Invention of Printing
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.
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.
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
"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.
Printing Presses in Lebanon & the East
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.
and Religious Books
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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;
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.
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