Tuesday, October 19

Gutenberg to Berhanenna Selam

Below is a portion of an Addis Tribune article by Richard Pankhurst about the introduction of the printing press to Ethiopia.
The coming of the Printing Press was, as we all know, one of the great technological innovations that changed the world. Though printing, like so much else, originated in China, it may be convenient to focus today on Europe, or more precisely on Germany, and, more precisely still, on the German printer Johannes Gutenberg, whose famous printed Bible appeared in 1455.

Ethiopian civilisation, like that of medieval Christianity in Europe, was largely based, it should be recalled, on hand-written manuscripts: Biblical and Qorantic texts from which the youth learnt: largely by rote, virtually without the availability of newly composed texts, or much in the way of a living literature. Literacy in Ethiopia before the advent of printing was fairly restricted: perhaps only ten per cent of the population was able to read and write - just as in Europe before the revolutionary advent of the printing press

And yet printers' type for printing in Ge'ez, or Ethiopic as it was called abroad, was designed in Europe within little more than fifty years from Gutenberg's invention. This enabled another notable German printer, Johannes Potken, to produce the first printed Ge'ez or Ethiopic Psalter in Rome in 1513. This was only 58 years after the printing of Gutenberg's Bible.

Only four years later, in 1517, a remarkable Italian would-be innovator, the Florentine merchant Andrea Corsali, whose name we should honour today, tried to introduce a printing press in the country.

That, you will appreciate, was only an historical whisker in time from Gutenberg - illustrating that Ethiopia, over the centuries, was so often abreast, or almost abreast, of modern technology.

But to return to the proposed Ge'ez Printing Press. The idea seems to have appealed to the then Ethiopian ruler, Emperor Lebna Dengel. We find him writing in 1521 to King Manoel I of Portugal asking him to send "craftsmen in type-founding to make books in our characters".

This was no passing whim, for on Manoel's death the Emperor wrote to the latter's successor, King João III, repeating his request for "artificers to make printed books".

Nothing came of the idea, perhaps on account of the fighting which had by then begun on the Horn of Africa, and was soon to gather increasing force over the whole area. The fact remains, however, that it had taken no more than sixty-six years from the printing of Guttenberg's Bible to Emperor Lebna Dengel's request for a printing-press.

The failure to implement the ideas of Corsali and Lebna Dengel meant that Ethiopia for one reason or another fell out of printing - and publishing - history for over three hundred years.
The first Amharic newspaper was printed in 1902 and the Berhanenna Selam Printing Press that brought publishing to the masses was started in 1923 by the future Emperor Haile Selassie.

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