What Was the True Extent of Medieval Arabic Block by dov51579


									             What Was the True Extent of Medieval Arabic Block Printing?

It has taken somewhat more than a century, but awareness of medieval Arabic block

printing is finally gaining traction in the broader academic community. While much work

has been done over the past twelve decades or so to increase our knowledge and

understanding of medieval Arabic block printing, much remains to be done. Our

appreciation of this aspect of medieval Islamic cultures will no doubt deepen as new

discoveries are made and a clearer picture of the practice is brought into focus.

We owe much of our current knowledge of medieval Arabic block printing to a fairly

recent development in the larger field of Middle East Studies, one that has drawn together

a cadre of people interested in all aspects of printing in the Middle East. Since 2002, three

Symposia on the History of Printing and Publishing in the Languages and Countries of

the Middle East have been held. Convened by Geoffrey Roper, late of the Islamic

Bibliography Unit at Cambridge University Library and former editor of Index Islamicus,

Dagmar Glass, Professor of Arabic at Bonn, and other prominent scholars, the symposia

have drawn together specialists on printing in virtually all the languages of the Middle

East, past and present. These gatherings mark the beginning of a new direction for

Middle Eastern studies, one that focuses on the place of printing and the printed word in

the many cultures and countries of that region.

Among the many participants of these symposia have been such experts as J.F. Coakley,

who works on printing in Syriac; Meliné Pehlivanian of the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, an

historian of Armenian printing in Europe and the Middle East; and Prof. Ulrich

Marzolph, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Göttingen, who specializes in

the history of printing in Iran. In addition to these scholars, the symposia have also drawn

those involved in the printing industry whose work has focused on the production of texts

in the various Middle Eastern languages, including metal type designers and,

increasingly, those who create fonts for electronic Middle Eastern publications.

Any account of our present state of knowledge about medieval Arabic block printing

specifically must take into consideration the fact that its rather specialized nature has

influenced its development (and perhaps its appeal) as a field of intellectual investigation.

The history of modern investigations into medieval Arabic block printing is

characterized, even to the present time, by a piecemeal approach. Until quite recently,

nearly all of the published research has focused on single examples of the craft. This is

not to say that the study of medieval Arabic block printing is inchoate in any sense.

Examples of the phenomenon have been known since the mid-1800s. However, as I hope

to show in what follows, the development of critical scholarship about medieval Arabic

block printing as a cultural phenomenon has really just begun.

The first published notice regarding Arabic block printing that I have been able to find is

a case in point. In the year 1852, an article by Joseph Hammer Purgstall (1774-1856)

appeared in Journal asiatique. In that brief piece, Hammer Purgstall discusses a puzzling

passage in an Arabic work dating to 14th century Islamic Spain, which seems to refer to

some sort of printing activity. To support this reading of the work in question, he

reproduces the image of a text printed from a wooden printing block sent to him by a

Spanish colleague. The printed text is contained in a circular field surrounded by a

scallop design. The content indicates that the stamp was used by a qaysariya, a kind of

depot or warehouse (in this case one in Almería, Spain) where goods being brought into a

city for sale in the marketplace would be safeguarded, inventoried and, most likely, have

their value assessed for tax purposes. The print bears a hijri date: 750 (=1349-50 CE),

thus informing us of the precise time of its use.

In truth, this example of printing is no more than an official stamp, and to adduce it as

evidence for the existence of printing in the medieval Islamic world could be seen as a bit

of a stretch. Indicating little more than its function (Tabc), its origin and the date, the text

is arguably not even printing as we might define it. The technique used to create this

stamp–engraving or carving alphabetic characters in reverse on a matrix to create text–

had been employed already for a long time. Such practices as carving signet rings and

striking coins were present from the earliest days of Islam. Neither of these applications

is considered printing, except in the strictest sense. Both were functional in nature and

their texts characteristically very brief. They were therefore a far cry from the mass

production of literary works with which we, today, tend to associate the process of

printing. However, if printing is defined as the creation of images or texts through

mechanical means, then the stamp published by Hammer Purgstall, however quotidian,

would seem to be valid evidence for such an activity.

If this were the only example of text created in the medieval Islamic world in this

manner, then one might argue that it was either an experiment that bore no fruit, or that

the technology was never put to any purposes other than marking personal belongings or

meeting some mundane bureaucratic need. In the event, however, other examples of

Arabic block printing came to light in the nineteenth century. Among documents

obtained from Egypt in the late nineteenth century by the Viennese Museum für Kunst

und Industrie was a small number of block printed documents and fragments. These came

to the attention of Josef Karabacek (1845-1918), a researcher at that institution, whose

primary interest was the old paper for the light it might shed on the history of

papermaking in the Muslim Middle East. He took note of the block prints and included

twenty of them in a major exhibition of the Arabic documents mounted at the Museum in

1894. These pieces of paper, all bearing amulets containing printed prayers for the

protection of their bearers against various dangers they risked encountering or to which

they might be exposed, are true block prints and attest to the existence in medieval Islam

of a technology for producing multiple copies of any text.

