From Amulet to Art Nouveau

a Thousand Years of Arab-European Exchange in Printing and Book Design

24 août 2007
  • 13:50

The history of printing in the Arab world and Europe is the story of a 500-year exchange of technology, imagery and design. The Arabs adopted printing long before Gutenberg, but did not use it for book production; the technique, nevertheless, may possibly have influenced the later development of printing and book production in Europe.

Amulet-Egypt.jpg - GA17. Arabic printed amulet from Egypt, ca. 13th century.

The first books containing Arabic script were printed in Europe, and were part of the Renaissance adoption of Arab/Muslim symbolism and imagery, from as early as the incunable period (15th century). During the next three centuries many European printed books continued to convey such "exotic" characters, decoration and iconography from the Ottoman domains and beyond. These sometimed purveyed mystification, intended to create or reinforce a sense of secret and unassailable erudition on the part of their purveyors; but, the development of Arabic typography in Europe also served to provide textual knowledge of the Arab/Muslim "Other ". While this development was hampered by European lack of knowledge and appreciation of the Arabic scribal and calligraphic tradition, it did establish the technical basis of Arabic typography, which later laid the foundation for print culture in the Arab world itself.

Meanwhile, the Ottomans themselves discovered printed books. The first ones in Arabic and Turkish which they encountered came from Europe, and they brought new features of book design and iconography from an alien world. Then in the 18th century books began to be printed in the Ottoman empire, which themselves incorporated more subtly innovative elements. By the mid-19th century a revolution had taken place in the production and distribution of texts, decoration and images which both reinvigorated the Ottoman and Arab sense of Muslim self-identity and at the same time confronted them with a Europe-derived modernity which gradually transformed both their use of texts and their graphic universe.

This paper will trace and illustrate some of the currents and counter-currents in this exchange of printed script, images and symbols between Europeans and Arabs.