Age of Invention: Did the Ottomans Ban Print?

You’re reading my newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. It currently goes out to over 6,100 people. You can sign up here:

I’ve become interested in the question of when, and why, some countries don’t adopt the technologies of their near-neighbours — especially when they have significant diplomatic and commercial ties.

I was reminded in particular of the Ottoman Empire’s relative non-adoption, for almost three hundred years, of the moveable type printing press — something I first learned about from Jared Rubin’s thought-provoking book Rulers, Religion & Riches. Rubin argues that the Gutenberg press was pivotal to an early economic divergence within western Eurasia, between those areas where commercial elites began to seize more power (think England and the Dutch Republic), and those where religious elites maintained control (not just the Ottoman Empire, but the Spanish one too). The spread of printing, he argues, gave the Reformation a chance to succeed; and wherever it succeeded, commercial elites had a vacuum to step into. The Spanish Empire, then, was an example of where the printing press was fully adopted but where the Reformation failed, while the Ottoman Empire is interesting because the printing press seemingly didn’t take root.

But why not? The Ottoman Empire was no distant, closed-off land, but a place with long common borders and extensive trade links to many of the countries that adopted the printing press early on. Indeed, the block-printing of books seems to have been done throughout the Islamic world in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, if not earlier. And there actually were some moveable type printing presses in Istanbul from as early as 1493, set up by Jewish refugees from Spain. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, various other minorities set up printing presses too. But the one thing they all had in common was that they did not print Arabic characters — used, at the time, for writing both Arabic and Turkish.

It was only in the early eighteenth century that Arabic-character printing began in the region, initially by Christians in Aleppo from 1706, and culminating in 1727 with the establishment of an official, state-run Ottoman printing press. Even then, the official press didn’t print at anything like the scale of the European presses, and with interruptions too. So it wasn’t really until the nineteenth century that anything like an Ottoman print culture began to emerge.

And it’s a source of great controversy. Many Western historians in the twentieth century liked to lay the blame on religion, or at least religious interest groups — an argument that also found favour among many early Turkish secularists. They argued that the Ottoman sultans actively suppressed the technology, until finally relenting in the eighteenth century. It’s an argument that, naturally, has also been popular among political scientists wishing to illustrate a point about the drawbacks of autocratic rule. More recently, however, some scholars have instead pointed to a mere difference in consumer preferences, altogether rejecting the notion that there was anything or anyone to “blame”. There was no suppression at all, they argue. It’s just that Ottoman consumers simply preferred to buy beautifully illuminated manuscripts instead. And why should we judge Ottoman technology by the standards of what was invented in Europe anyway? It’s an argument that suits many modern-day nationalists, but also those pushing back against decades-old orientalist or islamophobic myths.

Yet no matter how well-meaning an agenda, the politicisation of the history has been deeply unhelpful. (It reminds me of the fake miniatures depicting Islamic science, sold on the streets of Istanbul, which have scandalously found their way onto the covers of academic books, often switching out depictions of the real astronomical instruments for more European-looking telescopes.) Articles on the lack of Ottoman printing — including some of the more scholarly works — are riddled with errors, mis-readings, cherry-picked evidence, and obvious bias.

I even saw a few of the top hits on Google try to have things both ways, first arguing that we shouldn’t judge the lack of printing by a European standard given an Ottoman preference for beautiful manuscripts, but then also pointing out that Istanbul’s first official printing press in 1727 was founded only three decades later than that of New York. What they failed to mention was that New York at the time was a tiny colonial outpost of under 5,000 people, most of whom had only just arrived, while Istanbul was a vast, ancient, and thriving imperial hub, with a population of about 700,000. It had more people than the entire population of the Thirteen Colonies.

It’s this kind of cherry-picking, however, that pushed me down a month-long rabbit hole, checking over all of the known primary sources for myself, as well as doing a lot of obsessive digging for more. I love a good investigation, and I’m excited to share my findings — but it does mean that this piece is significantly longer than the usual, as I wanted the answers all to be in one place. All the better to bust some myths. So go get yourself a drink, settle in, get comfortable, and let’s proceed. (I’d like to thank Metin Coşgel, Danny Bate, and Jonathan Nathan for their expert help with translations, as well as various interlocutors on twitter, including Yelda Nasifoglu, Sebastian Worms, Jared Rubin, Timur Kuran, Roman Glass, and others, who pointed me in the direction of some useful readings.)

