Cotsen’s Covert Collections: The First Illustrated Book Printed in Turkey

The other day I was perusing the catalog, looking at records in some of Cotsen’s smaller language collections. When I searched for our holdings in the Turkish language, I found something really surprising and rare (okay you caught me, I was looking for blog post material). Cotsen’s Turkish language holdings are relatively small compared with other languages in the collection. But we still hold around 130 items, mostly pamphlets and educational material printed in the 1980’s and 90’s, some earlier 20th Century material, and one copy of Musavver tarih-i hayvanat (Encylopedia of Wild-life) printed in 1892 (Cotsen 102716).

So you might imagine my surprise when I came across this book in the catalog: Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi; el musemma bi-Haidis-i nev; the first illustrated book printed in the Turkish language and the Muslim world.

Rebound in blind-tooled morocco, probably 20th Century. Cotsen 3134.

Rebound in blind-tooled morocco, probably 20th Century American. The leaves of Cotsen’s copy, probably rearranged when rebound, were collated in 1980 and found to be out of order, especially at the beginning and end of the text block. Since Ottoman Turkish reads right to left, this mistake is understandable. Page citations below follow these reviewed pagination marks when available. Cotsen 3134.

Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi; el musemma bi-Haidis-i nev (The History of the India of the West according to recent discoveries) was printed in 1730 (1142 AH) by Ibrahim Müteferrika in Konstantiniyye (Constantinople, not changed to Istanbul until 1929). Muteferrika is an honorific title meaning “court-steward”, which Ibrahim received between 1705 and 1711. Though his original name remains unknown, he was born in Kolozsvár, Transylvania between 1672 and 1675 as a Unitarian Christian who only later converted to Islam.1

An Arabic Quran had been printed in Italy as early as 1537. Jewish and Christian millets (minority religious communities within the Ottoman Empire abiding by separate legal courts) had already been operating presses by Müteferrika’s times. But he would prove to be a true reformer; becoming the first Muslim printer and the first to print with movable type in the Ottoman Turkish language (written in a Perso-Arabic script until the Latin alphabet was adopted in 1928)


Ibrahim Müteferrika

Agitating against a manuscript culture over eleven hundred years old, Müteferrika lobbied for a state supported printing press in 1726. Facing initial heavy opposition from court appointed calligraphers and a few Ottoman Ulama (religious authorities), he was granted permission to print non-religious and non-legal works the next year. By 1729, Müteferrika issued his first printed work: Kitab-ı Lügat-ı Vankulu (Sihah El-Cevheri), an Arabic and Turkish lexicon. The press ran until 1742, and in just fourteen years he printed seventeen works totaling 13,200 volumes. Most volumes, including Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi (Müteferrika’s fourth work), were printed in 500-copy editions and only received one printing.

Müteferrika’s publishing choices, some of which he authored himself, demonstrate his diverse knowledge and the interests he developed during his official capacity as an Ottoman diplomat. He published books on history, geography, astronomy, translation, military matters, and polemics for the modernization of the Ottoman state. Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi, demonstrates his interest in the first three subjects.

Originating from a Turkish manuscript by an unknown author written around 1580, the book opens with a short discussion regarding cosmology, particularly the geocentric vs. heliocentric models of the universe, and then moves on to a general geographical discussion. Though rebound to the back of our copy (in this case meaning the left-hand side), this section includes beautifully executed plates:

Geocentric model of the universe. Fold-out chart [95]

Geocentric model of the universe. Fold-out chart [95]


Map of the known world. Spread [93]


Western and Eastern hemispheres. Spread [94]

The bulk of Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi, however, focuses on Central and South America; the regions’ 16th Century conquest by Spain, their peoples, places, flora, and fauna. This material consists entirely of translations taken piecemeal from five 16th Century Spanish volumes about the conquest of the New World. The content of these five volumes was probably made available to the original Turkish author via Italian translations. Venetian printers, after all, were among the few European traders who had access to Turkish markets for much of the late Medieval and Renaissance eras.2

Possible title pages or chapter headings for these different sections. Leaves [4] and [1]

Possible title pages or chapter headings for these different sections. Leaves [4] and [1] respectively.

Müteferrika’s choice to publish Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi as his first illustrated book is significant. Given that much of the source material borders on fantasy (many of the original Spanish authors never even visited “New Spain”) the woodcuts executed by an unknown artist working solely from the descriptions in the text are highly imaginative:

Mermen in an altercation with locals. Leaf 49 recto

Mermen in an altercation with locals. Leaf 49, recto.

Waterfowl . . . and some other kind of four legged bird? Leaf 55 verso

Waterfowl . . . and some other kind of four legged bird? Leaf 55 verso

Hunting. Perhaps a jaguar in the top right? Leaf 86, recto

Hunting. Perhaps a jaguar in the top right? Leaf 86, recto

The bountiful New World, where women grow from trees. . . Leaf 15, recto

The bountiful New World, where women grow from trees. . . Leaf 15, recto

The illustrations appear to be chosen for their wow factor, depicting images of the most unusual and foreign aspects of this unknown land. In the Muslim world, Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi remained the definitive text about the New World for a culture that would share only limited contact with these far away lands until the 19th Century.


Hunting a tree demon? With your trusty lama (who may be under attack by a bird)? Leaf 5, verso


Two birds with what might be a jobo and banana tree. Leaf [89] verso

Tapirs? Leaf 46, verso

Tapirs? Leaf 46, verso

In 1745, three years after Müteferrika’s print shop closed for good, he died. Whether or not his press was closed due to political and religious pressure, remains speculative. What is known, however, is that for almost forty years after Müteferrika’s death, Muslim printing died with him. Besides a re-issue of his first work in 1755, printing would not be re-introduced to Constantinople and the Muslim world until 1783.

His scholarly and reformist initiative was hard won and influential. He remains a seminal figure in the history of printing and a figure remembered (but largely unheeded in his time) for his attempts to modernize and revitalize a waning empire. Perhaps Müteferrika read the writing on the wall for an empire that was just beginning to show the technological and political stagnation that would earn it the nickname of the “sick man of Europe”, around a hundred years after Müteferrika’s death.

Untranslated inscriptions. First blank [1]

Untranslated inscriptions. First blank [1]

  1.  Watson, William J.. “İbrāhīm Müteferriḳa and Turkish Incunabula”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 88.3 (1968): 435–441. Web…
  2.  Goodrich, Thomas D.. “Tarihi-i Hind-i Garbi: An Ottoman Book on the New World”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 107.2 (1987): 317–319. Web…