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A Book of Hours in Arabic?

Kitab Salat al-Sawa'i page
Kitab Salat al-Sawa’i, image from the Universitätsbibliothek Basel copy.

I had the pleasure Friday afternoon of hearing a stimulating talk by Dr Karla Mallette, Professor of Italian and Near Eastern Languages and Director of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Michigan, on cosmopolitan languages in the early modern Mediterranean.[1] Distinguishing between the “mother tongue” as the language in which people speak individually and a “cosmopolitan language” as the learned language of international movement and high literature, Dr Mallette provided some useful frameworks in which to think about the cultural capital of Latin in the books of hours we’ve been studying. Particularly helpful was her discussion of cosmopolitan languages as performative and non-mimetic, deliberately working within a linguistic register elevated above the workaday common speech and experience, capable of attaining elaborate rhetorical — and, I would add, spiritual — force. If we think about the voicing of Latin prayers as performing a certain spiritual state, one distinctive from the “homely” (and vernacular) exchanges between Margery Kempe and Jesus, it may help us monolingual speakers appreciate the gravitas that a Latin prayer could add to one’s imprecations.

As thought provoking as that aspect of her talk was, the thing that really caught my attention was an aside. Working her way up to discussing the Venician Paganino Paganini‘s disastrous printing of a corrupt Qu’ran in moveable type (1537-38), Dr Mallette mentioned that the first Arabic-language book printed in moveable type was a Book of Hours.


This is the coolest thing I’d heard all week (and my students are discovering some pretty awesome things about the Hargrett Hours – stay tuned for updates.)

What I don’t know about Arabic literature literally fills libraries, but I know enough to find this absolutely remarkable. The Arabic Book of Hours in question is the Kitab Salat al-Sawa’i produced by Gregorio di Gregorii in Faro, Italy, 1514-17.[2] This is not a book that has received much study, as far as I can tell.[3] Current consensus seems to be that Gregorio printed the book for export to the Christian populace of Syria. (Syriac Christians observed a form of Christianity separate from both the Roman and Eastern Orthodox rites; although they were under Muslim rule from the 630s, they were allowed to practice their faith.)  The book includes an Arabic colophon with these details:

This blessed Book of Hours was completed on Tuesday, September 12th of the year 1514 of our Lord Jesus Christ, praised be his name! Amen. It was printed by Gregorius of the House of Gregorius of the city of Venice; printed in the city of Faro during the reign of His Holiness Pope Leo, occupying the throne of St Peter the Apostle in the city of Rome. Let him who finds an error rectify it and God will rectify his matters through the Lord. Amen. (qtd in Kres 208)

I’ve got questions – lots of questions – and only a few speculations. Here we go.

What would an Arabic Book of Hours contain? The Little Office of the Virgin is such a strongly western European phenomenon — the adoration of the Virgin, the elevation of Latin as a language of prayer, the imitation of the monastic offices — that it seems oxymoronic to produce one for the eastern branches of Christianity. My first reaction was that this volume was a religio-cultural colonial act: “Look, this type of prayer is incredibly popular in the West! Try it! You’ll love it!” If that is true, it is not true in a simplistic way, because the book may contain standard Eastern services, not the Little Office translated straight into Arabic. The Arabic colophon does use the term “book of hours,” but the extended title (given in full in the British Library’s catalogue entry for their copies) adds “The Night and Day Hours, with the Typica, but without the Mesoria; from the Horologion.” The Horologion is the Eastern Orthodox equivalent of the Divine Office (eight offices said at distinct times of day and night), the Typika is a non-Eucharistic service, and the Mesoria are extra “half-hour” offices added during the Nativity Fast (equivalent to Advent) and the Apostle’s Fast (beginning at Pentecost).[4] So it appears to be a prayer book modeled on the Eastern series of monastic services, just as the Little Office of the Virgin is in the West. Moreover, the Psalms in the Kitab Salat al-Sawa’i are from an eleventh-century Arabic Psalm translation by Abd Allah ibn al-Fadl (Krek 206), so they presumably would have been familiar to Syrian Christians. What is not clear is whether the Kitab Salat al-Sawa’i was designed for lay readership (like a western Book of Hours) or for auxiliary use by the priesthood; equally unclear is whether the genre of “condensed office book” was one the Eastern Christians had already embraced in manuscript form, or whether the genre was exported to the Syrians along with moveable type printing. (When I run the title through catalogues of Arabic manuscripts and printed books, I only get hits for this volume, so the title “Book of Hours” may well be a true Western export.) So while there is undoubtedly a strong element of Western, Roman Catholic superiority in the act of producing an Arabic Book of Hours, at least Gregorio knew his audience well enough to abide by their liturgical expectations.

So why would a Venetian printer produce a Book of Hours in Arabic? Well, Books of Hours were such best-sellers in the west that it must have seemed a no-brainer to Gregorio to expand into the Arabic-speaking market. And Gregorio was a good candidate for producing this text. Although he wasn’t licensed to produce books in Eastern scripts, Gregorio did have experience printing Arabic texts in Latin characters (Krek 208-10). It may also have been a timely venture. Two major historical events frame the Kitab Salat al-Sawa’i‘s creation: the Fifth Lateran Council of 1512-17, and the Ottoman Conquest of Syria in 1516. Krek suggests that the book was issued “at the behest of the papacy” following the events of the Council (212), although there is nothing in the Arabic colophon to suggest such patronage.[5] The rapid expansion of the Ottoman Empire undoubtedly played a crucial role in Gregorio’s decisions, but I fear my knowledge of those events is too vague to even speculate. Was Gregorio attempting to expand into the Syrian market before the Ottomans arrived, to establish good relations with the current regime before the inevitable ingress of the Turks?