Let’s look, in particular, at the evidence of an outright ban. It’s far from straightforward, and there’s a lot to unpick.

One of the most frequently cited “facts” on the subject is that the sultan Bayezid II in 1485 issued a firman, or edict, banning printing in Arabic characters, or perhaps the Arabic or Turkish languages, or perhaps printing outright — it depends on which rumour the author happened to see. This is almost always mentioned alongside a follow-up edict by Selim I in 1515, which ostensibly confirmed the ban. I’ve seen a version of the fact unquestioningly repeated, for example, by an internationally best-selling book about how nations, er, don’t succeed.

When you trace the citations, however, it ultimately derives from a French writer called André Thevet, and a book he published in 1584 on the lives of famous people from history. In his entry for Johannes Gutenberg, Thevet goes on a brief digression about how moveable type might first have been invented in China, then saying that what he was more sure of was “that the Greeks, Armenians, Mingrelians [that is, Georgians], Abyssinians [Ethiopians], Turks, Persians, Moors [North Africans], Arabs, and Tartars write their books only by hand”. He then specifically names Bayezid II as having published a proclamation in 1483 (not 1485, by the way) rather vaguely prohibiting “the use of printed books, on penalty of death”. Thevet also mentions the confirmation of the edict by his son and successor Selim I in 1515.

The problem is that Thevet was not an especially reliable observer. He had, since 1558, been France’s royal cosmographer — a sort of geographer-in-chief, tasked with collecting all scraps of information that came his way from people’s travels, and incorporating their information into increasingly comprehensive descriptions of the world. Thevet had got the gig for having done a bit of travelling himself, in 1549-54 accompanying the French ambassador to the Ottomans. Yet Thevet was accused, even during his lifetime, of being a charlatan and certainly plagiarist. And even more seriously, to me at least, he first mentioned the edicts when he was 82 years old — three decades after his visit to the Ottoman Empire.

Some historians have thus called into question his entire account, and whether there was any kind of ban at all. Unfortunately, the records of sultans’ edicts from that time are patchy, so we can neither confirm nor deny it from the Ottoman side. In fact, the known Ottoman sources from before the eighteenth century are largely silent on the matter of printing. We have to rely, overwhelmingly, on the testimonies of European travellers, missionaries, and diplomats, with only a couple of exceptions. Yet I don’t think we should dismiss Thevet’s words out of hand, especially given just how specific some of the details are.

Why did Thevet mention the rulers’ names and dates at all? Plenty of other Europeans simply said that printing was either banned or not used, and left it at that. And why even cite the edicts, in what is essentially a brief digression with no bearing on the rest of the book, or even the rest of the section on Gutenberg? Such specifics, in my experience, usually suggest at least a grain of truth. Perhaps some aspect has became garbled in translation, or inadvertently embellished when copied from one source to another, just like the way Thevet’s words themselves have become slightly warped and embellished upon by modern writers. The trouble, of course, is in figuring out what the grain of truth actually is.

So where was he getting it from? I think there’s reason to believe that it was based on something. For a start, the dates correctly correspond to the sultans’ rules. Thevet had recounted much of the known history of the Ottoman Empire in a cosmographical treatise a few years earlier, in which he quoted a few other edicts of Selim I. He does not mention any of them referring to printing, but perhaps he took the details of the printing edict from the same source — perhaps the answer is somewhere to be found in an archive in France.

Thevet was also largely right about the lack of printing among the other peoples he listed. As far as I can tell, the printing press was first introduced to Persia in 1629, and to Georgia in 1709 — less surprising, perhaps, given their relative inaccessibility from the centres of European print culture. The first Greek press in Istanbul was also only established in the early seventeenth century, long after he published. And while there had in fact been an Armenian press there too, it had lasted only a couple of years c.1567-69. Thevet would thus have been correct in his 1584 assertion that they did not print. Up to that point, all other printing in Armenian or Greek had occurred in western Europe. (I’m less certain on the lack of printing in North Africa, Ethiopia, and central Asia — if you know of any sources on this, please let me know in the comments, though I suspect he’s largely correct.)

