeared to the Arabs – regardless of their religion or denomination – as a phenomenon connected with the West. With a few exceptions all printed books that reached the Arab world until the end of the 17th century originated from European presses. While there is beside some Hebrew texts no work in an Oriental language amongst the incunabula, the 16th century saw the appearance of books in Arabic, Syriac and other Eastern languages. From the beginning the printing of these works was closely connected with the Christian communities of the East. So the first book ever printed in Arabic was a Melkite prayer book which was most probably thought to be distributed amongst this community in the frame of Papal church policy. But there is no proof that this work was really read in the East and had thus any impact on Melkite perception of the newly developed technique for the multiplication of books. Other books should help Roman clerics to learn Eastern languages and to spread the Catholic faith amongst the peoples of the East. But printing in Arabic developed only slowly and the first books suffered from aesthetic and other shortcomings. The situation changed in the last two decades of the 16th century when the printers at the famous Medici press in Rome mastered the difficulties of the Arabic script and produced books which until today are counted as masterpieces. These books were not only aesthetically appealing but offered furthermore a great thematic variety. The activities of the press coincided with manifold initiatives of the Holy See to foster its relations with the Eastern Christians aiming at their submission under Papal predominance. Several missions were sent to the East, and in Rome a number colleges for students from the Eastern world – amongst them the famous Maronite college – opened their gates. Students and representatives of the Eastern churches came in increasing numbers to Rome. Many stayed for long years, some for the whole of their lives. Being engaged in intellectual processes of learning and disputation they soon made the acquaintance of the European book culture. Some of these Orientals, mainly Maronites, became even engaged in the printing of books in their native tongues. The production of liturgical works explicitly meant for the practical use by Oriental clerics started, initiated by Orientals and Westerners as well.

In the 16th and 17th centuries books arrived in the East mainly in the luggage of travellers: Catholic missionaries, educated merchants, consular officers, pilgrims and stray travellers on educational journeys brought a variety of books with them, partly for their own use and partly for distribution amongst the Easterners, mainly the Christians.

When, for example, in 1580 the Papal emissary Giovanni Battista Eliano wanted to express his gratitude towards two employees of the customs’ administration in Tripoli (Syria) who had helped him in a certain matter, he presented them with books. One of them, an Orthodox Christian, received an illuminated history of the life of Jesus, and the other, a Jew, got the Torah in Hebrew. Furthermore, Eliano brought a number of books with him which had been printed especially for the target group of his mission, the Maronites of Mount Lebanon. They caused much joy on the part of the patriarch and the bishops and were distributed first amongst the clerics and notables who had gathered for the welcoming of Eliano and later on amongst the people of Mount Lebanon in general.

But also Orientals returning from Europe had there share in bringing books to the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Graduates from the Roman colleges were regularly equipped with a set of printings when leaving for their homelands, and books were a common gift for visitors too.

Furthermore, books were certainly also imported to the East as merchandise. So it is known that the Medici press had commercial interests, but I have no information on the trade of printed books in Syria before the 18th century. It is not possible to establish whether the below mentioned Medici bibles purchased in the 17th century in Syria had entered the region as merchandise or as gifts which were later sold.

So there were many ways in which printed books came the Arab world. But printed books were far from being an everyday occurrence. The number of recipients was small; they were mainly leading clerics in the centres of church administration who were in direct or indirect contacts with the West, namely the Holy See. So an understanding of what book printing was and could be developed first amongst these circles which formed the intellectual elite of the Middle Easter Christians in the period of investigation. As elucidating as the encounter with the books themselves were certainly the explanations on the technology of printing and the mechanisms of book trade given by the missionaries who were stationed in different parts of the Bilad al-Sham. They did not only bring books with them but also a concept of learning in which the printed word had a central place, as can be seen from the Maronite Synod in 1736 the acts of which had been formulated in Rome.

This may suffice as a kind of general introduction. Now, what can be said on the Orthodox in this concern?

Melkite attitudes towards printed books

What the Papal emissary Jerome Dandini had said on the Maronites after a visit to Mount Lebanon at the end of the 16th century was also true for the Melkites: “As generally in the East they do not see the necessity of printing and what the printing of books and their dissemination offer in terms of ease and comfort.”

