Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1355, (3-9 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Printing at the French Institute

The Institut français d’archéologie orientale has been publishing works in Cairo for over 100 years, as is recorded at the institute’s print shop in Mounira, writes Mathieu Gousse with photographs by Sherif Sonbol

the Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO) in Cairo

In the gardens of the Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO) in Cairo there is an early 20th-century industrial-style building that often excites the curiosity of visitors with its ochre roughcast design, lilac-painted doors and window frames and tiled roof.

Covering 700 square metres, the workshop was built in 1907 when the IFAO moved into the Mounira Palace in the Sayeda Zeinab district of the capital, and it still hosts a fully-functioning print shop. In the western section of the building, there is a museum containing many remarkable items that help visitors to understand the purposes of the shop. Upon entering, they cannot fail to be struck by the extensive display of linotypes, casters, Foucher printing presses — Foucher was a famous Paris printing company — and guillotines for cutting paper that bring to life the traditional art of printing.

The print facility at the institute dates back to its foundation in 1880. From the outset, the IFAO’s first director, Gaston Maspero and then his successor Emile Chassinat, took it to heart to set up a print shop that would publish the results of the institute’s activities in Cairo without the need for books to be printed and then transported from Europe.

the Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO) in Cairo

However, setting up the print shop was a challenging task. Not only did the machines need to be transported from Europe to Alexandria by boat, but a whole new team of local skilled workers had to be trained and managed by an expert dispatched from France’s Imprimerie nationale, the National Printing Office in Paris. A special hieroglyphic font had to be created in order to reproduce inscriptions found during the various excavations conducted by the IFAO.

Egyptologist Chassinat, the director of the institute from 1898 to 1911, decided to build the print shop in the gardens of the Mounira Palace. Himself a former typesetter in Paris, he was determined to expand the collection of fonts available from the National Printing Office and hand designed more than 3,000 hieroglyphs himself. These were used to fashion the steel punches and copper matrices required for printing and gradually contributed to creating the IFAO hieroglyphic font. The printing museum at the institute now hosts a cabinet of the original matrices that helped generate more than 7,500 different hieroglyphic characters.

Orientalists now hold the institute’s print workshop particularly dear for its capacity to typeset texts in rare languages such as Syriac, Coptic, Hebrew, Ethiopian, Greek, Ninevite and Himyarite.

Until 1992, when the institute adopted offset printing technology, the print shop used hot metal typesetting. The manuscripts provided by the authors had to be entered in their entirety using a Monotype machine, the ancestor of today’s computers. By changing the keyboard of the machine, one could enter texts in Greek, Latin or Arabic. Each keystroke would punch a paper tape that was then placed in a caster that cast individual letters according to the sequence punched into the perforated tape. Another machine, dating back to 1898, was used to cast hieroglyphic types.

the Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO) in Cairo

Once the types had been cast and cooled, typesetters would hand-compose the pages on print forms observing typographical rules. The museum now displays the last forms used by the institute in 1992. By studying the hand-designed hieroglyphs carefully, visitors will see how time-consuming the compositors’ task was. Each form was hand-composed one sign at a time and one line after the other. Typesetting one page could take a compositor up to three working days.

The compositors would assemble the letters standing in front of large wooden cabinets that contained Arabic, Roman or hieroglyphic lead types. Those were stored in large drawers known as “cases”. Traditionally, capital letters were stored in the top drawers, or cases, and non-capital letters in the bottom ones. From this arrangement comes the terms “upper case” and “lower case” that are still in use today.

Now standing at the centre of the museum is the printing press, with its beautiful copper ball and 50kg counterweight. Once the text had been set and the form covered in ink, paper was laid out and pressed from the top using a set of levers. The process was then repeated to print a set of identical copies of the document that its authors would receive for proof-reading.

The room at the IFAO in which the museum is located used to be the facility’s foundry. As the Monotype machines needed to be fed with lead ingots, in order for the print shop to operate it was necessary to smelt and cast the ingots on the premises. In a corner of the room there is a furnace that was once used to smelt the lead as well as melt down the old type. Once it was in liquid form, the metal was cast into ingot-shaped moulds and cooled.

Because of the smelting of the lead and Cairo’s sometimes scorching temperatures, the atmosphere in the workshop could be suffocating. In the age of hot metal typesetting, the workers employed in the print shop thus faced sometimes arduous working conditions.

This was all the more the case because publishing a book on Ptolemaic texts from an ancient temple, for example, could take up to seven years. The process involved many stages: first, casting the lead type; second, text editing; and third, allowing time for the authors to proofread the texts, with the proofs often moving back and forth across the Mediterranean. Only when the definitive version of the text had been approved was the manuscript printed at the Institute in Cairo.

All the machines on display in the museum at the IFAO are still in working order. A number of them are still in use, especially for printing the IFAO’s greeting cards and calendars, and the print shop in general, now 110 years old and always located at the Mounira Palace, is still operating today.

It has been modernised twice, once in 1992 when the offset process was replaced with hot metal typesetting, and once in 2011 when the adoption of digital printing machines completed the transformation. Each year, the IFAO print shop publishes some 20 works in the fields of Egyptology, Papyrology, Coptic, and Islamic studies, thus having produced more than 7,000 volumes in total throughout its lifetime with a team that was never more than some 15 employees.

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