Age of Invention: Why Didn't the Ottomans Print More?

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A couple of weeks ago, I examined the available evidence for whether the Ottoman Empire ever banned the moveable type printing press. If there was such a prohibition, it was likely a ban on printing in Arabic characters, and seems to have specifically been concerned with printing by either foreigners or the empire’s non-Muslim minorities. When the authorities closed a press down, or stopped imported books, it was when they thought foreigners were inciting unrest. Yet this leaves a question: if Arabic-character printing was only really forbidden to foreigners, what explains the non-adoption, for almost three centuries, of such printing by the Turks themselves?

But first, I have an announcement. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that last week I began posting a more regular, fortnightly sort of director’s cut of this newsletter, available to paying subscribers. I’m so far calling it the Golden Age of Invention. In the first of the new posts I mentioned some extra intriguing evidence of Ottoman attitudes to printing by foreigners, as well as discussing societies of inventors. In next week’s, I’ll share further interesting things I discovered in the process of researching this post — details about Ottoman technology that I really wanted to include, but which didn’t quite fit. To read the one you missed, to receive future ones, and to support my research in general, you can become a patron here:

Back to why you’re reading. Why, before the eighteenth century, were there no Arabic-character printing presses in the Ottoman Empire?

One possibility is religious. Among the very earliest mentions of the absence of printing is a letter written in 1560 by the Holy Roman Emperor’s ambassador to Istanbul, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq. The lack of printing, he claimed, was because “they hold that their scriptures, that is, their sacred books, would no longer be scriptures if they were printed.” Perhaps. But printed by whom? As I mentioned in the previous piece, pretty much all other mentions of religious reasons for a lack of printing refer specifically to desecration of holy texts by non-Muslims. De Busbecq’s explanation is just too vaguely worded to say for sure if the concern applied more broadly, to the empire’s Muslims too. It’s also difficult to square with the evidence of block-printing of Islamic religious texts just a few centuries earlier. And even if attitudes to printing had changed since then, it does nothing to explain the absence of printed secular works.

Alternatively, there’s the related possibility that printing presses were opposed by scribes, many of whom also had religious roles. Yet as I mentioned last time, the idea of there being a threat to scribes might just have been an excuse offered to foreigners for why they weren’t allowed to export their Arabic-character books and presses — a matter of protectionist trade policy that emerged only in response to such attempts, rather than the outcome of domestic lobbying. We can’t totally rule out the possibility that scribes really did oppose the introduction of the printing press, but there’s no direct evidence of it.

Indeed, we have rather stronger evidence of such organised opposition in countries that did, much earlier, adopt the printing press. In 1574, for example, in Russia, the printer Ivan Fyodorov complained of an amorphous group of “officials, clergymen, and teachers” having opposed his press at Moscow. The English ambassador there in the late 1580s even reported that a Moscow printing house, presumably Fyodorov’s, had been destroyed in a fire. The rumour was that this was no mere accident, but arson, organised by the disaffected clergymen. Nonetheless, although Fyodorov ended up moving to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, there’s no evidence to suggest that he had to flee. His patron had still been the Tsar himself, and printing in Russia continued without him. Moreover, I think it highly unlikely that all the scribes in a country would be uniformly opposed to the technology, and especially not for three hundred years. When Gutenberg first introduced his press, although some religious figures in Europe opposed it, many bishops, abbots, and cardinals were also among its principal early patrons. Some of the very earliest adopters of the new technology were monasteries — like those at Subiaco and Augsburg — and professional scribes and book-sellers were among the earliest printers too.

The big difference, I think, was not that there was any especial opposition to printing in the Ottoman Empire, but that the sultans didn’t actively support the new technology. The printing press there simply lacked top-down encouragement — something that at first may sound counterintuitive, but which makes sense when we look at the early spread of the printing press in Europe.

When we think of the invention of the Gutenberg press, we often associate it with the spread of the Reformation a few decades later. We imagine presses hidden away in people’s basements, where ordinary citizens might churn out subversive tracts. The printing press, with the benefit of hindsight, seems inextricably linked with the spread of heresy, radicalism, and revolution. Yet in the late fifteenth century, before the Reformation, it was a technology that usually enjoyed, and perhaps even required, extraordinary encouragement from the authorities. Printing presses on their own are huge and heavy, even before accounting for the cases of type, the moulds or matrices required to cast new type when it began to wear out, and the punches used to make the moulds in the first place. It was a costly, capital-intensive business, requiring huge investment before you could print your very first page.

