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Hidden Treasures

The Book of Psalms was printed in the monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya in 1610. Since it is the first book ever printed in the Eastern part of the Ottoman Empire, it is considered as one of the most distinguished works in the history of typography.


In 1485, the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II issued a decree banning all forms of printing in the Empire, and this prohibition was reinforced by Sultan Selim I in 1515. The supposed purpose was to safeguard the contents of Islamic religious books from being modified in the process of printing. However, some researchers believe that the real motivation was to control the work of calligraphers and painters, and to ensure that Istanbul benefited financially. This ban remained in force until the establishment of the first Ottoman printing press in Istanbul in 1727 which printed only in Arabic and Turkish.


The Christian minorities living in the eastern part of the Ottoman Empire were unaware of the printing process during the majority of the 16th century. The first published work seen by the Maronites was a book on Christian catechism in Garshuni, printed in Rome in 1580. In this same year, it was brought to Mount Lebanon by the papal legate Giovanni Battista Eliano, who distributed it to the members of the Synod of Qanoubine. Eliano also distributed another book he translated himself from Latin into Arabic (printed in Garshuni, 1580). It was entitled Creed of the Catholic Faith, approved by the Council of Trent, and known as the Creed of Pope Pius IV.


However, this development of typography was not paralleled in the Middle East. Although Stefano Evodio Assemani recorded in the catalogue of the Bilblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (Florence - Italy), that the Book of Psalms was printed in the Qozhaya monastery in 1585, this statement remains questionable, since there is no physical evidence of the existence of this edition in any library. Furthermore,  the papal legate Girolamo Dandini noted, during his apostolical visit to the Maronites in 1596, that there were no printing presses in the region. Therefore, it can be concluded that the first book in the eastern part of the Ottoman Empire was this Syriac-Garshuni Book of Psalms, printed at Qozhaya monastery in 1610.


Researchers tend to believe, without any reliable sources, that Sarkis, ater named Archbishop of Damascus, purchased printing tools from a city in Italy and carried them back to Mount Lebanon after the election of Patriarch Makhlouf (circa 1609). It is important to mention that since printing presses at that time were made of wood, and required great dexterity and expertise, the printing of the Book of Psalms was not completed before November 10th, 1610, as is written in the colophon at the end of the book. However, the fact that this book was the only one printed at that time raises many questions such as: why other books were not printed, what happened to the printing press or even if the printing press was dismantled.  The relevant historical sources do not delve into this topic at all, and most of them actually ignore the existence of this printing press. For these reasons, we wonder whether the Book of Psalms was only printed in a limited number of copies before the printing press was dismantled.


The Book of Psalms is made up of 268 pages and uses Syriac letters for pagination (except for the first eight pages which were not paginated). The psalm verses are not numbered but divided into groups of five, with a number placed in the margin to mark each of these groups.


We still do not know exactly how many copies were printed and distributed. All we can confirm is that a German traveler bought one copy in Tripoli in 1611. Currently we have tracked six copies in various public and private libraries: National Library of France, the Saint Geneviève Library in Paris, the Staatsbibliothek in Nürnberg (Germany), the Herzog August Bibliothek, in Wolfenbüttel (Germany), the Saint Joseph University Library in Beirut and lastly the Holy Spirit University Library of Kaslik (Lebanon).


Excerpt from

Moukarzel, J (Ed.). 2016. The Book of the Psalms of David, King and Prophet: A facsimile of the Editio Princeps published in 1610 (Qozhaya - Lebanon). Kaslik: Holy Spirit University of Kaslik Press.
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