4. A Missing Link
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In the late 19th century, amid a collection of papyrus and paper documents found in the Fayyum oasis in Egypt, a scholar named Karabacek made an astonishing discovery: fragments of block printed Arabic texts. Along with others that have come to light in European and American libraries subsequently these texts should have revolutionized theories about the development of printing. But the discovery has never been publicized and only rarely discussed, outside a small circle of specialists.
The earliest of these texts may date back to the 10th century; some are printed in two colors, and all show a wide variety of calligraphic styles: from an archaic-looking Kufic to an elegant naskhi. One example is printed on a linen envelope while another contains the first six verses of the 34th Sura of the Koran.
But their significance lies in the fact that the fragments are printed; in effect the discovery challenges the long-held Western belief that the Islamic world blocked the transmission of printing from the Far East to Europe. Indeed the Fayyum fragments suggest just the reverse; instead of barring the transmission of printing processes, the Islamic world might have been the means by which those processes did get to Europe.
Printing is traditionally attributed to the invention, by an obscure German named Gutenberg, of a method of printing books with movable type and the publication, in 1454, of the Turkenkalender,a pamphlet warning European leaders of the growing power of the Ottoman Empire. It was published one year after the armies of Mehmetthe Conqueror breached the walls of Constantinople and one year before Gutenberg printed his famous Bible.
Actually, the art of printing goes back long before Gutenberg to China, where paper was developed in the second century, and to Japan, where an oil-based ink was first produced in the fifth century. Vital to the art of printing, the development of paper and ink enabled the Empress Shotoku of Japan to produce the first printed work known in history: a million copies of Buddhist prayers, produced on single sheets by the process of block printing between A.D. 764 and 777.
Block printing—the antecedent of movable type, linotype and the word processor—used wooden blocks on which the text to be reproduced was carved in relief, inked and transferred by pressure to a sheet of paper.
It is virtually certain that this process was known to the Chinese even earlier. In any case, the Chinese can claim the first known printed book in history: an edition of the Buddhist work, The Diamond Sutra. Dated May 11, 868, this book, like the prayers of the Empress Shotoku, was block printed, a method so successful for printing Chinese characters that in 932 a Chinese government official, Fong Tao, sponsored a block printed edition of 300 of the classics of Chinese literature. The Chinese, furthermore, having seen the advantages of wood block printing, began to experiment with still other methods of book production, and in the 11th century a man named Pi Sheng invented movable type—400 years before Gutenberg. Pi Sheng's characters were made of clay and set in a matrix which could be melted so that the type could be re-used. By the middle of the 13th century, printing with movable type was also being done in Korea, and in 1313 the Korean ruler Wang Chen ordered a type font containing 60,000 characters, each a single character in wood. The earliest extant book printed with movable type is Korean and bears the date 1361. These breakthroughs, however, were not the direct antecedents of Gutenberg's invention.
In fact, block printing, the precursor of both the Chinese and the German systems of movable type, entered Europe only shortly before the time of Gutenberg. To historians, this has always posed a problem. Why didn't the Islamic world transmit the technique of block printing to the West? Though a political barrier between the Far East and Europe, Islam, after all, had preserved and transmitted the mathematics, the science and the philosophy of the ancient Greeks to the West, as well as the process of making paper. Why then did Islam not transmit such an eminently useful technique as block printing?
One theory was that because the reproduction of images was forbidden in Islam, printing was never adopted in Muslim lands, and was therefore not passed on to the West. But this theory ignores several points. Muslims, for example, accepted the use of seals which are based on the same principle as block printing, and, like the Chinese, stamped their seals of ownership on letters, documents and on the first and last pages of their books. The Prophet himself had a seal ring which bore the legend "Muhammad, Messenger of God." The same argument applies to the process of coining. A punch or die is used to reproduce identical copies of a design, often incorporating a religious text, and Muslim rulers since early Umayyad times had issued coinage. Why then, since the principles are the same, would the Muslims accept seals and coinage, but reject block printing?
Furthermore, there is no prohibition against images in the Koran, and though some Muslims opposed figural art in some places at certain periods, they generally objected only to 3-dimensional sculpture. Muslims of the early 14th century were perfectly acquainted with Chinese printing, as the famous historian and statesman Rashid al-Din, vizier to Ghazan Khan, the Mongol ruler of Iran, made clear in the first volume of his world history in 1307 . The Chinese, he said,...make copies of books in such a way that no alterations can creep into the text. When they want any book containing important material to be well written and correct, authentic and unaltered, they order a skillful calligrapher to copy a page of that book on a tablet in a fair hand. Skilled engravers are then ordered to cut out the letters. When they have thus taken a copy of all the pages of the book, numbering all the blocks consecutively they place them in sealed bags, like the dies in a mint, and entrust them to reliable persons keeping them securely in offices specially devoted to this. When anyone wants a copy of this book he goes before a committee and pays the dues and charges fixed by the government. They then bring out the tablets, stamp them on sheets of paper like the dies used in coining gold, and deliver the sheets to him...
In his history, Rashid al-Din also gave an example of printing in Iran itself. In 1294, Ghaikhatu, the Mongol ruler of Iran, issued block printed paper money, bearing inscriptions in both Arabic and Mongolian. As it turned out, issuing paper money proved disastrous: the merchants distrusted it, the army refused to accept it and riots broke out. Nevertheless, the experiment shows that wood block printing was known in the Muslim world in the late 13th century-almost a century before it reached Europe. Finally, there is the discovery of block printed texts in the Fayyum oasis—which suggests that the Muslim world was able to make block prints as early as the 10th century—not very long after the first known block printed books from China.
The importance of this discovery—though overlooked until now—should not be minimized. Quite simply, it destroys the long held Western theory that the Islamic prohibition against images prevented Muslims from either adopting block printing or transmitting it to Europe—as they did other discoveries such as paper.
To the contrary, the Muslims may have provided the route by which block printing did get to Europe. There is an old story about an Italian brother and sister who produced a block printed edition of the Romance of Alexander the Great in Italy in the 13th century, following a process imported from Egypt; in the light of the Fayyum discovery, it deserves to be re-examined.
The Fayyum texts, it is true, contain no complete books. What survive are single sheets of paper, parchment and, in one case, linen. But the earliest of them may date to the early 10th century-just about the time Fong Tao was producing his edition of the Chinese classics—and the latest dates back to 1350, a few years before the first European block print. The fragments, moreover, are attractively designed and laid out, and make use of two-color printing, red and black. The scripts cover the whole range of Arabic calligraphy, from an archaic Kufic to an elegant naskhi-suggesting that Arabic printing in Egypt was the product of long evolution and must have employed a number of craftsmen.
Admittedly, the inference to be drawn from these finds is hard to accept: that the history of printing has been substantially wrong for centuries. Arabic literature, after all, contains no references to Arab printing. On the other hand, the block prints from Egypt provide irrefutable evidence that the Islamic world possessed the technique of block printing before Europe. These block prints are, in effect, the missing link in the evolution of printing.
 Aramco World, January-February 1981.
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by: FSTC Limited, Fri 22 August, 2008