Thevet was also not the first person to mention some kind of ban, even if they lacked specifics about the supposed edicts by Bayezid and Selim. Another early traveller to the region, the naturalist Pierre Belon, in 1546-49 also accompanied the French ambassador, publishing an account of his travels just a few years later in 1553. In it, he mentioned how Istanbul’s Jews had a printing press publishing in Spanish, Italian, Latin, Greek, and even German. “But”, he added, “they do not print in Turkish or in Arabic because it is not permitted to them”. It’s the earliest mention I have found of any such a prohibition, and it’s especially interesting because of the added detail.

Thevet, as we’ve seen, was frustratingly vague on what he meant by the “use” of the printing press being banned, and who exactly was banned from using it. The fact that we know of Jews printing in Istanbul from the 1490s has led many modern writers to suppose, and thus assert, that if the Bayezid II and Selim I edicts were real then they must have applied only to Muslims, or perhaps only to the Arabic and Turkish languages, or perhaps specifically to Arabic characters. I’ve even seen it asserted that these first Jewish printers in 1493, the brothers David and Samuel Ibn Nahmias, were licensed by another edict from Bayezid II granting them dispensation from his earlier prohibition so that they could print in Hebrew. There is no evidence of this, at least that I could find, although the first book they printed does suggest that they were being careful to stay on the government’s good side: they included a line in the colophon to the effect of “God save Sultan Bayezid, Amen”. It couldn’t hurt.

So Belon’s 1553 account is the first positive evidence of the Jewish printers in Istanbul not being allowed to print in Arabic or Turkish. It’s still unclear if this means the languages themselves, or really the characters that were used for both, but I strongly suspect it means the characters. This is because there actually was some very early printing in the Arabic language, which Belon have even seen. In the 1520s members of the Soncino dynasty of Jewish printers moved to Ottoman-ruled Thessaloniki, and thence in the 1530s to Istanbul. There, in 1546, just a year before Belon’s arrival, they published the Torah in four languages — Aramaic, Hebrew, Persian, and Arabic — but all printed using the Hebrew alphabet. It was, as far as I can tell, the first time that the Arabic language was printed using moveable type in an Islamic country. And it was repeated. In 1610, a Maronite Christian archbishop, Sarkis ar-Rizzi, attempted to establish a press at the monastery of St Anthony, at Quzhayya on Mt. Lebanon, where he arranged for the printing of a Psalter in both Syriac and Arabic. In this case the Arabic was printed using Syriac characters — a practice known as Karshuni. (The Psalter is rather beautiful, by the way.)

Now, we can’t totally rule out the fact that these Arabic-language books may have been illegal. But it seems highly unlikely. Although the Maronite press never printed again, the Soncino printing press continued for many more years, only changing management, and I’ve found no evidence that either of them was suppressed. Moreover, both of the books in Arabic provide plenty of information about who did the printing and where to find them. So, safely assuming that the books were permitted by the authorities, it would suggest that the suppression Belon mentioned was confined to Arabic characters, not the language.

This is all the more likely when we consider Belon’s likely source of information when he mentioned the prohibition: probably the managers of the Soncino press itself. It was, as far as I’m aware, the only Jewish press running in Istanbul at the time of his visit. The original 1493 press had been defunct for decades, and Belon talked about the press as though it was a recent and ongoing addition. Belon also specifically mentioned that the Jewish press printed in Spanish, Italian, Latin, Greek, and German, as well as in Hebrew. Indeed, the Soncino press had printed in some of these languages in the very same year as his arrival, when it published another multilingual edition of the Torah, this time switching out the Persian and Arabic for Greek and Spanish — again, all printed in Hebrew characters. (As for printing in Latin, Italian, and German, I’ve not been able to find examples of this from either the Thessaloniki or Istanbul presses, but if there are any it’s highly likely that they were again printed in Hebrew characters. Or Belon was exaggerating, or he had simply been misinformed. I don’t know if he could read Hebrew, but it’s improbable — so I suspect he was given the information by whoever showed him around.)

