Early Printing of Arabic in Europe

Although the art of papermaking was transmitted from China to Europe by Arabic intermediaries and there were early experiments with block printing in the Middle East, printed works in Arabic were solely produced in Europe for the first three centuries of movable type due to political and religious objections to the technology in the Ottoman Empire at the time (AbiFarès 43-44). Early European typographers encountered difficulty in cutting the complicated Arabic characters, but figures associated with presses in Italy and the Netherlands, such as Robert Granjon, Franciscus Raphelengius, and Thomas Erpenius, soon produced Arabic type of sufficient quality to begin printing grammars, religious translations, and scientific works (Vervliet, Vrolijk). Other countries, like England, were eager to import the Arabic books and later, the types themselves, as universities around Europe began to institutionalize Arabic studies (Roper).

In the sixteenth and seventeenth century European printers initially saw opportunity in eastern markets for their Arabic Gospels and prayer books, but these never fully materialized (Jones). However, there was ample interest from various groups in the West– theologians using Middle Eastern languages for Biblical textual studies, scholars who wanted access to secular Arabic science and learning, and merchants looking to learn the language for their business dealings (The Teaching and Learning of Arabic).

Printing in Arabic was sometimes controversial, leading to cases like the obfuscation of the true printer’s information in the case of the first Arabic book printed from movable type, and the destruction of nearly all copies of the first printed Arabic Koran on papal orders (Krek, Nuovo). Nonetheless, Arabic studies thrived due to texts produced by presses like the Medici Oriental Press, the Plantin Press in Leiden, and the Oxford University Press throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The European monopoly on Arabic printed works continued until the late eighteenth century when the Ottoman Empire loosened its restrictions on printing and presses began to be established in the Middle East (AbiFarès 63).

Contextual Information

AbiFarès, Huda Smitshuijzen. Arabic Typography: A Comprehensive Sourcebook. London: Saqi Books, 2001.

This book is a useful overview of the Arabic language and letterforms, with a focus on features that caused difficulty in the development of Arabic writing in print. It includes a detailed timeline of events in the history of Arabic printing (pages 42-63) which notes influential typecutters, scholars, and printers, along with milestone works.

Schaefer, Karl R. Enigmatic Charms: Medieval Arabic Block Printed Amulets in American and European Libraries and Museums. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2006.

Illustrations show examples of Arabic block printing in the Middle East during the medieval period which are held in world libraries. Introductory chapters give background information on the historical circumstances of their production and discovery.

Loop, Jan, Alastair Hamilton, and Charles Burnett, eds. The Teaching and Learning of Arabic in Early Modern Europe. Vol. 3. The History of Oriental Studies. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017.

This e-book surveys the history of the study of Arabic in early modern Europe and is open-access. Chapters cover different areas, including parts of Europe that would become centers for Arabic printing, like England and the Netherlands.

People and Places

Roper, Geoffrey. "Arabic Printing and Publishing in England before 1820." Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies) 12, no. 1 (1985): 12-32. JSTOR.

The article describes the evolution of Arabic printing in Britain, to which it was "a relative latecomer...as it was in printing generally" (12). The first part covers the output of Arabic in print by the university presses (Oxford and Cambridge) and discusses the provenance of their type. The second part details the rising interest in Arabic printing outside the universities in the 17th and 18th century, mostly among businessman involved with the East India Company.

Jones, Robert. "The Medici Oriental Press (Rome 1584-1614) and the Impact of Its Arabic Publications on Northern Europe." In The 'Arabick' Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England, edited by G. A. Russell, 88-108. Vol. 47. Brill's Studies in Intellectual History. Leiden: Brill, 1994.

Following a list of the Arabic publications of the short-lived Medici Oriental Press, the article analyzes their reception in Europe. Although the founders of the press (including Giovan Battista Raimondi) claimed the Arabic translations of the Gospels and other works were for evangelical purposes in the East, Jones examines textual features to argue for a simultaneous intended audience of Arabic scholars and theologians in the West.

Vervliet, Hendrik D.L. "Cyrillic and Oriental Typography in Rome at the End of the Sixteenth Century: An Inquiry into the Later Work of Robert Granjon." In The Palaeotypography of the French Renaissance: Selected Papers on Sixteenth-century Typefaces, 427-74. Vol. 1. Library of the Written Word. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2008.

The chapter discusses the career of the French typographer Robert Granjon and his connection to the Stamperia Medicea (or Medici Oriental Press), where he designed a well-regarded Arabic type. Specific examples of the type are shown in images, and the author describes and analyzes their features.

Vrolijk, Arnoud, and Richard Van Leeuwen. Arabic Studies in the Netherlands: A Short History in Portraits, 1580-1950. Translated by Alastair Hamilton. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014.

The first three "portraits" are of Franciscus Raphelengius, Josephus Justus Scaliger, and Thomas Erpenius, important European Arabists in the early print era. These chapters give details about their time involved with the Leiden branch of the Plantin Press, which put out several major Arabic publications (including two of the examples below).

Books Lost and Found

Krek, Miroslav. "The Enigma of the First Arabic Book Printed from Movable Type." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 38, no. 3 (1979): 203-12. JSTOR.

A study of the Kitab salat al-sawai, or Book of Hours, which was the first Arabic book printed from movable type. Krek uses records from the Venetian Republic to argue that although the colophon says it was printed in Fano, Italy, it was actually printed in Venice by Gregorio de'Gregori.

Nuovo, Angela. "A Lost Arabic Koran Discovered." The Library s6-12, no. 4 (Dec. 1990): 273-292. Academia.edu.

The first printed Arabic Koran was thought lost until Nuovo found one copy in a Franciscan library in Venice. In this article, she describes her find and the history which led to most of the copies being destroyed.

Digitized Example Works

Psalterium, Hebraeum, Graecum, Arabicum, & Chaldaeum: Polyglot book of Psalms published in Geneva, 1516 including Arabic type.

Alphabetum arabicum: Arabic alphabet and an Arabic translation of a psalm, printed by the Medici Oriental Press in Rome, 1592.

Specimen characterum arabicorum officinae Plantinianae: 1595 specimen book of the Arabic type used by Franciscus Raphelengius in Leiden.

Grammatica arabica: Arabic grammar by Thomas Erpenius, printed by Raphelengius in 1613.