Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The First Gospel Printed in Arabic in the Middle East

This appeared without attribution in the bulletin of the Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon, here.

The First Gospel Printed in Arabic in the Middle East

Patriarch Athanasius Dabbas was born in 1647 in the city of Damascus with the name Boulos, son of the priest Fadlallah. He received his primary education at the Orthodox Patriarchate. Then he learned the trade of weaving and practiced it with his uncle. After this, the young Boulos entered the famous Monastery of Mar Saba near Bethlehem, where he was tonsured a monk with the name Paisios, then a priest with the name Procopius, until he became the abbot of that monastery. There he learned Greek, excelling at it and mastering its grammar, just as he had excelled at Arabic. Dabbas was head of the Patriarchate of Antioch twice, first from 1688 to 1694, then from 1720 to 1724. In the intervening period, Dabbas headed and cared for the affairs of the Archdiocese of Aleppo. Greek sources likewise indicate that he was elected honorary or regent head of the Church of Cyprus from 1705 to 1709.

Dabbas was famous for having, directing and putting into use the first Arabic printing press in the Middle East. At the end of the seventeenth century (1697-1700), Aleppo suffered an economic crisis causing serious hardship for its population on account of drought and a high cost of living. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Dabbas undertook a journey that led him to Constantinople, then to Moldavia and Wallachia in order to collect material assistance for his diocese and its people. Additionally, this journey to the countries of Eastern Europe was undertaken in order to secure assistance for the Patriarchate of Antioch in order to put a stop to the activity of Western (Protestant and Catholic) missionaries, which was intensive in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

We do not know precisely when the journey began, but we know that Dabbas was in Bucharest in March of 1700. There he was the guest of its ruler, Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu (1688-1714), a saint and martyr who is commemorated in the Church on August 16. There, in May of that year, he blessed the marriage of the prince's daughter. Prince Constantin learned that the Patriarchate of Antioch's books were still in manuscript form, so he ordered that a printing press with Arabic letters be made and gave it to the Patriarchate of Antioch. This is after he himself had financed Romanian and Georgian printing presses.

There in Bucharest Arabic printing was graced with an edition of the Orthodox liturgy, when the Priest's Kontakion and Great Euchologion were printed under the supervision of Dabbas and the monk Anthim the Iberian, who made Arabic letters for the press. This monk knew many languages, including Turkish, which at that time was written in Arabic script and so he was able, with Dabbas' help, to make new letters. After Athanasius mastered the art of printing, he took the press to Aleppo as a gift from the prince and this was the first Arabic printing press in the Middle East. Its first production, in 1707, was the Four Gospels.

In Aleppo, the patriarch oversaw not only the technical aspects of printing, which he had learned during his stay in Romania, but also the texts of the books, their orthography, and the eloquence of their language. He was not content to print the texts of the manuscripts he possessed, but rather he generally revised the texts and corrected weaknesses or errors in them. This is attested in the introduction to the Four Gospels, where the Patriarch Dabbas writes that he printed the book "where I corrected its Arabic word by word."

Patriarch Athanasius Dabbas is regarded as the final figure of a cultural period that lasted over a century, beginning with Patriarch Euthymius III Karma at the beginning of the seventeenth century, brought to its perfection by Patriarch Macarius ibn Za'im, then finally crowned by Dabbas with his bringing printing to the Middle East. 

This effort of his to obtain an Arabic printing press was motivated by pastoral needs. First, because of the importance of liturgical life for the faithful, Patriarch Dabbas unified the texts of all the prayers held in the churches of the Patriarchate of Antioch. Using his printing press, he took them from manuscripts filled with errors to books printed under the supervision and guidance of the Patriarchate. The Patriarchate of Antioch became one in practice on account of these books, which unified the rites and liturgy. 

Second, Dabbas intended to popularize reading of the Gospel and theological books. He helped people to acquire the Gospel and other books through the press, which printed hundreds of copies. The patriarch discussed this effort of his in the introduction to the Four Gospels, which he printed under the title The Book of the Noble, Pure Gospel and the Bright, Illuminating Lamp [Arabic book titles were almost always long and rhyming in this era]. He says in this introduction, "In order to make it easier for you to acquire and possess it, I have endeavored to print it." He believed that owning a copy of the Gospel is "the duty of every believer", as it contains "concepts sufficient for all classes of people", clergy, monks, married people and unmarried people. For Dabbas, acquiring the Gospel first of all means reading it and grasping its meanings, so that it may be in every house like "an invincible weapon and a decisive attack" against strange and heretical teachings.

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