Belon was thus almost certainly talking about the Soncino press specifically, and probably saw its publications. He noted, for example, that it printed “without any points”, likely referring to vowel points known as nikud. This is actually untrue of the two multilingual versions of the Torah, in which only parts of the Hebrew portion are unpointed, but it may well have been true of the dozens of other Soncino publications (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). Regardless, it’s the kind of ultra-specific detail that makes me think Belon saw things first-hand. Belon even leaves a hint that he saw the printing press itself: a few paragraphs down, when discussing how the Jews used Christian slaves or servants to work for them on the Sabbath, he specifically says that this was done at the printing press. My hunch, then, is that Belon got his information about the prohibition on printing in Arabic first-hand, from the people who ran the Soncino press — a press that had actually printed in the Arabic language, albeit not in Arabic characters.

Another French traveller from a couple of years later, Nicolas de Nicolay, gives some confirmatory evidence too. De Nicolay travelled to Istanbul with the French ambassador in 1551, after which he published a heavily illustrated ethnographic book on the peoples and customs of the empire. In the section on the region’s Jews, he briefly mentions the same printing press, almost copying Belon word for word, but with a few added or amended details, possibly based on his own visit — for example, he calls the Jewish press there the first ever in the region. He also made a point — which Belon didn’t — of mentioning the books’ beautiful characters.

What’s also rather tantalising here is that André Thevet, despite his vagueness in 1584 about what the Bayezid and Selim edicts supposedly banned, probably also knew about the Soncino press. Thevet’s trip to Istanbul overlapped with both Belon’s and de Nicolay’s — all three of them actually accompanied the very same ambassador. They certainly knew one another later, and as some of the few French experts on the region would have been familiar with each other’s work. There’s even a frustratingly brief and unreferenced mention, from a nineteenth-century biographical account of Thevet, of him having once been given specimens of oriental types by a Jew. Might this have been from the Soncino press? And were Belon or de Nicolay actually Thevet’s sources of information about a ban on printing there? Only some detailed searching of archives may tell.

But I think there’s actually an even more exciting and more plausible lead — one that, in piecing the fragments of it together, reveals the story of a ruthless, bloody war for the hearts, minds, and souls of the sultans’ Christian subjects.

This lead concerns another early sultan’s firman about printing, of which we actually have the full text. It is dated to 1588, by Murad III, so just a few years after Thevet published his 1584 note describing those of Bayezid and Selim — something that I suspect may not be a coincidence. The edict mentions how two European merchants had obtained the sultan’s permission to import books and pamphlets in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish to the Ottoman Empire, and then simply reminds border officials that they should not be molesting or seizing the goods of these merchants and their agents (as they had apparently been doing). At first glance, it’s not all that remarkable. But the edict only survive to us because it was printed for the inside cover of a 1594 Arabic version of Euclid’s works on geometry — a work published in Rome, with Papal backing, by the Medici Oriental Press.

The Medici Press was founded in 1584 by the Florentine banker and cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici, who just few years later would succeed his brother to become Grand Duke of Tuscany. The press was not the first Catholic attempt to print works in Arabic script. In the 1510s the Pope commissioned a Book of Hours, likely aimed at an audience of Melkite Christians in Syria; and in the 1530s a Venetian press published an error-ridden and widely derided version of the Quran, seemingly intended for profit. Yet by the 1580s, European missionaries of all kinds sought an even greater prize: the souls of the Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire.

Catholic missionaries, for example, expressed relief that there had been not yet been any printing among the empire’s various Christian minorities. The Jesuit Girolamo Dandini, writing in the 1590s, listed Armenian, Jacobite, Nestorian, Dioscorian, Eutychian, Coptic, Greek, Georgian, Melkite, and various other “schismatic, heretical, or completely unfaithful” denominations. Had they had their own printing presses, he thought, then their heresies would have only spread and multiplied. So there was an opportunity here for the Catholic Church to become the only source of printed material in the region, and thus unify the various denominations under the authority of the Pope.

This was the promise of the Medici Press. Or at least, this was what its founders told the Pope, who rather optimistically believed that the mere reading of the Gospels in Arabic might even prompt instant conversion from Islam — also a great line for selling copies to the king of Spain, as it turned out. But as with so many Medici projects, there was also an opportunity to make some money. Very little of the Medici output was religious at all, instead being intended for export to the Islamic world.

