Early printed material in Arabic script

Early printed material in Arabic script

What follows is a survey of some online collections of printed books and other materials in Arabic script, dating from before 1923. These include mediaeval Egyptian block prints, European editions of 16th – 19th centuries and materials printed in Muslim countries, 1706 – 1923. The survey is an updated summary of the presentation given by Geoffrey Roper at the 35th MELCom International Conference in Moscow, May 2013. The full text of the presentation can be found here.

Additions, corrections and updates are welcome and they should be sent to the following address:


World Digital Library (UNESCO) Contributed by a wide range of national and academic libraries across 6 continents, these images are mostly of manuscripts, documents, maps photographs and modern books in various languages. But there are a few early Arabic script printed books among them, notably from libraries in Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Qatar, Iraq and Iran (including the very first Persian book printed there).

The European Library This is a portal to the collections of European National and academic libraries, both their catalogue records and their digital collections. These do include a number of Arabic script items. As we might expect, a high proportion of these are European publications. But some books published in Muslim countries are included.


Bibliothèque Virtuelle de l’Université d’Alger The University of Algiers Library has digitised a large number of books of the 19th century and earlier, as part of its Jazairiates database. The great majority of these are in French or other European languages, but a few do contain Arabic texts.


Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (ÖNB) The Austrian National Library in Vienna has a very good collection of digital materials, which can be accessed via their OPAC. These include early and rare books in the Arabic script. They are particularly strong on Ottoman imprints, as well as rare books from the Habsburg empire, including some in Arabic script. But the most important collection is probably the papyrus collection (Papyrussammlung). Many of its documents are on paper, not papyrus, and they include more than 20 mediaeval Arabic printed items. All of them have been digitised and put online, and they provide a first-rate means for scholars worldwide to study and assess them.


Det Kongelige Bibliotek Another national library that has been digitally active in our field is the Royal Library in Denmark. Although most of the images are of manuscripts, there is a handful of early Middle Eastern printed books.


Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Digital Assets Repository This consists mainly of Arabic printed books. Some of the are early ones, of which the Alexandria Library has a significant collection.


E-Corpus This was another joint venture, based in France, but incorporating some holdings of other libraries in the Mediterranean area, which is its focus. Its digital content consists mainly of manuscripts, pictorial images and European-language texts, but there are some Arabic printed items.

Gallica This is the main French digital library, hosted by the Bibliothèque nationale de France. It boasts a very large number of digitised texts and images. The main emphasis is naturally on French materials, but there are some printed Arabic texts, including those from the press of Napoléon in Egypt, as well as later Egyptian, French and other presses.


Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (BSB) One of the best and most important digital collections is offered by the Bavarian State Library in Munich. It includes more than 100 printed books using Arabic characters, which are freely available online. Most of them are of the 19th century or earlier, and are from the rich collection of European scholars such as the French orientalist Etienne Quatremère.

Universität Halle-Wittenberg: Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek (ULB): Sondersammelgebiet Vorderer Orient The digitisation project was initiated here by Lutz Wiederhold. Still ongoing, it is already a most valuable resource with more than 20.000 titles available. They started with the holdings of the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft in Halle, which includes much 19th century material, both European publications and Middle Eastern ones. The important Turkish research library of Jacob Landau, which contains many Ottoman publications has been digitised as well.

Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Bonn: Bibliothek Goussen This is a specialised collection of Oriental Christian texts, including 226 in Arabic. It comprises both European and Middle Eastern editions, most of them are fully digitised and available online. This is a valuable resource in view of the important role played by Christian Arabic books, produced both by missionaries and by Arab Christians, in the early development of Arabic printing.


The National Library of Kazakhstan provides low-resolution images of 12 Kazakh books in Arabic script, published between 1897 and 1926. Some additional ones are provided through the World Digital Library (see above).
Users can choose between Kazakh, Russian and English interfaces.


Bibliothèque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc (BNRM)The Moroccan Digital Library, created by the Bibliothèque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc (BNRM), has a special section devoted to lithographed books, containing digital images of over 30 of them. Almost all printing in Morocco was lithographic until well into the 20th century, so these are of particular historic importance. Users can choose between Arabic and French interfaces.


Universiteit Leiden Bibliotheeken Leiden University Library in the Netherlands has put some of its early Arabic printed books online, as part of its Digital Special Collections. These include items from the collections of celebrated Dutch Orientalists, such as Snouck Hurgronje.