Many of the very first printers were either directly funded by rulers, or else obtained special privileges from them. The Gutenberg press didn’t immediately spread from Mainz to the major nearby cities of Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Würzburg, or Koblenz, as we might expect, but leapfrogged them all to Bamberg, where one was set up by the secretary to the city’s prince-bishop. Many of the much closer and larger cities don’t seem to have got their first presses until decades later. Even Venice gained printing earlier, in 1469, when its senate granted a five-year patent monopoly to a German to introduce the art. And when the printing market became over-crowded, Venice also granted temporary monopolies over the printing of particular texts — an extraordinary level of interference in an industry, which was only justifiable in light of the major up-front costs of deciding to print a book.

Such policies were soon replicated abroad. The first press in France was set up by the university of Paris, and the king granted citizenship to the foreign workmen who installed it. The first Italian press, too, was introduced with the support of a cardinal to the monastery of Subiaco, after which it moved to Rome. When it ran into financial difficulties after printing too much, it was bailed out by the Pope. And as the press spread even further afield, the greater the encouragement it required. Far-off Scotland in 1507 granted a monopoly to two printers not just over the use of a printing press, but over all imports of printed works too.

Which brings us back to the Ottoman Empire, where official encouragement was all the more necessary. Istanbul may not have been as remote from the centres of European printing as Scotland, but setting up and running an Arabic-character printing press there was much more costly.

For a start, it was seemingly difficult to set up any kind of press in the Ottoman Empire. There was a Jewish press in Istanbul printing in Hebrew from as early as 1493, with many more set up throughout the empire in the centuries that followed. There were also presses set up from time to time by the various Christian minorities. Yet all of these struggled. Writing in 1575, the Lutheran clergyman Stephan Gerlach noted how the Jewish press was “for the most part not going”. And while some Unitarian Christians apparently had a press going at Timișoara, in Ottoman-ruled Hungary (now in Romania), I’ve never seen it mentioned again. It cannot have lasted long. Attempts at setting up Armenian presses rarely lasted more than a few years, especially before the late seventeenth century. And the press at the Maronite Christian monastery of St Anthony in Quzhayya, Mount Lebanon, printed only a single book in 1610. It’s unclear why exactly it suddenly ceased, but just a few decades later the patriarchs of Aleppo were trying in vain to raise the funds for a new one.

Much of this failure might be chalked up to a simple lack of patronage — as minorities within the empire, they could not appeal to the ruling classes for help, relying instead on wealthy merchants of their own, or on help from abroad. Yet the Christian minorities were generally refused any help from the Pope, who did not want them to print doctrines of their own, and other foreign rulers weren’t all that interested.

To make matters worse, the presses run by minorities also appear to have struggled to secure a supply of fine paper. The very first Jewish press published one book in 1493, followed by a gap of over ten years before it printed again — a gap that coincided with a war with Venice, the source of almost all printing paper. When the press eventually started up again, it used paper imported from France. In the seventeenth century, when Nikodemos Metaxas brought a Greek press from London all the way to Istanbul, he also brought his own supply of paper made in France.

It’s not totally clear to me why exactly paper supplies were such a problem. There had seemingly been a paper mill in Istanbul’s Kağıthane district in the early sixteenth century, and I’ve seen plenty of references to the Ottomans producing excellent paper of their own. But those mills don’t appear to have lasted — the references to them suggest they were soon being used for gunpowder instead. And perhaps it was just a matter of quality, or the paper’s fitness specifically for printing. After all, the English also tended to import white printing paper from France, despite frequent government efforts throughout the late sixteenth, seventeenth, and even eighteenth centuries to produce it domestically. Not all paper is equal, and even when it can be made domestically, such industries are not always commercially viable.

Another possible problem was the size of the market. After my last post, many people suggested that perhaps the Ottoman Empire simply lacked enough literate people for printing to be profitable. But I think this is highly unlikely, as much the same problem had faced the initial spread of the Gutenberg press in Europe. Decent estimates of literacy rates for the fifteenth century are hard to find, but I would expect them to be lower in sparsely-populated, agrarian areas. Nonetheless, printing had by the late sixteenth century become fairly well-established in places like Sweden, Russia, and even the Ottoman vassal states of Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania — again, because the new technology had been actively encouraged by those in charge.

