ISTANBUL: The Ottoman five who brought the empire books

Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey
Jan 3 2015

The Ottoman five who brought the empire books

Niki Gamm

If five prominent Ottomans had not understood the importance of
printing Ottoman Turkish books in 1727, many decades would have passed
before the right circumstances happened again

Thanks to five remarkable men in the first quarter of the 18th
century, the Ottoman Turks finally got their own printing press `
Sultan Ahmed III (better known for his love of entertainment), Grand
Vizier NevÅ?ehirli Damad Ä°brahim PaÅ?a (who was keenly interested in
developments in Europe), Yirmisekizzade Mehmet Sait PaÃ…?a (who lived in
Paris in 1721-1722), Ä°brahim Müteferrika (a man of Hungarian origin
who became a leading figure in Ottoman society) and Å?eyhülislam
YeniÃ…?ehirli Abdullah Efendi (who approved the petition for a printing
press). If these gentlemen hadn’t been on the same page in 1727 ` pun
intended ` the Ottomans might not have had their own imperial printing
house for many years to come.

It wasn’t that the Ottomans didn’t know anything about printing
presses. After the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, the Jews were granted
the right to have a printing press that used Hebrew characters. The
Armenians were given approval in 1567 and the Greeks in 1627. It
wasn’t just opposition that stalled the introduction ` the Ottoman
educational system was geared to teaching penmanship as an art. Those
who were literate highly valued good calligraphy which took several
years of rigorous training before one could receive a certificate of
proficiency. Moreover artistic quality was particularly stressed when
it came to printing the Quran and other religious books such as

Printing books in the Arabic language presents some serious problems
because when letters are connected, they change form. And since Arabic
calligraphy was considered an art form, a number of different scripts
had been developed over the centuries ` think about documents, books
and mosque walls, all in different scripts. Which script to choose for
printing was just one of the questions printers faced.

Descriptions of Sultan Ahmed III (r. 1703-1730) and his grand vizier,
NevÅ?ehirli Damad Ä°brahim PaÅ?a (grand vizier 1718-1730) concentrate
more on how both men presided over the so-called Tulip Period or Lale
Devri (1718-1730) and spent their time on lavish entertainment. Only
very recently have scholars decided to look behind the frivolity and
have determined that they actually were keenly interested in European
developments and applying them in the Ottoman Empire. There is no way
that Ä°brahim PaÅ?a could have carried out changes such as setting up
Istanbul’s municipal fire department and supporting the opening of a
printing press if he hadn’t had the support of the sultan, who also
happened to be his father-in-law. Grand viziers had notoriously short
terms in office, even if they were connected with the ruler by

A document concerning the
Jewish trade in paper. 1766.

Yirmisekizzade Mehmet Sait PaÃ…?a had advantages that few Ottomans had
had an opportunity to enjoy. His father was appointed the Ottoman
ambassador to Paris and he accompanied him as his private secretary.
His birth date is unknown but he died in 1761 after a lengthy career
in government, including serving as ambassador to Paris in 1741-2.
During his first stay in Paris he apparently had plenty of free time
to observe and enjoy life, not least of all because the French at the
court of King Louis XV were intensely curious about the Turks. Mehmet
Sait also developed a keen interest in printing. Upon returning to
Istanbul, he tried to interest Grand Vizier Ibrahim PaÃ…?a in a project
to set up a press.

Ä°brahim Müteferrika (1674-1745) was a Hungarian of considerable talent
who had converted to Islam. He was acclaimed in many fields ranging
from diplomacy to astronomy. The two men got together to set up a
printing press for Ottoman Turkish books in Istanbul in spite of
serious opposition from religious quarters and calligraphers who
expected to be put out of business. Not only did Ä°brahim PaÅ?a support
the project but he also persuaded the Å?eyhülislam Abdullah Efendi to
go along with it. So on July 5, 1727, an imperial firman was produced
that granted permission for the establishment of a press to print
books in Ottoman Turkish.

The Müteferrika Press

The going wasn’t easy at first for Müteferrika, not least because he
had no skilled labor to draw on. He had to draw on the local Jewish
and Armenian printers at first and later brought presses and types
from Leiden and Paris. Some specialists were brought from Poland as
well as other European centers.

Obtaining paper, however, was something of an obstacle. It either had
to be imported from the east, for example, from places like Samarkand
or India, or from the west as there were no paper mills in or around
Istanbul. While this didn’t bother the Jewish and Armenian printers
because their needs were small, it became important for the
Müteferrika press because it was the official imperial press.

Müteferrika thought that the mill could be set up in Istanbul’s
KaÄ?ıthane district through which streams flowed into the Golden Horn
from the Belgrade Forest. However, it was concluded that that location
wouldn’t do because there might not be and there often wasn’t
sufficient water flow during the summer. So the decision was taken to
set up the mill in Yalova in 1741.

Ä°brahim Müteferrika’s map of Indonesia.

Ahmet Nezih Galitekin in his book `Ä°brahim Müteferrika Eserlerinden
Yalova KaÄ?ıthanesi’ (published by the Istanbul Metropolitan
Municipality’s Culture Inc.) has provided a detailed look at the paper
mill at Yalova including reproductions and transcriptions of documents
related to the operation of the mill and the people who worked in it.
The plot of land chosen actually belonged to Hacı BeÅ?ir AÄ?a, one of
the most important people at the Ottoman court as the head of the
eunuchs who served the women of the palace harem. He was known for his
charitable works and, in the course of his career, made many
investments that included land at Yalova. In time, he donated a
portion of that land to be used for the mill.

According to Galitekin, a Jew named Aslan was sent to Poland where he
was entrusted with finding printers willing to come to Istanbul to
work. When they arrived, Müteferrika even hosted them in his own home.
These men were charged with making whatever machinery they needed in
the mill and with teaching Turks how to operate a paper mill and
printing press.

In the end ` the printing press was closed down in 1742 ` 17 books had
been printed, the majority in Turkish. The subjects ranged from
histories to grammar and tactics. It wasn’t until 1784 that another
press printing Ottoman Turkish works was opened.


From: A. Papazian

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