The First Arabic Printing Press

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Al-Shamas Abdullah Zakher founded the first Arabic printing press in Lebanon in 1734. The press is located in Deir Mar Youhana in Khinshara, which dates back to the 12th century. The printing press operated from 1734 till 1899. It was the first Arabic script printing press in Lebanon, but it was the second printing press in general since in 1610 the first Syriac script printing press was established in Deir Mar Antonious in Quzhayya near the valley of the saints in the North of Lebanon (https://365daysoflebanon.com/2016/02/03/the-first-printing-press/).

More then 16 books were printed in this press starting with the book of “Mizan al Zaman” (The Balance of Time). The feel of old books and the beauty of their printing is an utter delight. The letters are de-bossed inside the paper and you can feel the texture left by the imprint of the ink, so delicately beautiful. The printing process sometimes took 6-8 years per book.

The Arabic type was drawn and cut by Al-Shamas Abdullah Zakher himself. It is a unique type that is only present in this Arabic press. The type has humanistic rough edges. There is no information if Al Zakher was a professional Arabic calligrapher or not, but for sure he did take some Arabic calligraphy classes during his youth. This shows in the type he created. It somehow follows the rules of the “Tuluth” Arabic style, but it is not there yet. Al Zakher comes from the city of Aleppo in Syria, from the renowned jewelry making family Al Sayégh. He has inherited the detailed crafting hand from his family, and then used this craftsmanship to start the first Arabic printing press in Lebanon instead of making jewelry.

The type would be set letter by letter, line by line and placed into a plate. The plate would then be put into the printing mechanism where ink would be added and impressed onto the paper when pressure was applied. The ink was made from ground up walnut branches and the paper used was 100% organic making the books completely natural products. This could explain why the books are still in incredible condition.

Once the pages were printed, they were dried using an accordion fan similar to the ones used to keep the chimney fire going. The books were stitched and bound with leather then placed between wooden planks to keep shape

The way that el Zakher made sure to keep the correct order of pages was pretty impressive: instead of using page numbers and getting lost, they would print the last word of the script at the bottom of the page outside the framed text. This last word would be the first word of the next page and those words would never be found twice so there would be no confusion. That’s pretty difficult when you think about it. The Arabic script used is based on el Zakher’s own writing and it is said that you cannot tell the difference between his actual handwritten pages and those that were produced by the press.

A work of art and knowledge of true beauty lies in the heart of a church in the picturesque village of Khinshara.

To my Lebanon, a land of great knowledge

A final note: there is controversy whether this is the first Arabic printing press or whether the first was in Aleppo, in any case, it was El Zakher whose name is prominent in both and established both…

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