Although printed books had occasionally come through the above mentioned ways also in Melkite hands during the 16th century, it was not before the early decades of the 17th century that the Orthodox Church in Syria was blessed with an ardent advocate of book printing. The person in question was Meletius Karma. Born in Hama in 1572 he had spent some time at St. Sabas monastery in Palestine, a traditional centre of Greek monastic culture and learning. There he did not only acquire a thorough knowledge of Greek, but he certainly made also the acquaintance of early printings in that language. Through Western missionaries in Aleppo, the city to which he was appointed metropolitan in 1612 a few years after he had returned to Syria, he could familiarise himself with printings in other languages, namely Arabic and Syriac, and learnt details about book printing and trade in Europe. With some of these men who distinguished themselves as scholars Karma and other members of his entourage developed close intellectual relations. Karma developed a special fondness for the Franciscan father Tommaso Ubicini a gifted philologist whom Karma praised in the highest terms. The Italian made such a deep impression on the metropolitan that he wanted to have him as the director of an ambitious project to revise the translations of parts of the Bible in Arabic according to Arabic manuscripts and Greek printings. Soon Karma had developed a very clear idea on the printing of books for the use of his church in Rome. In 1621 he sent his disciple and secretary Absalom to Rome in order to present the Bible project and to negotiate about the printing of the revised holy scripture. Absalom met with a warm welcome in Rome and stayed there for some months. Finally he received some printings in Greek and Latin and the promise that the Vatican would print the Arabic bible. When nothing happened in that concern Karma sent another envoy named Pachomius to Rome who also returned with promises and presents, but only to find that Karma had died in between. In a number of letters posted to the Vatican Karma expressed his wish for printed books. And so did others from his entourage. Michael Baj’a, Karma's archdeacon and collaborator in the revision projects, who maintained a personal correspondence with Rome asked several times for books. In one of his letters he requested the "book of Ibn Sina printed in Arabic, the printed Arabic New Testament and the Old Testament (Torah) in Greek" and gives a short explanation for which ends he would like to have these books. Such requests arriving from different parts of Syria were a current appearance as can be learnt from the Archives of the Vatican.

It has already been said that there were beside the books in Arabic and Syriac also those in Greek who gave the Orthodox examples for printing as a means of multiplying texts. Although strongly related to the East, these books were also of Western origin. Venice was the main centre for Greek printing, and Greeks – clerics and merchants as well – may also have provided their Arab coreligionists with some insights into the technology and organisation of book printing and trade. When Karma stayed in Constantinople in 1626 he did perhaps learn of the plans of the city’s Orthodox patriarch to establish a printing shop. But Karma did not see the press operating as he had left for Syria before its short-lived establishment. And it is obvious that Karma did not develop a similar idea to introduce a printing press to Syria. For him there was only one way to get books printed: through the help of the Vatican at the Roman presses. So, until his death in 1635 Karma, who had finally become patriarch of Antioch, begged the Pope and the Cardinals of the Propaganda Fide to print the different liturgical books he had revised, in vain.

This attitude to see Rome as the only place where books for the Orthodox could be printed prevailed also under the successors of Karma on the Antiochian throne. Macarius b. al-Za’im (reg. 1647-1672), a disciple and close associate of Karma, and Cyrillus b. al-Za’im (reg. 1672-7120) tried – again without success – to have books for their clergy printed by the Vatican. Like Karma they did not make any efforts to establish an own printing press in Syria, although Macarius had during his travels through Russia and the Ukraine seen printing presses and – at least in the case of that in the Ukrainian convent of Yahariska – used for his personal purposes. In the travelogue of his son Paul of Aleppo is written: "In the vicinity of the great church [of the convent of Yahariska ?] is the excellent Printing House, which is known by repute all over this country; where all their church books are beautifully printed, in various forms and sizes; as also fine large maps of the towns and provinces, pictures of the saints, intellectual disquisitions, &c. Here we printed, as other Patriarchs had done before us, a complete set of prayers of forgiveness, with the signature of our Lord the Patriarch in red ink, exhibiting his name as written in their language, and adorned with the picture of St. Peter the Apostle. We had them of three kinds and sizes. The full size for the grandees, the middle for the common men, and the smallest for the women." It is interesting to see how status and sex find their equivalent in the size of the printings. But in our actual concern it is more important to state that Macarius fully understood what a printing press could be good for.