Over the course of the next several decades, occasional notice was taken of the existence

of the Vienna collection and other examples of block printing in the medieval Islamic

world but this awareness was not strong enough to generate sustained interest in Arabic

block printing. Consequently, there was a lengthy hiatus between this exhibition and the

next publication dealing with the subject. In the 1920s, Thomas Carter (1882-1925),

returning across Asia and Europe from a protracted stay in China, where he had

developed an interest in printing history, stopped in Vienna to look at the block prints

there. He took advantage of this sojourn to speak with a number of scholars across

Europe about the transmission of printing technology and they encouraged him to pursue

a deeper study of the subject. This prodding resulted in the publication of his landmark

work, The History of Printing in China and Its Spread Westward. His was the first work

in English to place medieval Arabic block printing into a historical context and to suggest

possible connections with that activity in other cultures, particularly Chinese.

Gradually, an increasing number of scholars (and some collectors), including several

prominent scholars of the Middle East and the Arabic language, did begin to show

interest in Arabic block printing. Adolf Grohmann is known also to have studied the

small number of examples of Arabic block printing in the library at the Universität

Heidelberg before World War II. His knowledge of the Vienna block prints may have

assisted him in identifying the six examples held in Heidelberg at that time.

About a decade later, in 1938, the noted Iranologist Karl Jahn, wrote an article on a

section of Vassaf’s Ta’rikh-i Vassaf which dealt with the attempt to introduce paper

money into the thirteenth century economy of Tabriz. The paper money, like the Chinese

currency upon which it was modeled, was printed. Here, then, was further evidence for

printing activity in the medieval Islamic world. Not only was printing being carried out

(albeit for a very brief time) in a different part of the Islamic world, but it had been put to

a different purpose as well. In fact, Jahn himself seems to have been unaware of other

kinds of block printing in the Islamic medieval period, for he says at the end of his

article, ―Gaykhatu’s currency notes are extremely remarkable as being almost the only

known examples of the use of block printing in the Near East.‖ (emphasis mine) It

appears that no examples of this currency survive, so it is impossible to draw conclusions

about the manner of its production, but given the fact that it was a Chingizid ruler who

produced it, it is logical to assume that a Chinese influence was involved.

In 1944, Giorgio Levi della Vida published a brief article about another amulet, this

belonging to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Art and Archaeology. Similar

articles devoted to individual amulets have continued to appear over the last several

decades, with just enough infrequency to elicit some surprise when each one is published.

In 1954, André Demeerseman published an example found in Tunisia; another article in

the popular magazine Aramco World, in 1981, referred to Arabic block printing as the

―Missing Link;‖ Richard Bulliet’s 1987 article on Arabic block printing carried the sub-

title ―a Forgotten Chapter in the History of Arabic Printing.‖ This piecemeal approach to

the study of the block printing phenomenon in medieval Islam has, on the one hand,

brought to light a large number of examples of block printing. On the other hand, such

treatments, while individually valuable and illuminating, have done little to advance our

knowledge of block printing as a practice, as a craft.

The history of the study of medieval Arabic block printing seems to be characterized to a

great extent by the element of chance. Many--if not most--of the researchers who have

encountered block prints did so in the course of investigations into other text-related

phenomena. Karabacek was interested in tracing the history of paper in Egypt. That some

of the documents he encountered in his research were block printed seems to have struck

him as worthy of study, but such a tack was not on his agenda. Likewise, Arnold and

Grohmann found the existence of block prints worthy of note, but they were interested in

pursuing codicology, papyrology, and palaeography in turn; the block prints were

interesting only insofar as they illustrated specific points in arguments directed


While amulets constitute the most common type of medieval Arabic block print known to

date, they are by no means the only form of text to have been produced using this

technology. As already noted above, one of the earliest block prints published in the

modern period was an official stamp used in Almería, Spain. There was, then, at least at

one time and place, a notarial or commercial application for block printing, in addition to

the abortive pecuniary experiment in thirteenth century Tabriz. Still another use for block

printing came to light in 1964 when two French scholars, Dominique Sourdel and Janine

Sourdel-Thomine, published an account of a collection of documents residing in the

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul (Türk ve Islam Eserleri Müzesi). A great

number of the texts were documents from the Seljuk and Burid periods (11th-12th

centuries), but most important for the history of block printing were a number of block

printed hajj certificates dating from the11th-14th centuries.