Quite a few historians today disagree. They view the press as having printed many thousands of copies of books in Arabic just for the tiny community of European scholars desperate to study the language. But I think the evidence goes overwhelmingly against this. Most of the Medici publications were printed only in Arabic, at a time when there were no widely available Arabic dictionaries in Europe. The publications were also largely secular, based on medieval manuscripts known to sell well in the bookshops of the Islamic world: al-Idrisi’s geography, Ibn Sina’s works of medicine and philosophy, al-Tusi’s commentaries on Euclid’s geometry, and a couple of famous works on grammar. The press’s only publication plausibly intended for European scholars was an Arabic alphabet merely giving the corresponding letters phonetically in Latin, though I suspect this was actually intended for Jesuit missionaries about to go to the Arabic-speaking world. Indeed, the only other religious publications were Latin/Arabic and Arabic-only versions of the confession of faith for eastern Christians, written by a Jesuit. Again, something clearly intended for missionary use in the Ottoman Empire, rather than for scholars. European scholars eager to master Arabic actually even complained about how the books had not been intended for them, pointing out that the obvious first publication for them would have been something to help them learn the language, like a basic grammar or a lexicon.

Then there’s the fact that the Medici Press had been undertaking careful market research in the Islamic world, many years before it started printing. Medici directed the press’s manager, the mathematics professor and linguist Giambattista Raimondi, to coordinate with Florentine merchants about finding Muslim customers. Proof sheets and advance copies of al-Idrisi’s geography were sent to North Africa, Cairo, and Istanbul, and the final publications reflected the design conventions of Islamic manuscripts, often lacking prefaces or introductions. Many copies of the secular texts gave no indication that they had been printed in Europe at all. Some of the books were actually even sold in 1594 to English merchants headed for North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. And, of course, there’s the 1588 firman, inserted into the copies of the Arabic Euclid, which plainly referred to the fact that books in Arabic were allowed to be imported to the Ottoman Empire — why else would they have inserted it, if the book had not been for export?

The problem is that hardly any of the many thousands of Arabic Medici books ever reached the Islamic world. In fact, most of them struggled to be sold at all. It’s the reason, I think, that many historians today doubt that they could ever have been printed for the Ottoman market. So what happened?

Well, I have a very strong hunch that the edict was later revoked — and that the revocation, along with the reasons for it, were the major source of European beliefs about an Ottoman ban on printing. The Medici Press seemingly got into trouble in 1596, and largely ceased printing new Arabic works. Medici gave the operation over completely to his manager Raimondi, who then spent the next few decades trying to shift the thousands of unsold copies. Handfuls of books were occasionally sent with missionaries, but only in the kinds of amounts that could presumably get past Ottoman customs officials, by essentially being among travellers’ belongings. Otherwise, Raimondi seems to have pivoted to the European market. He added Latin title pages and Latin titles, sometimes even printing over the Arabic title pages — evidence that suggests he was doing this after the failure to export the books to the Ottoman Empire.

I’ve also found some contemporaries who refer explicitly to the Medici books being blocked. The Dominican friar and philosopher Tommaso Campanella, in a manuscript that would not be published until decades later, in 1598 mentioned how the sultan “would not receive the Arabic printed works sent to him by the Grand Duke of Tuscany.” Campanella had actually been in Rome for most of the 1590s, under house arrest by the Inquisition. He was released just a year after Medici gave up on the press. He was also at the centre of Italian intellectual life — an intimate of the likes of Giambattista della Porta and Galileo Galilei, among others. So he would certainly have been well-informed.

In fact, in the very same year that Campanella wrote his manuscript, a Venetian by the name of Lazaro Soranzo also published a book that mentioned the blocking of the press, giving some tantalising further details. He praised Medici for having printed “many good and pious works in Arabic characters to be disseminated in Africa and elsewhere”, and showed some familiarity with its original missionary aims, lauding the vision of the Pope who had overseen its foundation. The project had, however, apparently been disrupted by one Antonio di Flores, of Naples, along with the sharif of Morocco — the Sa’adi emperor Ahmad al-Mansur “the Golden”. (I’ve written about al-Mansur’s empire before, here and here.) I’m afraid I’ve not been able to identify much else about Soranzo, nor the nefarious Neapolitan he blames. I hope that some Italian-speaking scholar might pick up the trail. But Soranzo’s words suggest that the Medici publications were being blocked not just by the Ottomans, but by rulers across the Islamic world.