It was finally Athanasius al-Dabbas, the then metropolitan of Aleppo, who introduced the first Arabic printing press to the Arab world (Aleppo 1706) after he had helped to print two Arabic books in Romania at the beginning of the 18th century. This gave him the needed insight and expertise to run an own press the equipment of which he had received as a gift from the ruler of Walachia.

Printed books were received by Orthodox readers in a positive way, and I was not able to find in the sources hints for a disapproving or sceptical attitude. Nevertheless one can differentiate between two general approaches towards the new medium.

An example from the early 18th century shows how quick printed books developed for some readers a superior authority compared with hand-written manuscripts. The copyist of the New Testament which had been printed in 1706 – the copy was made in 1707 – explains to the

reader that should he find any deviations from text in other manuscripts he should not think that the deviations or mistakes belong to this copy as it was copied after the Gospels which Athanasius al-Dabbas had compared with the Greek original text (al-lugha al-yunaniyya al­asliyya) before printing them in Aleppo. So the authority was established through the claim of a thorough revision of the texts before they were printed. We have other examples for such claims in books edited by Abdallah Zakhir and Sophronius al-Killizli in the 18th century. In case that the “Vorlagen” for the revision were in Greek they were printed books too. It has already been mentioned that Meletius Karma chose Greek printings as references for his plan to revise the Arabic Bible. That Greek printings were also held in high esteem for their artistic qualities is shown by the following anecdote from the travelogue of Paul of Aleppo. In order to explore the phenomenon of the “white nights” in the Northern regions Paul and his companions “purposely went out to the platform in the courtyard of the convent, to read in our Greek books, which we did fluently; for there is no type clearer than that used in printing Greek”.

Macarius b. al-Za’im the repeatedly mentioned most prolific author of the Melkites in the 17th century differentiated occasionally – when naming his sources – between printed and hand­written books. When searching for the names and sees of the participants of the synod of Nicaea he came in the lands of the Greeks (bilad al-Rum) across a Greek printed history of the seven (ecumenical) councils in seven volumes which provided him with information not available in Arabic. In another work he characterises his sources explicitly as “unprinted Greek manuscripts”. But it is not possible to say which kind of source was more reliable or trustworthy for Macarius.

An attitude of seeing in printed books possible transmitters of dangerous thoughts and ideas which developed later on and caused in the 19th century the refusal of bibles simply because they were printed by the Protestants can not be observed in the 17th century. Despite of obvious linguistic deficiencies (see below) Orthodox bishops and patriarchs donated the Roman Medici bible to churches and monasteries, thus allowing its use in liturgy. And the Medici bible found its way into private possession too, being handed down from generation to generation.

But there was a more critical approach at least towards the linguistic quality of printed works. Already Meletius Karma had mentioned the many mistakes in the famous Medici bible edition which he described as "weak and useless". But his critique did not lead Karma to a condemnation of printing as such. For him it was obvious that the mistakes were a problem of the editors and not of the technique. And so he wanted to produce a revised and improved edition to be printed. A similar attitude was taken by patriarch Sylvester in the first half of the 18th century. He found that the printed edition of the service book (Qundaq) published by Athanasius al-Dabbas was full of mistakes. So he ordered a revision and took care for its printing in Moldavia.

That even in the 19th century manuscripts were still seen as having their indisputable qualities which made them sometimes even superior to printed books can be learnt from the following remark. In a copy of the Gospels dating back to the Middle Ages one finds the following comment by a learned reader: “God have mercy upon the copyist and scribe because he copied this book accurately. […] When compared with other manuscripts it is better than all books [= Gospels] which have been written [by hand] […] in recent times and better than the printed Gospels – the old ones from Aleppo and the new ones from Mar Yuhanna al-Shuwayr. And its [i.e. the manuscript’s] script is better than [that of] all existing manuscripts.”

