The history of Dominican printing which brought the sacred texts back to Chaldean Christians in the nineteenth century

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:12:00

When French Dominicans replaced the Italian Dominicans in Mosul in 1856 there was a great shortage of Christian books. The religious struggles of the past had resulted in their destruction and in many cases carelessness and negligence had been the cause of the disappearance of many precious manuscripts. In this respect, Monsignor Addaï Scher (Archbishop of the Chaldean Eparchy of Seert, of Assyrian origin, was killed by the Ottomans in 1915 during the genocide Ed.) cited a pitiful example, and unfortunately not the only one, of the library of the old convent of St. James the Recluse, an hour south of Seert. “The library was open to all,” he says, “and everyone took the manuscripts that they wanted without bothering to return them. Some of them were among the most important manuscripts, used as text books, sometimes they were even damaged or lost by students.” These reasons are enough to explain the ignorance Christians were subjected to. The majority of them, according to Father Chéry, were not only illiterate, but they did not even understand the national language. The Christians spoke a defaced Arabic that, in some localities, hardly even resembled literary Arabic. With no prayer books, no catechism, no Gospels, they were reduced to making use of ancient manuscripts, worn by time, mostly borrowed from the Nestorians, and covered with revisions in which an unskilled quill had tried to erase the heretic passages. Christianity was thus based almost entirely on the oral tradition; the Christian faith was transmitted mouth to mouth and was only instilled through ceremonies and rites. The same liturgical books often offered, from one copy to another, variations that detracted from the unity of the Chaldean or Syriac cult. At the most, such as printed books, there were a few copies of a work edited by Propaganda [Fide]: the Compendium of the Christian doctrine of St. Bellarmine. From the first months of his arrival in Mosul (November 30, 1856), the first French superior, Father Besson reorganized the schools founded by Italian priests and he completed the program by adding the study of Arabic, French, Chaldean and Syriac. Seeing as there was no way to charge for books much less the education itself, Father Besson aspired to have a printing press. He began with a lithographic press and he himself engraved the alphabets and the drawings that were needed in the schools. In October 1859, Monsignor O.P. Manton, administrator of Bagdad and delegate of the Holy See for Persia (from 1857), returned to France endorsing the project of the Superior of the Mission: he returned to Mosul with a printing press. The generosity of the Œuvre d’Orient allowed him to realize his first project and in late April 1860, Monsignor Amanton returned to the middle east bringing with him a ‘Marinoni’ with Arabic and Syriac characters from France. However, simply having the machine was not enough – being able to use it was necessary. With no one in Mosul capable of operating the press, the bishop went to Jerusalem and called for help from the Franciscans who had a flourishing print shop. The Custodian of the Holy Land responded generously to the Monsignor Amanton’s request offering him one of his young Chaldean-born, the soul of his printing press, who was a typesetter accustomed to oriental languages and an engraver capable of producing Chaldean characters on-site. The press was immediately put into use for Arabic and was used to train young people. Under this new direction, four young men were soon able to set typography in motion. The brother opened a foundry enabling the production of characters brought from Paris by Monsignor Amanton and the Syriac characters also brought from Paris. The Lazarists of Persia brought him the Chaldean characters and the young typographer mimicked the most beautiful characters of the time, those of the rich protestant typography of Urmia. Thanks to the repeated aid of the Œuvre d’Orient, which added 1,200 francs to the original 6,000, the typography was able to develop under the new management to which Monsignor Amanton handed it over in January 1862: the Dominican fathers of Mosul. In March 1862, the bishop wrote, “We can already offer a prayer book, a way of the Cross (it was the first publication), a compendium of geography, and we are about to begin printing a book of Arabic reading.” […] Excerpt from Jean-Maurisce Miey, L’imprimerie des dominicains de Mossoul 1860-1914, «Aram» 5 (1993), pp. 163-165