So, why did the Ottoman sultan change his mind? Well, for a start, it wasn’t the same sultan any more. Murad III died in 1595, the year before Medici gave up on the press, and the transition to his successor Mehmed III was far from stable. Mehmed immediately had his nineteen brothers and half-brothers strangled to secure himself against rival claimants, and then tried to decide how to rule, sacking, appointing, and re-appointing six different viziers with nine tenures in just the first two years of his reign. It didn’t help that he had come to the throne in the middle of a war with the Holy Roman Empire — one that had just escalated dramatically thanks to the Pope, and to which Medici also sent troops. A soldier cousin, also bearing the Medici name, came to be called “the great devil” by the Turks. It’s no surprise then that the Ottomans in the late 1590s would reject books printed by their enemies.

In fact, when Tommaso Campanella wrote about introducing the printing press to Turkey in 1598, it was because he saw it as a European weapon. His tract, aimed at the king of Spain, advised that “one should try by all means to introduce the Turks to printing, with the aim of diverting the population away from arms, to books”. The proliferation of books would, he thought, cause them to disintegrate into theological and philosophical disputes, becoming divided and weakened. Just as the Athenians had become prey to the Spartans, the Greeks to Philip of Madecon, and the Romans to the barbarians, the introduction of book-learning would spell the end of their empire. The sultan had thus, in Campanella’s view, been wise to reject the Medici books: after all, the result of unconstrained printing in Europe had been Germany’s “infection with heresy, the decline of the empire, and the introduction of luxury”.

Considering the explicit agenda of the Medici press in its early days to spread Catholicism, it’s actually a little surprising that Murad III ever permitted the books in Arabic to be imported in the first place. Just a dozen years before his edict, for example, the French writer Loys le Roy wrote that Muslims did not just reject printing among themselves, but that would not allow works printed in Arabic to be brought to them either. He would have been going off second-hand information, having never travelled to the region, but it’s the earliest reference I’ve been able to find to any such import ban. So, how was the edict obtained? There’s a clue in the merchants it names.

These were Pier’Antonio Bandini and his son Orazio — no mere merchants at all, but some of the wealthiest and most powerful bankers in Italy, if not Europe. I suspect that they may well be the missing link in this whole story. The Bandini were Florentine, but with a substantial presence in Rome, with links to both the Papacy and the Medici. They were clearly among the Florentine merchants tasked with opening up the Ottoman market for the Medici Press. And they were certainly among the few merchants with the resources substantial enough to win a major trade concession. One thing that’s actually very striking to me about the 1588 firman is how it reads so much like the patents issued to merchants by monarchs all over Europe. It was not a general import license, but a specific privilege — one that must have cost the Bandini a fortune in bribes to obtain.

But the Bandini are even more interesting, for they also had a strong connection to the French court, as bankers to the kings of France, and perhaps even to the royal cosmographer André Thevet — the writer who had mentioned the edicts of Bayezid and Selim just a few years earlier. Their connection in common was, specifically, the court matriarch Catherine de’ Medici. Thevet owed his uninterrupted and decades-long career as royal cosmographer to Catherine de’ Medici — he had first come to court as her chaplain, and it’s probably no accident that he was able to maintain his position across the reigns of four kings (first Catherine’s husband, and then her three sons).

So I have a hunch here. I suspect that the Bandini, in the process of lobbying for their book export privileges, either did research of their own, or perhaps had precedents quoted at them by Ottoman officials, and so discovered the much older edicts of 1483 and 1515. Given Thevet’s job was to collect and collate any stray bit of information that came from abroad, and the Bandini were strongly connected with his patron, my hunch is that the Bandini were his original source. It’s why I suspect that it’s not just a coincidence that Thevet first published about the old edicts for the very first time in 1584, just a few years before the Bandini got a special edict of their own. Again, it’s a lead that I hope someone with the right language skills and access to archives will follow up.