The understanding of printing and publication as a technology and process

It is very difficult to say which ideas those Melkites who possessed or read printed books had on the technological process of their printing. Certainly men like Absalom or Pachomius who were sent to Rome to negotiate about the printing of books visited printing shops and acquired a basic understanding of their functioning. But it seems that before Athanasius al-Dabbas no one from amongst the Orthodox gained a full insight in the technique of printing. Nevertheless Meletius Karma who never saw a press working expressed in a "Statement on the printing of books: how it should be" (bayan tab' al-kutub: kayfa yakun) some technical wishes concerning the printing of books for his community in Rome. So he asks for the use of thick paper, large letters and red and black ink. The demand to omit all diacritical signs is an obvious concession to the difficulties it still caused to print fully vocalised texts. So Karma had at least clear understanding of what printing could do and what was not possible. His disciple Macarius b. al-Za'im was able to learn from Greek printed books something on the process of publication, information which he then transmits to his own readers. In an introduction to one of his works Macarius gives a detailed description of the publication activities of the Athos monk Agapios Landos from Crete, one of the most productive and popular Greek authors of the 17th centuries, some works of whom Macarius translated into Arabic. Macarius writes: “Every time when he had composed one of the above mentioned books and had finished it in his monastery he used to go with it to Venice to the people from the [Greek] islands who are there. And they are all Greeks from our brothers. Amongst them are great and reach people who like to do good things. He used to show them that book [which he had recently written] and to preach them and to explain them which [spiritual] reward is [available] for the one who takes care for the book and pays for it and its printing that it will be sown amongst all the Christians in the whole world. And it was unavoidable that on of this people was inflamed by divine ardour and that he or his wife or he and another man paid for the printing of the book an amount of 400 or 600 or 700 piasters, according to the seize of the book. And they printed [usually] more than 1000 copies of it. He wrote the names of those who had accomplished that good deed at the beginning of the book and praised them. [Then] this priest Agapios used to take all the books that had been printed and gave them to the Greek merchants who were doing business in the selling of books. And they brought them over the sea to many countries. And each book was sold for 3 piaster or for 4 or for two or for more or less. And he [Agapios] took the profit to his monastery. And the ruler of Venice gave an order that no one is allowed to (re)print these books, which he the [above] mentioned had printed, before a period of thirty years has elapsed – because such is the custom – so that the books can be sold during these years. Then Agapios used to return to his monastery and to make another book, and than another. And he used to deal with them in the same way.” For Macarius who was a productive author and devoted instructor of his community in matters of religion and other topics such conditions must have appeared as heavenly. But beside from Macarius’ individual inability to retreat to a monastery and devote his life to authorship there were some objective reasons which made an imitation of the Greek model impossible for the Arabic speaking Orthodox. Two of these reasons – and certainly the decisive ones – are mentioned in the above cited quotation. First, the existence of a rich and influential diaspora group in Europe which was able to finance the printing of books and the second, the likewise existence of specialised merchants with far reaching networks who were able to distribute the books widely, thereby producing profits and creating fresh demand. Neither of them existed for the Orthodox Arab-speakers who were therefore completely dependent on help from outside their own community.


Printed books met with a positive reception by the Melkites of Syria. Although books mostly originated from Western presses and were often introduced to the East as part of Catholic church policy generally no sceptic or even rejecting attitude developed. The leading figures of the Melkite community tried to have books printed in Rome for the use of their clergy. But it seems that despite its obvious usefulness the establishment and running of an own printing press was for long regarded as something beyond the possibilities of the Orthodox community. This allows the assumption that printing was seen as a complicated and costly undertaking. So the question must be asked whether the West appeared with its material and technological achievements already in the 17th century as a world which to enter was not easily possible for Orientals. And there is no doubt that the establishment and running of a printing press was an expensive enterprise which demanded heavy prior investment. Only when Athanasius al-Dabbas gained through a yearlong experience with printing acquired abroad a complete technological understanding of the process and when a donation made the needed equipment available to him the Orthodox were able to start their own enterprise in Aleppo.


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year 4758 after the foundation of Tyre