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Printing by means of movable type is thought to have developed in 11th century China, after which it later spread throughout the world and had a significant impact on Europe starting in the 15th century. Its invention was a fine example of the confluence of cultural and technological developments. Movable type is created by cutting lead into individual letters, setting these on a metal frame in reverse order, and applying ink to the surface in order to transfer the information to paper. The art form of the printing press and the texts they produced — from the layout of the page to the elegant typefaces that resulted – are fundamental to the history of the arts of the book in Arabic script, whether written in Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish or Urdu.
The printing press is known to have existed in the Middle East amongst non-Muslims as early as the 16th century but it was not until 1729 that a Muslim, Ibrahim Müteferrika, began printing texts via this method. Müteferrika, based in Istanbul, secured a ferman (edict) in 1727 from Sultan Ahmed III permitting him to print works of a non-religious nature. Müteferrika’s press, called the Dârü’t-tıbâ’ati’l-ma’mûre, but more widely known as the Basma Khāne (printing house), would print 23 texts on grammar, history and other non-religious subjects over the course of its history. In total, Müteferrika produced approximately 13,000 physical volumes.
The Basma Khāne operated between 1729 and 1742 though its initial reception was greeted with trepidation. Calligraphers were the principal opposition to the printing press after the ferman had been issued. Calligraphy was seen as a pious and devotional act whereas the printing press, with its ability to mass produce texts, was regarded as a threat to the livelihood of many calligraphers.
The Basma Khāne laid the foundations for the development of moveable type printing presses in other Muslim countries, e.g., the Bulaq Press in Egypt. These presses, in response to a host of events and developments in the nineteenth century, allowed for the increased printing and dissemination of newspapers, journals, books and ephemera in the region.
Rare Books and Special Collections possesses 14 of the 23 publications of the Basma Khāne. All of these are on display, each one showing different aspects of the artistic development of the press, from elegant naskh type-setting to different woodcuts for the basmala to the inclusion of maps and other images accompanying the text.