The First Arabic Script Printing Press in Lebanon

“Al-Shamas Abdullah Zakher” founded the first Arabic printing press in Lebanon in 1734. The press is located in “Deir Mar Youhana” in “Khinshara”. The printing press operated from 1734 till1899. It was the first Arabic script printing press in Lebanon, but it was the second printing press in general since in 1610 the first Syriac Script printing press was established in “Deir Mar Antonious” in “Quzhayya” near the valley of the saints in the North of Lebanon. The printing press of “Deir Mar Antonious” was the first printing press in the Middle East.

I have visited the press with my students from LAU [Lebanese American University] and took some pictures of the tools, Arabic letters and books found there. Below is a brief description of the printing process that was used back then, and the books that were printed there.

Book Samples:
More then 16 books were printed in this press starting with the book of “Mizan al Zaman” (The Balance of Time) which you can see photos of it below.


It was lovely to feel and look at old printed books. The letters are de-bossed inside the paper and you can feel the texture left by the imprint of the ink. Just beautiful.


The Arabic type was drawn and cut by “Al-Shamas Abdullah Zakher” himself. It is a unique type that is only present in this Arabic press. The type has humanistic rough edges and was drawn by “Al Zakher” himself. There is no information if “Al Zakher” was a professional Arabic calligrapher or not, but for sure he did take some Arabic calligraphy classes during his youth. This shows in the type he created. It somehow follows the rules of the “Tuluth” Arabic style, but it is not there yet. This is to conclude that “Al Zakher” was a great craftsman working with Arabic letters. “Al Zakher” comes from the city of “Aleppo” in Syria and he is from the renowned jewelry making family “Al Sayégh”. He has inherited the detailed crafting hand from his family, and then used this craftsmanship to start the first Arabic printing press in Lebanon instead of making jewelry.


Metal Cuts
Before explaining the technical process of developing the Arabic letters, here are some examples of carved lead, metal and woodcuts used for the titles or decorations of the books.

The titles were carved as one piece since the words were written more calligraphically and the letters were intertwined together. The titles were also used often in the books and not only once, so it was faster and wiser to carve the titles and not typeset them each time using separate letters.


Close up on a hand carved lead word. The strokes of the chisel are clearly visible. Amazing.

Woodcut pattern.

Squarish metal ornament.

Metal frame ornament.

Line pattern stamp.

Icon pattern stamp.


Letter Punches / Punchcutting:

In traditional typography, punchcutting is the craft of cutting letter punches from which matrices were made in hard type metal for type founding in the letterpress era. Cutting punches and casting type was the first step of traditional typesetting. The cutting of letter punches was a highly skilled craft requiring much patience and practice.

The punchcutter begins by transferring the outline of a letter design to one end of a metal bar. The outer shape of the punch could be cut directly, but the internal curves of a small punch were particularly difficult as it was necessary to cut deep enough and straight into the metal.

In Arabic, the punches are called the fathers “Al Obahat”.
The punch creates the be-bossed letter in the brass matrices.

A set of Metallic Arabic letters punches. Unfortunately, you can notice that they are bit rusting due to the humidity. But you can be sure that the punches are made of metal and not lead. The matrices are brass. Sine metal is stronger than brass; the metal punch can de-boss the letter shape in the brass matrices.

Arabic figures punches with wooden handle.





An example of a set of de-bossed letters that were created from the punchcutting process described previously.
In Arabic, the de-bossed brass letters are called The Mothers “Al Omahat”. From each matrice several lead letters will be created.

The matrice will be placed unto the letter frame mold to create the lead letters.


Letter Frame Molds:
This is the Letter Frame Mold that was created by “Al Zakher” to cast the lead Arabic letters.

Notice the upper opening of the mold where the hot lead will be poured in.

Notice how the curved metal string on the bottom part of the mold holds the letter matrice in place.
Lead will be poured into the mold and the Arabic letter cast will be formed which are known as Sorts.

The mold opened and seen from the inside.


Letter Composing Stick
A composing stick is an instrument used to assemble pieces of metal type into words and lines which are later bound into a forme, set in a galley and printed.

An example of a wooden composing stick that were created by “Al Zakher”.


Composing Galley
A Composing Gally is used to arrange all the sentences to make the layout of the page that will be ready for printing.
An example of a wooden galley created by “Al Zakher”.
Notice that most of the tools were created from wood and not metal.
This is the prove that the tools were created by “Al Zakher” himself in his workshop in the monastery and not imported from europe.


The ink was also created locally by “Al Zakher”.
Below are examples of ink spreaders that were used to spread the ink evenly on the letters before printing the page.




The first press that “Al Zakher” created.
It is a simple press made of wood and metal.


The below is the second press that “Al Zakher” created.



That was a brief article about the process of traditional metal type printing with images from the first Arabic printing press in Lebanon; “Al Zakher Press”.

p.s. The printing press can be visited daily in the monastery.


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