Regardless of the accuracy of my hunch, the Bandini trade privileges seem to have been something of a blip. Indeed, the Ottoman rejection of imported books printed in Arabic script in the late 1590s may well have set the tone for the entire seventeenth century. Before this period, European observers don’t seem to enquire much into the reasons for a lack of printing in the Ottoman Empire. As we’ve seen with the early travel writers like Belon and de Nicolay, they were aware of the Jewish printing presses, specifically mentioned prohibitions on those presses printing in Arabic characters, and then left it at that. Otherwise, the idea picked up on by Europeans seems to be that printing in Arabic characters would be a desecration of some kind. And reading these mentions carefully, the desecrations are either referred to extremely vaguely, or else discuss the idea of that printing being done specifically by non-Muslims.

Take the Czech noble Kryštof Harant, who went on pilgrimage to the Holy land in the 1590s, publishing an account of his journey in 1608. He repeats almost word for word some of the things Belon had written about the Jewish press half a century earlier, but then adds something of his own, noting that the Arabic and Turkish languages were forbidden to the Jews “because they are not worthy, and would tarnish them”. Given this is his own addition, was this something he was told by the Jews he met on his travels? The only other similar reference I’ve found is from significantly later, but looking back at the failure of the Medici Press. A French diplomat and librarian in Istanbul in the early 1670s, Antoine Galland, in 1697 compiled everything he could find on Islamic culture into a vast work called the Bibliothèque Orientale. In the preface he recounts how the Ottomans would not receive the books printed for them by Medici, for they “feared that next the printed Quran would be sent to them, which would have been regarded by them as the greatest profanation that could happen to this book”. Note the implication that this would have been a Quran printed with the explicit backing of the Pope — could you really blame the Ottomans for being worried about such a thing?

Otherwise, it’s in the seventeenth century that we suddenly see a brand new reason for the Ottoman rejection of printing being mentioned by the European sources: that it would make the many scribes of Istanbul unemployed. The earliest mention of this that I’ve been able to find is from an English traveller to the region in 1610, at a time when English trade links with the Ottoman Empire were growing. This traveller mentions “a number” of scribes being thus threatened, which over the decades became ever more inflated by subsequent accounts. By the 1670s it had grown to an “infinity”, in the 1680s specified as 10-12,000, growing in the 1700s to 30,000, and in the 1730s to the implausible figure of 90,000. What’s all the more striking about that last figure is that it comes from a source often cherry-picked by modern writers to prove that printing was not prohibited by the Ottomans — the soldier and diplomat Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli. Although Marsigli originally travelled in the region in the 1680s, he published a few years after the establishment of the official, state-backed Ottoman press — something widely reported in Europe. So his mention of there being no outright prohibition on printing may have referred simply to that. And yet, he also saw the need to mention resistance to the press by the Ottomans on the grounds that it would make tens of thousands of scribes unemployed. How to reconcile these two sentences, one right after the other?

My hunch here — and again, it’s so far only a hunch — is that the scribes were not some strong lobby group suppressing domestic presses. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen any reference to the scribes themselves being opposed to printing. Rather, protecting scribes’ jobs was cited throughout the seventeenth century as a reason to prevent the importation of Arabic-character books printed abroad, or else to prevent the setting up of Arabic-character presses in the empire run specifically by foreigners. Marsigli even gives a hint to this effect, saying that the fear of scribes being made unemployed was “what the Turks themselves said to Christians and to Jews, who wanted to introduce printing into the empire, to make their profit.”

Another intriguing hint is given in the account of a French Huguenot traveller to Istanbul, Aubry de La Mottraye. In his travel diary for September 1702 he records some news from Vienna. The Turkish ambassador there had apparently been offered types by a German, which he had accepted, paying significantly more than was asked. But he then had all the characters broken upon an anvil in his presence, advising the German not to waste his time in making such things again, citing the reason of protecting the scribes. De La Mottraye wrote about this stunt as an example of the ambassador’s generosity, rather than anything negative, because he paid more than was necessary. He also took pains to mention that despite the lack of printing there were plenty of Turkish works of learning available at its bookshops. So the account doesn’t strike me as just some orientalist fantasy. I hope that a German-speaking scholar may be able to follow the lead and find some corroborating evidence, but the fact that this was supposed to have happened in Vienna, rather than the Ottoman Empire itself, again hints at it being a case of suppressing specifically foreign printing.