Was this venture a success? That’s a tricky question. At least eight copies exist today, which is a pretty good showing for a book that may have gone through only one printing (although the most popular books were also the ones likely to be read out of existence). However, it’s not clear that there was only one printing. The few scholars who write about the book imply that, but I don’t believe it has been confirmed: no one has examined all the extant copies of the Kitab Salat al-Sawa’i, and several are incomplete. The book is associated with two dates, which may indicate reprinting or reissue. The colophon dates its completion to September 1514; a Latin preface attached to one copy of the work housed in the British Library includes (according to the British Library catalogue) a dedication to Pope Leo X, dated to December 1517 (see also Krek 206). Now, the date of the Latin preface doesn’t necessarily mean that Gregorio reprinted the book in 1517; if he had a pile of unsold books in his warehouse, he might have produced a new preface, slapped it on the front of the earlier imprint, then tried to market these as an updated product. But it does suggest two rounds of circulation, at minimum: one without the 1517 preface, and one with. Moreover, Krek notes that no other books were issued in this Arabic font (a new, inaccurate one was made for the disastrous Qu’ran that Dr Mallette discussed) (208). This I find just as remarkable as the existence of an Arabic Book of Hours. It was incredibly expensive to design and cast a new font of moveable type; add to that the complexity of designing an Arabic font with its diacritical markings and ligatured letter forms. Gregorio would have needed to get his money’s worth out of this investment. If the Kitab Salat al-Sawa’i was so popular in 1514 that Gregorio decided to re-issue it in 1517 (and maybe at other times as well), the investment was probably worth it. But if the 1517 preface was simply appended to stock left over from 1514, the venture was a bust.

What does the Kitab Salat al-Sawa’i tell us about Books of Hours in the early sixteenth century? The first thing it suggests is their extreme popularity — and marketability. However we read the exportation of a Western form of worship to an Eastern audience, it remains true that Books of Hours were such a hot commodity in the West that it was a good business plan for Gregorio to find a new market for them. And he was willing to invest in a new, complicated, and undoubtedly expensive font. In the history of English printing, we might compare this to the creation of a specific font for printing Old English texts. An Old English alphabet, modeled on Anglo-Saxon minuscule, was crafted specifically for Archbishop Matthew Parker’s printing of sermons by the Old English priest Aelfric (The Testimonie of Antiquitie, 1566, STC 159),[6] a project designed to legitimize certain aspects of the Elizabethan Settlement (especially refusal of transubstantiation and clerical celibacy, along with espousal of vernacular biblical translation) by recourse to religious practices in the “primitive” English church. The theological stakes were high for Archbishop Parker, so he funded this novel (and quite elegant) font:

A Testimonie of Antiquitie (STC 156), 1566. Image via Early English Books Online.
A Testimonie of Antiquitie (STC 156), 1566. Image via Early English Books Online.

For Gregorio and the Kitab Salat al Sawa’i, the motivation was undoubtedly more economic than polemic; he must have calculated the return he would have gotten on his investment and commissioned the font accordingly. But whereas Archbishop Parker’s printers got good value from the Old English font (it appears in several other sixteenth century printings), the disappearance of Gregorio’s Arabic font from the printing world is curious. And, I would suggest, one key to the puzzle that is the Kitab Salat al Sawa’i. If we do have two (or more) printings from 1514 to 1517, then the font didn’t disappear, but got good use producing just this one book. And if the book went through multiple printings, it was presumably well received in Syria and anywhere else Gregorio exported it. Which, in turn, would reveal how far the Eastern Christians found this western genre suitable for their devotional needs — or considered it surplus to their spiritual lives.


[1] Dr Karla Mallette, “Life Writing: Lingua Franca and Cosmopolitan Languages in the Mediterranean.” Dr. Mallette is a Willson Center Distinguished Lecturer for 2016-17, and we were delighted to have her on campus.

[2] You can view the Universitätsbibliothek Basel copy (without the Latin colophon) online at

[3] For English language studies, see Roderick Cave and Sara Ayad, The History of The Book in 100 Books (Buffalo: Firefly Books, 2014), 110-11; Miroslav Krek, “The Enigma of the First Arabic Book Printed from Moveable Type,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 38.3 (1979): 203-12.

[4] My data here comes from the Orthodox Wiki, so I’m happy to take corrections.

[5] Cave and Ayad (111) also claim the pope’s involvement. But Kathleen Kennedy on Twitter (@TheMedievalDrK) also found it unlikely that the Pope was involved; thanks to her for a late-night discussion and for confirming that, no, really no one knows anything about this book.

[6] The bibliography is extensive; on the typeface see, in addition to Amanda Luke’s excellent blog post on the topic for the KU libraries, Sian Echard, chapter 1 of Printing the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).