Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Guest Post: "The Ottoman Printing Press"

By H. Torrance Griffin, first posted on Today in Alternate History.

In 1490, Bayazed II, receiving some additional information on how the printing press has benefited government among the Franks, decided that it would be a useful tool for the Bureaucracy in Constantinople. However, the uelma and his own religious feelings frowned on its use as pertained to the language of the Holy Qur'an. With some thought the solution was clear, and after a closed-door meeting with the Patriarch, it was agreed that the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople would obtain a Greek-language press and lease its use to the Topkapi Palace where the bulk of the civil servants were ex-Christians who knew said language.
This was considered, at the time, an internal labor-saving device for the sake of convenience (Persian-influenced Turkish using diwani calligraphy remained obligatory for official edicts for another 250 years); but not only did businesses in and around the capitol make use of the presses but Greek increasingly became a working language to the point where Bayazed's grandson, hearing of Karl von Hasburg's famed multilingualism, bragged that he himself spoke, "Arabic to God, Persian to Poets, Turkish to Soldiers, Greek to Civil Servants, Latin to honored Frankish embassies, and German to the King of Spain."

Later Sultans were not so proficient, but for temporal purposes it was Ottoman Turkish that suffered as literacy was spread by the most readily produced reading materials. Public proclamations that were not posted alongside Greek (and/or Armenian, which started a press in 1530) translations were written with space for same on said sheet, and even the tughras of the sultan were accompanied by (or in the case of the most artistic incorporated) Greek signatures.

It is not confirmed that a Qadi named Yusef noted a student born of a family that had been Muslim from the time of the Seljuks could not follow more than a few rote passages of hadith without referring to a phrase-book or pronunciation guide, but upon his appointment as Grand Mufti in 1657 he managed to override the scribal guilds and establish a network of Perso-Arabic presses. However while the printing-houses of Damascus are credited with keeping the developing Greek, Armenian, and Latin orthographies for Levantine Arabic marginalized; for the dominance of the language of Osman Bey in the lands of his successors it was too little and too late. Even peasants of the Anatolian interior where less-poetic versions of Turkish were not largely supplanted by Greek as on the coasts and in cities greeted strangers in the latter language, and Kurdish hillmen who could not follow a sentence in Greek or Armenian were prone to see Perso-Arabic script as something too holy for day-to-day use.

By 1750, there was more printing along the Bosporus than there was in Vienna. A solid majority of it (ranging from original Muslim theology to technical works out of "Frankish" universities to phil-hellenic speculations seeking to reconcile the glories of pre-Macedonian city-states with Islam) was in Greek, Armenian took nearly half the remainder, and Chancellery Turkish was outpaced by what purists still sneered at as Karamanili.

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