And anyway, the relevant market for a printing press was not the country as a whole. Overall literacy rates did not matter. The commercial viability of printing really depended on having a sufficiently high absolute number of literate people all concentrated in just a handful of places — something the Ottoman Empire had in great supply. Istanbul in the mid-sixteenth century was one of the largest cities in western Eurasia, if not the world, with a population of about 660,000. If the literacy rate in the city had been even a mere quarter of that of puny Venice or Frankfurt — some of Europe’s most developed early book markets — it would still have had more potential readers. And I see no reason why Istanbul’s literacy rate would have been so much lower, if it was lower at all, considering its multitude of religious officials, bureaucrats, and multilingual merchants. Edirne, Damascus, Aleppo, and especially Cairo were also all larger than Venice or Frankfurt, with their own thriving markets for manuscript books. The Turkish scholar Evliya Çelebi in the 1630s estimated that Istanbul alone employed some 300 people across about 60 bookshops. That’s a pretty large book market, even by modern standards, and certainly enough to support at least a single printing press.

So I don’t think there was a lack of demand, at least from the point of view of the size of the potential market. Yet some historians point to a difference in preferences, arguing that perhaps the Ottoman literati wanted only to buy beautifully-written manuscripts. The evidence for this comes from the testimony of the French scholar Antoine Galland, who travelled in the region in the 1670s. He noted seeing a copy of the Medici-printed works of Ibn Sina in a bookshop in Istanbul, which had apparently been left unsold for a long time, despite being more cheaply priced than manuscripts of the same book. But I’d be wary of making too much of this isolated anecdote. After all, the Medici-printed book was really an antique, by that stage almost a century old. Were the manuscript copies it was competing with older or newer? With a book scene as sophisticated as Istanbul’s, I can imagine the market being segmented into markets for works that were antiquarian, new, or in particular styles. Certainly by the 1720s the Medici works were thought to have characters more reminiscent of a North African style. The anecdote raises more questions than it answers, I think, and besides, it’s about just one book, at one point in time. It tells us nothing about the book’s popularity over the course of the preceding century. Consumer preferences are rarely stable.

The true test of a market is really how it responds to a new supply — consumers don’t really know if they want something novel until they actually have the option of buying it. A key part of being a successful entrepreneur is figuring out what people don’t yet realise they’ll want. When the Gutenberg press first began to spread throughout Europe, many of the early printers replicated manuscripts as closely as they could, but gradually tested the market by deviating from the old forms, cutting new fonts, formatting the pages differently, and finding ways to save costs. They thereby shaped consumer preferences, discovering what would still sell. Some very early printed books were even printed on expensive vellum, rather than paper. I see no reason why something similar would not have occurred in the Ottoman Empire had Arabic-character printing presses been introduced earlier. A preference for manuscript forms cannot have been overriding, and it would certainly not have been static. If it was a barrier at all, which I highly doubt, it was a very soft one.

Some historians nonetheless point to the performance of the first official Ottoman press when it was finally set up in the 1720s. It published 16 books over the space of just over a decade — most of those in just the first few years — and lasted for only the life of its founder, İbrahim Müteferrika. It has thus been labelled, by some, as a failure. But I think this criticism is misplaced. When you look at the print runs of the Müteferrika press, they are very large, running to 500-1,000 copies of each text. That may not sound like much today, but compare with the early press in Rome that I mentioned before, which had to be bailed out by the Pope because it printed too much — “too much” for that press, entering a brand new market for printed works, meant runs of only about 275-300. It was only in the 1500s, when the European market for printed works had been growing for half a century, that print runs of about 1,000 copies became more common. And yet, despite his high print runs, most of Müteferrika’s books sold, apparently at high prices too. Add to this that the Müteferrika press was only permitted to print works that were not religious, whereas in Europe religion was what had sold. Overall, then, I’d say it’s actually quite remarkable that the Müteferrika press did as well as it did — and all the more so considering that I’ve not even mentioned the major additional cost that it faced.

Set aside for a moment the problems with expensive paper supplies — still the subject of complaints by Christian printers at Mount Lebanon in the 1780s, and probably why Müteferrika also hired European workers to establish a paper-mill near Istanbul in the 1740s. The biggest issue with setting up an Arabic-script printing press was innate to the script itself. It was a matter of types.

The Arabic alphabet may have 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.

