Though the title may be vaguely broad, I have two specific things in mind I wanted to ask about.

While I was recently considering the cultural and technological advancements of Europeans in the early Middle Ages, which was soon to be spread by them to the New World, I also began to consider Islamic history and cultural advancement at that same time (especially - for them - in areas of science, literature, and mathematics), and particularly in North Africa where some of the the Portuguese had contact and intermingled with Muslims through trade. So along parallel historical tracks I began to wonder at the comparative development between Renaissance Era European culture and Islamic culture at that time, and pursuant to that a few unusual questions arose in my mind.

In particular I was wondering about two innovations of the Europeans of which I have never heard mention of their first use in the Islamic world (in terms of their initial adoption, though of course in the modern world there is hardly any distinction now): Firstly, use of the printing press; and secondly, the use of canvas (hemp-weaved) for painting (which first took off in Italy). In terms of technological advancement I'd say the former is more significant and utilitarian, while the argument about the "sophistication" of using canvas for art seems more subjective and preference driven (whatever its actual practical and aesthetic advantages may have been), though I still am curious about it. So to plainly state my two questions:

  1. When was the first recorded use of a printing press in Muslim lands? (Note: I am not asking what the first Islamic book printed on a printing press was, given that it might very well have been from a printing press operating in Europe. I want to know about actual adoption of the printing press in Muslim lands.)
  2. What is the oldest known Islamic work of art composed on canvas?

It may be taken for granted now that Islamic countries use both, but since they appear to be exclusively European innovations at that time of the Renaissance Islamic adoption of it must have been taken from them at some later time. Islamic art was of course prolific at that time, but I've never heard of Islamic use of canvas during the Middle Ages, for example.

Also, although I am especially interested to know the answer to those questions specifically in instances outside of the European continent, in terms of spread of influence I have to wonder if the Muslim held portions of Spain during the Renaissance Era were perhaps the earliest adopters of those technologies for printing and art.

Can anyone provide at least a rough guess for when those two things first appeared in the Muslim world, even if we do not know the actual earliest instances precisely?

  • 1
    WRT to painting on canvas, would the Islamic world even have done it, because of the religious strictures against representational art?
    – jamesqf
    Jul 8, 2017 at 5:49
  • Yes, apparently. See Pieter's answer below about adoption in India (Mughal) and also this webpage about Sultan Mahmud II (Ottoman) adopting Western fashions and styles: metmuseum.org/toah/hd/otto3/hd_otto3.htm. " Painting with oil on canvas became very popular, superseding the production of small-scale paintings for manuscripts and albums. Military schools were the first to produce practitioners of this form, educating their recruits in the arts so that they could produce detailed topographical surveys and technical drawings, and many officers became accomplished landscape painters" Jul 8, 2017 at 6:14
  • Plus, not all of it would have been religious art despite coming from a Muslim land/empire. The content or themes of the painting could be non-religious. See the examples o the Mughal art and on the page I linked about Ottoman art (of boats sailing in a harbor). There are no (direct) religious connotations in that. Jul 8, 2017 at 6:19
  • Click on where it says "oil on canvas" in the URL I gave to see the boats in the bay picture. It is not embedded in the page but rather pops up when you click the text. Jul 8, 2017 at 6:27

2 Answers 2


According to Wikipedia the first ever book printed in the Ottoman Empire was Arba'ah Turim in Hebrew. The date is believed to be 1493, though there are some claims for 1503 or 1504. The printers were David and Samuel ibn Nahmias of Istanbul.

Note that the spread of printing technology through Europe was very rapid, and that by the time of this first printing in Istanbul, "the entire classical canon had been reprinted and widely promulgated throughout Europe." In that sense at least, the Ottoman Empire had already fallen far behind the rest of Europe.

Other early printing presses in the Ottoman Empire were in Saloniki, Greece, in 1515 and Vagharshapat, Armenia, in 1771.

By 1496 there was an established printing press in Granada, but judging from the names of the printers (Meinrad Ungut, Hans Pegnitzer) this is wholly post-Reconquista. This was, of course, not part of the Ottoman Empire but a separate sovereign state until its conquest by Spain in 1492.

The earliest reference I could find to use of canvas for painting in the Muslim world was occasional use in the Mughal Empire, for (not-so) miniatures. from sometime after 1526.

Note that the preferred canvas for art is made from (flax) linen, due both to a better final texture and the natural presence of preserving linseed oil. As flax grows naturally only in cool climates (think Flanders), this would have generally served to restrict its use to more northern (or higher altitude) climates.

The contemporary alternative, (cannabis) hemp from which the term canvas derives its name, is less expensive and grows in more southern climates, but requires more preparation and yields a less desirable (for painting, though not for blue-jeans) final texture.

Cotton remained a very expensive raw material for canvas until both the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, and the subsequent massive expansion of slavery in the American South.

  • 1
    So the provenance of the book originated from a printing press in Istanbul? And did you mistype or is there really a gap of 400 years of uncertainty of when the first book from a printing press operating in Islamic lands was made? Jul 8, 2017 at 5:34
  • 1
    Corrected. I transposed two digits of the date. Jul 8, 2017 at 5:35
  • Okay, that's helpful for the printing press side of the question. I guess it makes sense that the hub of the Muslim world at the time would be the first place to adopt it, rather than somewhere on the fringes of their empire. Now - who is up to bat for the canvas art question? :-) Jul 8, 2017 at 5:40
  • Thanks for the added reference to the Mughal Empire. Any examples by chance of early use in Islamic lands further West (Africa/Middle East)? Jul 8, 2017 at 6:03
  • Not that I have been able to locate; but absence of evidence is of course not evidence of absence. Jul 8, 2017 at 6:05

Let me add to the previous answer: printing press penetrated Islamic lands very soon after its invention, but for long time it was not used by Muslims. It was used by Jews and Christians in Islamic lands for their own needs, until 18th century. Even after that, Ottoman printing houses published only 142 books in more than a centiry between 1726 and 1838. You can still buy beautiful 19th century hand-written books in the antique book shops in Istambul. Islamic culture was reluctant to take any innovations from non-Muslims. Source:


  • I doubt very much whether you can still buy 10th-century manuscripts in shops in Istanbul. Maybe 10th-century hijri (16th century CE).
    – fdb
    Jul 8, 2017 at 20:44
  • @fdb: Sorry, this was a misprint. I corrected.
    – Alex
    Jul 8, 2017 at 21:37

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