The advent of printing in the western world is well represented by Princeton’s outstanding collection of more than 800 incunabula, yet most of these works are in Latin or European vernaculars, printed in Roman or Greek fonts. What of other languages and scripts? Arabic is a language with a long and fascinating book history in terms of manuscript production, and the regions in which Arabic was read were in constant interaction with Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. So, when do Arabic printed books come onto the scene?

Interactions with the Ottoman empire from 1500 to 1800 encouraged European printers to produce works using moveable Arabic type, beginning with the very first book printed in Arabic – the 1514 Book of Hours printed in Fano, Italy. What began with purely religious interests, with the 1514 Fano Book of Hours and the Arabic translation of the Gospels printed by the Medici Press in 1591, evolved into an interest in studying Arabic, with the Alphabetum Arabicum of 1592 (also a Medici Press work), initiating a strong tradition of Arabic grammars for the learned. Through closer interactions and increased interest in the cultural legacy of the lands of the Ottoman Empire, the Arabic books printed in Europe in the following centuries reflected a growing interest in the literature, poetry, and history of the region.

Arabic books were by no means printed exclusively in Europe before 1800. The lands known today as the Middle East, increasingly falling under Ottoman rule during the sixteenth century, also produced Arabic printed works. There, however, the process began later than it had in Europe, and it was not until the eighteenth century that Arabic printed materials using movable type were produced in the region. The Princeton Rare Books division owns Arabic books printed from the first two Arabic presses in the Islamic world to use movable type. The Greek Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo and former patriarch of Antioch, Athanasius III Dabbās, set up his press in Aleppo and began printing books in 1706. Princeton owns one of the last books published by his press: the Risālah Wajīzah, a treatise describing the sacrament of confession, printed in 1711. The second press to print Arabic works in the Islamic world was established in 1731 by Athanasius’ assistant, ʿAbdallāh Zākhir, at the Monastery of St. John in Shuwayr, in modern-day Lebanon. It would continue to print Arabic books until 1899, and Princeton owns five books produced by the press prior to 1800. These include Iḥtiqār abāṭil al-ʻālam, an Arabic translation of a Spanish text on Christian ethics printed in 1740, and Kitāb Murshid al-khāṭī, an Arabic translation of an Italian text on repentance and confession printed in 1749. Thus, the first forays into Arabic printing in Ottoman-held lands were Christian in subject matter.

Also held in Princeton’s collections are some of the first books printed in Ottoman Turkish, which uses Arabic script. With the support of Sultan Ahmed III, Ibrahim Mütefferika printed seventeen titles at his press in Istanbul from 1729 to 1745. Princeton’s acquisition of its fourteenth Mütefferika Press title was celebrated in 2009 with a Library News write-up.

In order to include Arabic printing in both Europe and the Middle East, this project spans three centuries (1500-1800). As of this writing, 63 books in Princeton’s collections contain Arabic printing of some kind. Lest it be claimed that printing was originally a European practice, among these 63 titles is the Scheide Library’s rare scroll of Arabic block printing. Likely from 10th- or 11th-century Egypt, this single rolled sheet exhibits early Arabic printing with multiple blocks for the heading and main text.

The history of Arabic printing is still yet to be completely uncovered, but Princeton’s impressive collections of early printed Arabic materials helps to shed light on the use of Arabic movable type in early modern books in both Europe and the Ottoman world. The digitization of 13 of the 63 Arabic printed items in the collection aims to make a portion of these works more accessible and thereby open the world of Arabic printing history to a wider public.