In the yard of antiquarian books of the Istanbul Grand Bazaar, where black jinns are hitting with fiery hammers the aching tooth from inside on the miniatures of Ottoman medical manuscripts, and you can still collect by fascicles the legendary İstanbul Ansiklopedisi by Reşat Ekrem Koçu, there is the statue of a turbaned man standing, of Ibrahim Müteferrika, according to its label.
Those who visit the antiquarian shops for the sake of old Turkish books, also know that the seventeen numbered lines under the name are the titles of the seventeen first printed Turkish books, published by the workshop of Müteferrika, the first Turkish printer. But far less people know that Müteferrika was – Hungarian.
We do not know what the original name of Ibrahim Müteferrika was, how he got to Istanbul, why he converted to Islam and how he won the office of müteferrika – the special servant around the person of the sultan. According to his Hungarian contemporaries, the exiles in Turkey of the lost anti-Hapsburg war of independence (1703-1711) by Ferenc Rákóczi, Prince of Transylvania, he had been born in the Transylvanian Kolozsvár (Cluj), and he acquired his thorough knowledge of theology and in European languages in the local Unitarian college. He was probably the Turkish interpreter of Imre Thököly, the leader of the late 17th-century anti-Hapsburg Hungarian rebels in alliance with the Turks, but he was for sure the contact person in the Sultan’s court of Prince Rákóczi, living in Turkish exile in Tekirdag, while also interpreting between the Sultan’s embassies and Eugene of Savoy in Belgrade. According to César de Saussure, a Swiss courtier of Rákóczi, he was captured by the Turks in the late 17th century, and converted to Muslim faith to escape slavery. We do not know how much truth is in these speculations, but the fact is that Müteferrika took his conversion seriously. His manuscript Islamic theological work of 1710, the Risâle-i İslâmîye, in which he often quotes from the Protestant Latin translation of the Bible by Bèze and Junius (transcribing the Latin text in Arabic letters), is a thorough and convinced apology of Islam against Christianity. The author’s Hungarian origin is revealed by the fact that he transcribed the Latin “s” endings (e.g. -us) not with Arabic “s” (ﺱ), but with “sh” (ﺶ), according to the characteristic contemporary Hungarian Latin pronunciation.
Book printing was not unknown any more at that time in the Ottoman Empire. The Sephardic Jews printed their first book in 1493, the Armenians in 1567, the Greeks in 1627, and they had several dozens of printing presses, especially in Constantinople, Salonica and Smyrna. But there were already printed books in Arabic, too (although mainly for the Lebanese Christian Arabs), and we even know a non-book format print by Müteferrika himself, immediately before his first books: a map of Iran (1729):
It is a controversial question why there was such a long gap until the appearance of Turkish-language book printing. One view is that the Islamic scholars of the period considered as a desecration of the divine revelation the “splitting” of the cursive Arabic writing carrying it and made sacred by it, which was evident not only during typesetting, but it was clearly seen also in the printed text, in the tiny spaces between the letters. In another view, book printing would have meant such a strong competition to the influential book copiers and workshops working in a large number in the capital which they simply could not permit.
Signature of Abdulcelil Levni, an outstanding miniature painter of the Tulip period (1720), and the portrait of Sultan Ahmed III painted by him
Only the Tulip period (1718-1730) blossoming under Sultan Ahmed III (1673-1736), the short period of reforms and of opening to the West, was favorable to the reception of such a technical innovation. It is an extraordinary historical coincidence that right then there was in Istanbul an influential courtier whose Islamic conviction could not be questioned, but from his Transylvanian period knew well the profession of book printing, as well as the enormous cultural boost it could result. And as he sincerely pursued to benefit his new homeland, so with the permission of the Sultan and the Grand Mufti in 1728 he founded the first Turkish printing press, where between 1729 and 1742 seventeen books were released. And all were books which served to a deepen understanding of social historical and political thinking as well as of Western sciences: books of history, geography and physics, a description of America, grammar and dictionaries.
These Turkish incunabula, published in five hundred to a thousand copies, are now extremely rare. However, in the late 19th century, in the period of the boom of Hungarian Oriental studies, they were sold for a cheap price in Istanbul, right there where now the statue of Müteferrika is standing. So almost all of them can be found in the bequests of Hungarian Orientalists in the Oriental Collection of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
From this came the idea at the end of last year to publish these books on the internet for the 300th anniversary of Ibrahim Müteferrika’s first work, the Islamic treatise of 1710. The digital copies of the two editions missing from the Oriental Collection were generously given to us by the National Széchényi Library, and the single copy which could not be found in any of the two libraries was purchased for the Oriental Collection by its indefatigable maecenas in Saudi Arabia, Gábor Korvin
The homepage composed by team of the Collection, especially Turcologist Nándor Erik Kovács and Ágnes Kelecsényi, and edited by Studiolum, contains, apart from the historical introduction and the collected data on Müteferrika and his press, the complete bibliography of the printing office, the most important articles of which, in Turkish, Hungarian and German, are fully digitized, as well as a detailed description of each book, whose complete scanned versions will gradually get on the page. The link of the homepage made in English, Hungarian and partly in Turkish as well, will be announced here in Wednesday, at 16 o’clock, during the solemn inauguration of the page in the new conference room of the Academy Library, which is worth to visit even just because of the breathtaking view.