The publication of the early hajj texts by Sourdel and Sourdel-Thomine was succeeded in

2000 by a study devoted specifically to the block printed materials from the thirteenth

century. This contribution reveals block printing to have achieved a high degree of

technical and artistic sophistication in that period. Not only was text elegantly

reproduced, but so were renderings of significant landmarks and structures associated

with the Muslim pilgrimage. As the authors intimate, the elaborate nature of the

documents suggest that the certificates were designed for an upper class clientele.

Reports of newly discovered block prints continue to appear intermittently and block

printed amulets are no longer the rarity they once were. Indeed, in just the three years

since the publication of my study of the known American and European collections,

several more amulets have been brought to my attention by colleagues. There is a small

collection of unknown extent housed in the Gayer-Anderson Museum in Cairo and four

fragmentary examples held in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah.

One of these latter is remarkable for the inclusion of representations of animal figures,

something I personally have not previously encountered in block printed amulets.

All this is not to say that progress toward a deeper appreciation of block printing

technology in medieval Islam has not been achieved. While many of the conclusions

drawn remain tentative, based as they are on slim evidence and fragile premises, we can

begin to discern a much more complete picture through the mists of time. Most important

is the recognition that certain medieval Arabic societies had adopted or developed a

technology that allowed them to create multiple copies of written texts and, to a lesser

extent, images of architectural structures and animals. Block printed texts are most

frequently found on amulets, many contained within decorative borders, which are also

block printed. Both text and representations of structures feature prominently on the

pilgrimage certificates.

Block printing seems to have been practiced by different segments of the population,

varying perhaps according to geography as well as time. This much is indicated by the

rare accounts of block printing found in Arabic historical narratives. No substantive

description of the medieval block printing process has yet come to light and none may, in

fact, have been recorded. Nonetheless, a few offhand remarks and incidental observations

have been preserved. While many of these are problematic, due to opaque language and

puzzling syntax among other textual issues, enough prose exists to enable us to make

confident statements about certain aspects of medieval Arabic block printing.

If we are to accept the few extant historical accounts at face value, the creation of amulets

was one of the earliest purposes to which the technology was put. Ibn al-Nadim mentions

Egyptian magicians employing ―stamps‖ in his tenth-century Fihrist. C.E. Bosworth’s

definitive study of the Banu Sasan examines two poems produced by members of the

medieval Arabic demi monde—one in the tenth and the second in the fourteenth century

CE—which refer to the creation of ṭ arshes or matrices used to create block printed

amulets, or so it is reasonable to surmise given the corroborative evidence of dozens of

block printed amulets.

The testimony of Vassaf concerning the production of block printed paper currency in

late thirteenth century Tabriz seems to be a clear indication that at least one Muslim ruler

was aware of the Chinese practice of printing currency. That there was, in this instance, a

direct connection between the Islamic experiment and the Chinese tradition is supported

by reports of an image on the Tabrizi currency of a Chinese character. The question

remains, however, whether other manifestations of block printing in medieval Islam were

independent developments, or whether they, too, were borrowed from the Chinese.

Whatever may be the case, and however ill-starred or misguided the money-printing

venture, there was an obvious attempt to bring printing technology to the service of the


Somewhat earlier, in the first half of the thirteenth century CE, there is an account of a

court officer in southern al-Andalus who apparently had edicts printed before they were

distributed to the various provincial governors. Another intriguing reference to block

printing is found in a fourteenth century Andalusian work from Granada. Kitab al-Ihatah

fi Akhbar Gharnatah contains an account of one Muhammad al-Qalalusi al-Andalusi who

had written a work entitled Tuḥ af al-Khawas fi Ṭ uraf al-Khawas. One version of this

work contains a brief account of printing or a printing device. Taken in conjunction with

the evidence of the printing block from Almería, these texts offer strong circumstantial

evidence for a robust printing enterprise, which encompassed governmental and

commercial applications, in thirteenth and fourteenth century Islamic Andalus.

In sum, it would seem clear that if block printing was not a prevalent activity in medieval

Islam, neither was it uncommon. It was put to a variety of purposes and appears to have

continued over quite a long period of time. This is not to say that block printing was used

for the same purpose in every time and in every place; the existence of block printed

amulets from Egypt and Iraq, the attempt to produce paper money in Persia, the

production of pilgrimage certificates in Syria, and accounts of governmental and

commercial applications in Andalus would suggest that different people at different times

exploited the technology for different applications.


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