Biblioteca Digital AECID The library situated in Madrid offers a collection of 2000 digitised books .

Biblioteca National de España (BNE) The national library of Spain offers a Biblioteca Digital Hispánica where we can find many interesting items, including rare examples of Arabic typography in 18th-century Spain.


Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi: Kütüphane ve Dokümantasyon Müdürlügü The Library & Documentation Directorate of the Turkish Grand National Assembly provides this database of what they call “E-sources” (E-Kaynaklar), which includes a wide range of Ottoman Turkish printed books. These have to be selected from a long list of romanised titles, which is not in alphabetical order.

İSAM – İslam Araştırmaları Merkezi The Islamic Studies Centre in Üsküdar offers three significant online collections of Ottoman printed materials in facsimile images. The facsimiles are provided as PDF files.

1) Salnâmeler: the official yearbooks which are very important sources of statistical and other information on all the Ottoman provinces. Over 520 are available here.
2) Osmanlıca Risaleler: over 2400 pamphlets or “treatises” in Ottoman Turkish, mainly on political, religious and educational subjects.
3) Osmanlıca Makaleler: articles from 20 Ottoman Turkish periodicals.

Milli Kütüphane: Süreli Yayınlar Bilgi Sistemi This database of Ottoman newspapers and periodicals is maintained by the Turkish National Library in Ankara. It contains full-text images of a wide range of serials from 1840 (Ceride-i Havadis) to 1928.

Atatürk Kitaplığı This important historical research library of the Greater Istanbul Municipality holds about 40.000 books in Ottoman Turkish, Arabic and Persian, all of which have now been digitised and made available online.

United Kingdom

Bodleian Libraries University of Oxford This major academic library has undertaken an extensive digitisation project, which includes many early Arabic-script books, from both Europe and the Muslim lands. The images are also available via the European Library (see above).

United States of America

Afghanistan Digital Library This digital corpus was initiated at New York University Libraries, partly in response to the serious losses sustained by libraries and private collections caused by the many years of conflict in Afghanistan, which has threatened the total destruction of the Afghan textual heritage. The aim is to reconstitute digitally as much as possible of what was published there in the first 30 years of Afghan printing, 1870-1930. This has been done from copies surviving in America, Britain and in Afghanistan itself. Significant holdings in other countries, notably Russia, have not so far been included.

Duke University Library This American academıc lıbrary is another source of digitised Ottoman texts. They have a collection of about 200 books, which they have made available via the Internet Archive platform (see above). These include not only classical literature but also works of popular fiction.

Harvard University: Islamic Heritage Project This has so far digitised not only important manuscripts, as elsewhere, but also, unlike elsewhere, a nearly equal number of printed texts (over 275). These date almost entirely from before 1923, and cover a wide range of subjects, languages and places of publication.

The Hathi Trust This offers a large multilateral digital collection, based in North America. It provides images of the contents of many academic libraries. “Hathi” is the Urdu word for “elephant”, chosen because elephants are supposed to have large memories. Some of these libraries contain early Arabic-script books, which can be accessed through this portal.

Hill Museum & Manuscript Library: Saint John’s University Another collection of digitised Christian books is maintained at this American university, and made available through their Vivarium database. Most of them are manuscripts, but there are some printed Arabic editions, mainly European.

Internet Archive This is another multilateral portal which gives access to images of a wide range of printed books in US and Canadian libraries. A significant number of these are early Arabic-script items, but it has not been possible to quantify them without extensive research in the database.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art Images of two Arabic block-prints, in the Madina collection, are available here.

Metropolitan Museum of Art New York A few Arabic block-prints can be found among the online images here.

University of Utah: Marriott Digital Library This American university has included some interesting items in its digitisation programme, including a number of Ottoman imprints. But the most important images are probably those of their small collection of mediæval Arabic block-prints.
Unfortunately the site is difficult to navigate. The page entitled “Middle East Collections” offers only 9 items: to find the many others, including the block-prints, it is necessary to “Search the Digital Library” from the opening page.

Yale University Library: Cushing/Whitney Medical Library The early Arabic and Persian medical books in this collection have been digitised and put online. However, most of them are Latin translations, and only about 30 contain Arabic or Persian texts.