“It was ordered so that this weak and feeble slave was born in the era of ignorance in Hungary, in the city of Kolozsvár. «Every child is born a true believer, only their parents educate them as Jews, Christians or Magi [Zoroastrians]» 1 In this sense I read unceasingly the Torah, the Gospel and the Psalms since my childhood. When I strengthened in the knowledge of their details, I acquired the skills of their interpretation, and I was commissioned to preach, I felt a strong inner urge for the secret study of certain parts of the Torah, which was forbidden by some narrow-minded teachers by saying that they had been deleted [that is, they are not part of the canon] (Risâle-i İslâmîye, 2r-2v)
His place of birth is thus known, but its date is uncertain: perhaps between 1670 and 1674. On the basis of his confession and his thorough theological knowledge evidenced by his treatise it is probable that he was an alumnus of the Unitarian college in Kolozsvár, and – as he recalls in the above introductory paragraph – it was some “forbidden” parts of the Torah and of the Gospels, allegedly foretelling the birth of Prophet Mohammed, which turned his attention to the Islam. Apart from this, his career is obscure until the composition of the above document.
The reminiscences of the foreign diplomats and western travelers who came into contact with him are of dubious reliability. César de Saussure, a Swiss courtier of the Transylvanian Prince Ferenc Rákóczi in Turkish exile wrote in his memoirs that Müteferrika had grown up as a child of poor parents in Kolozsvár, fell into Turkish captivity, and having no chance of being redeemed, he converted to Islam in the hope of liberation. 2 The tendentious story lived on for a long time in the literature, but even if he came to the Ottoman empire as a slave, the above quoted treatise points out that he converted to Islam as a result of a conscious internal process, which might have been only partly supported by compelling external forces
In the knowledge of the contemporary Transylvanian circumstances it can be assumed that he acquired the knowledge which later promoted his integration – the knowledge of Turkish and the image of Islam – mainly in his Transylvanian period. It cannot be excluded that he started to build his Turkish network of relationships during the Thököly Revolt as an interpreter or other kind of officer. It was proposed, but never unambiguously proved that he was identical with a Hungarian person called Ibrahim/Ábrahám, mentioned in a document of 1690 as the scribe of Imre Thököly. 3 It is possible that Müteferrika was forced to leave Hungary as a prisoner of war: in this case the latest date of his leaving was the last Turkish offensive (1692). However, as it is attested by his obstinate hostility towards the papacy, the Hapsburg occupation of Transylvania and the forced recatholization, these phenomena alone could have been a compelling reason to migrate.
The office of müteferrika, 4 which became his nickname, was given to him in 1716. The research in recent years has made it clearer which persons called Ibrahim in the Turkish archival sources on Hungarian diplomatic commissions can be identified with our Müteferrika. We can suspect him behind the Ibrahim efendi or müteferrika active between 1714 and 1721 in a number of Hungarian cases as an interpreter or mediator. 5 In 1714 he took part in the negotiations with Eugene of Savoy in Vienna, and in the next year he was designated as an interpreter to the anti-Hapbsburg Hungarian rebels – the Kuruc – gathering in Belgrade. 6 From 1717 (or, in another view, officially only from 1720) he was, for a regular remuneration, the contact person of the Prince of Transylvania in Turkish exile Ferenc Rákóczi at the Sultan’s court until the death of the Prince in 1735. 7
The experiment which mostly marked his name, the foundation of a press in Istanbul can be dated to the so-called Tulip Period, the reign of Sultan Ahmed III (1703-1730) and Grand Vizier Nevşehirli Dâmâd İbrâhîm (1718-1730). In this period the Ottoman government consciously started to open up to the European countries, to put an end to the empire’s isolation and to proceed to its renewal by taking over the results of the cultural and technical developments of the West.
This opening, as well as the vision of Müteferrika which went far beyond the mere foundation of a press made possible the introduction of Turkish book printing in 1728.
The publication of the documents related to the opening of the workshop and to the licensing of the individual publications on the first pages of the books published, the publisher’s forewords, and most importantly the subject of the works selected for publishing, all show the firm determination of an open-minded intellect, receptive of the empirical sciences, to renew the strength of the Ottoman Empire and of the Islam through the introduction of modern science and the reshaping of the society’s image of the world.
In the autumn of 1730 the Anatolian uprising led by janissary officer Patrona Halil overthrew the government supporting the press, but the enterprise, despite the difficult conditions and with declining production, was still active for one and a half decade. Some French sources shed light on a vivid diplomatic activity of Müteferrika in the years of the Hapsburg-Turkish war (1736-1739), suggesting that he was designed an important role in the planned Ottoman support of József Rákóczi, the Prince’s son against the Hapsburgs. 8 The last, seventeenth book come out of his press in 1742. 9 After this, Turkish book publishing dreamed a sleeping-beauty-dream until 1756. The two last years of the press founder’s life are less known to us. His identity with an Ibrahim aga in a Dagestani diplomatic mission in 1743 or with a commissioner (emin) appointed in 1744 as the head of the paper factory in Yalova has been suggested, but it cannot be ruled out that the respective persons were merely his namesakes. 10
As the last chapters of his life, so the circumstances of his death and even its exact date leave some room for doubts, but in all likelihood he died in 1747. 11 He was buried in Istanbul’s Kasımpaşa neighborhood, from where his gravestone was carried over to the graveyard of the Istanbul monastery of Mevlevi dervishes in 1942. A bust of his stands in the western side of the Covered Bazaar, in the courtyard of the antiquarians’ shops rebuilt after the fire of 1950. The plaque on the pedestal of the statue shows the titles of the seventeen works printed by him.
Detail of Joseph von Hammer Purgstall’s (1774-1856) Map of Constantinople, from his work Constantinopolis und der Bosporos (1822), preserved in the Oriental Collection of the LHAS (701.298)