One solution to the cost of all those additional Arabic characters might have been to use a less joined-up Arabic script. But this was the sort of thing that would have required an especially reckless entrepreneur — one who would bear the costs of designing an unfamiliar typeface, cutting the punches for it, using those punches to create new moulds, using those moulds to cast the new type, and only then printing with it, all with the hope that works printed with their novel ligature-less script would actually sell. (And that’s assuming potential customers were even able to understand it!)

Or it would have required the state to enforce the adoption of a new, cheaper alphabet. This would eventually happen in the early twentieth century. Following the rise to power of the “three pashas” in a coup in 1913, the Ottoman government tried to impose a new, simplified Arabic script without ligatures, apparently with the idea that this would make the work of military telegraphers easier. (Its attempted introduction during the First World War only seems to have caused confusion.) Ottoman intellectuals had also, since at least the 1860s, proposed moving to simpler alphabets, with such efforts eventually succeeding in 1929 when the nascent Turkish Republic officially adopted a Latin-based alphabet.

But by this late stage, printing technology had developed significantly anyway, with the adoption of the lithographic press in the early nineteenth century removing many of the additional costs of typesetting, and spawning Turkish newspapers as well as printed books. I suspect the authorities only paid any attention to printing in the early twentieth century because it had already become more common. I also wonder whether the pre-eighteenth-century sultans would have been able to impose a new alphabet had they even wanted to. Would the early Ottoman state have even had the capacity to enforce a new alphabet’s adoption before the various administrative and technological developments of the nineteenth century? It’s unclear. And anyway, they weren’t interested.

So, short of changing the country’s entire alphabet by either innovation or force, successfully introducing Arabic-character printing to the Ottoman Empire required extraordinary levels of funding. In Europe, printing presses could be established by a bishop or a cardinal here, a monastery or university there, or perhaps by a wealthy merchant or two with some state-granted monopoly rights. If you were lucky, you might even get some cash from a monarch. But setting up an Arabic-character printing press, even setting aside the localised issues like paper supplies, I think could only be done by a monarch — they were, quite simply, the only people who could afford it.

The Müteferrika press of the 1720s was, after all, the state’s official press, set up with the explicit backing of the Sultan and funded by his grand vizier. And in 1706 the very first Arabic-character press in the empire, despite being established at Aleppo by Christians, was also paid for by a monarch — in this case the prince of Wallachia, Constantin Brâncoveanu. The Aleppo press was the project of the city’s metropolitan, Athanasius Dabbas, whose strategy had been to appeal to Orthodox Christian rulers for their help in keeping his flock independent from the encroaching influence of the Pope. He eventually persuaded Brâncoveanu to commission an Arabic typeface and cover some of the press’s running costs, as well as stringing together extra funds from the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Tsar of Russia, and the Hetman of the Zaporozhian Host — a semi-independent Cossack army/state based in modern-day Ukraine. But Dabbas was extraordinarily unlucky. The hetman was killed in battle in 1709, and the invasion of the Ottoman Empire by Russia in 1710 made matters even worse. Brâncoveanu plotted to become independent of his Ottoman overlords with the help of the Russian army, but was discovered, arrested, and executed. When the war was over, Dabbas’s appeals to the Tsar were simply ignored. After just five years of operation, the Aleppo press had to stop.

And it was not just the Arabic-script presses in the Ottoman Empire that needed the extra encouragement of rulers. In Europe, the very first book to be printed in Arabic characters, published in 1514, was funded by the Pope himself. The next, a Quran printed in the 1530s by some Venetian publishers was an immediate failure, with the type itself riddled with errors. And the Medici Press of the 1580s was supported by both the Pope and the Grand Duke of Tuscany, with many subsequent attempts at printing in Arabic also funded by the Pope.

There was not, then, necessarily any particular obstacle to the introduction of Arabic-character printing presses to the Ottoman Empire. It’s just that, given the much higher costs involved in both establishing and running them, it really needed an active interest from the Sultan. He was the one person able to afford the up-front costs and commercial risks, which in western Europe could otherwise be borne by a much broader group of elites, among whom would-be printers could expect to find at least a handful of interested people to become patrons. The reason for the non-adoption of the printing press in the empire may thus have been as simple as apathy, which was only overcome in the 1720s when Müteferrika forcefully made the case for printing’s benefits. There may, of course, have also been many reasons for earlier sultans to not want to encourage printing either, and the tales of European travellers are replete with supposed justifications for its absence in the empire. But I suspect that the sultan’s mere apathy was probably enough.

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