In Honorem: Deacon Abdalla Zakhir made the first Arabic Press — Eastern Christians were key to Arab Renaissance
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Abdalla Zakhir, the Gutenberg of the East
The Monasteries of Lebanon & their Communities were key to Arab Renaissance because they made Arabic a moveable printable script 300 years after Gutenberg


The Invention of Printing

Johannes Gutenberg 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.

A 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.
A 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.

The 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

Thumbnail of Book of Hours
The thumbnails herewith are linked to detailed images of the same. Click to view
Thumbnail of the Book of Hours

"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.

First Printing Presses in Lebanon & the East

What facilitated 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.

Psalms and Religious Books

Quzhayya PressThe 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.

The 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 in 1734.

The Press

Abdallah Zakhir’s 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 electronics).

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 printing.

Zakhir’s First Book

Zakhir’s 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.

Translator's 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 page.


Close-up look at Samples of Zakhir's Books with Engraved Graphics
Introductory Page
First page (annotated in English) - view
Another page
A second sample page - view
Another page
A third sample page with red & black ink - view
Introductory Page
First page (annotated in English) - print quality
Another page
A second sample page - print quality
Another page
A third sample page with red & black ink - print quaility
(Click to view large images or to access high quality for high resolution printable versions)
To download the print quality files -- less than 1MB --
Control-Click for older Macs or Righ-Click for Windows & new Macs

From my (site's author) privately owned book printed on Zakhir's Press: Readings for Lent dated 1833)

Valentin 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.”

Poem in praise of Deacon Zakhir written by Father Nicholas Sayegh (English translation included)
Thumbnail of poem

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.

Honoring Zakhir

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; 113 pages).

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.

Source:

  1. Christian Friedrich Sohnurrer, Bibliotheca arabica (Halle, 1811), p. 231.
  2. Georg Graf, Geschichte der chriatlichen arabiachen Literatur (The Vatican, 1944-53), vol. 1, p. 636.
  3. Schnurrer, Bibliotheca arabica, p. 232.
  4. Giovanni Galbiati, "La prima stamps in arabo," Miscellanea Giovanni Mercati 6 (1946): 409.
  5. Krek, Miroslav, The Enigma of the First Arabic Book Printed from Movable Type, Brandeis University, JNES 38 no. 3 (1979).
  6. Georg Graf, Geschichte der chriatlichen arabiachen Literatur (The Vatican, 1944-53), vol. 1, p. 636.
  7. William Hatch, An Album of Dated Syriac Manuscripts, pp. 249, 250 (1946).
  8. Historic material translated by the author of this site, Salim George Khalaf, from a clipping of newspaper article in Arabic dating probably to the late 1960s. The newspaper may have been the Lebanese paper Al Nahar or Lisan Al-Haa
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