I suspect, then, that the sudden appearance of this reason for a ban in the European literature of the seventeenth century is closely tied to the events of the 1590s: a war-time import ban on the Medici books, which when peace was restored, was then justified for another century on the standard protectionist grounds of a preserving local Muslim industry from non-Muslim competition. (There’s even a suggestion, from an English traveller in the early 1700s, that upholding the industry was a matter of national security: he mentions that scribes were employed by everyone to write up even their personal correspondence, and that it was their sworn duty to report anything treasonous to the authorities.)

That said, there were actually some cases of non-Arabic-character printing presses also being suppressed in the Ottoman Empire. But even these were all related to concerns about foreign meddling, as the battles between Catholic and Protestant missionaries intensified. The most striking case was the attempted introduction, in 1627-8, of printing in Greek. This was the project of one Nikodemos Metaxas, of Kefalonia, the descendant of Byzantine nobility. Metaxas had gone to London in the 1620s, as part of a wider intercultural and religious exchange between the Greek Orthodox and Anglican churches. Metaxas learned how to print in Fleet Street, and then took a printing press and all the associated materials — a cargo weighing about a metric ton — aboard an English ship to Istanbul. There, under the protection of the English ambassador and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Cyril Loukaris, he began to print, starting with a tract by Loukaris entitled Against the Jews (if I understand correctly, this was actually intended to prevent violence between Christians and Jews, by providing a sort of FAQ on how Greeks could argue on matters of religion peacefully.)

The problem, however, was that Metaxas had arrived in the midst of a bitter religious contest. The Jesuits, under the protection of the French ambassador, had been setting up Catholic schools in Istanbul to teach Greek children for free, and having the kids put on popular religious mystery plays. Patriarch Loukaris was the main obstacle to this Catholicisation of his flock, increasingly associating himself with Protestants for their support. Armed with the Metaxas printing press, Loukaris thus threatened to re-assert Greek religious distinctiveness. In fact, this would have been an especially personal slap in the face for the Jesuits, whose agents in Istanbul were directed from Rome by none other than Cardinal Ottavio Bandini — the son and brother of the Bandini merchants named on the 1588 firman, who had failed to import the works of the Medici Press.

Thanks to the work of historian Nil Palabıyık, we know the full extent of Cardinal Bandini’s intrigue. When Metaxas proved immune to death threats, the Jesuits appear to have stolen a manuscript of Loukaris’s tract and found a few sentences criticising Islam. The Jesuits then told the Ottoman authorities that the Greeks were going to use the printing press to raise a rebellion, confident that the the offending passages would serve as proof. Enraged, the Grand Vizier sent a squadron of 150 janissaries to seize the press and arrest Metaxas, implicating Loukaris too.

It appears, however, that Metaxas had wisely removed the anti-Islamic passages in the course of printing, and so the English ambassador was able to intercede with the Grand Vizier on the Greeks’ behalves, proving that there was nothing at all seditious in what had been printed. They even consulted the Islamic religious authorities, obtaining a ruling that Christians were already permitted to preach their doctrines within the empire, so there was no harm in them writing them down too — the only known fatwa from the period that I’m aware of related to printing. Thoroughly embarrassed by having been so quick to anger, the Grand Vizier imprisoned the Jesuit troublemakers, briefly even expelling the entire order from the empire. (Though Metaxas, exhausted by the ordeal, seems to have given up on the press and retired to his native Kefalonia. There wouldn’t be another Greek press in Istanbul for over a century.)

Similarly, we also have record of two Turkish decrees dated 1701, which order the arrest of some people printing Armenian religious works with alterations and additions in an attempt to bring them “to the creeds of the Europeans” — something corroborated by de la Mottraye’s travel account, in which he complained that this was all as a result of a split in the Armenian church between the pro- and anti-Jesuit factions, with the anti-Jesuit faction getting the Ottoman authorities involved.

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 [which you can read here].


And now, a reward for reading all the way to the end! I will be writing a more regular, fortnightly director’s cut for patrons of my work. These will consist of the things I leave out of the usual posts, honest reviews of the books or articles I’m reading, and early thoughts on the topics I’m still researching. So if you’re interested in supporting my work, please sign up here: