Modern history


Propaganda may be verbal or nonverbal, that is, visual. Verbal propaganda—that is, that conducted in words, may be written or spoken or some combination of the two. The recorded history of propaganda begins with the invention of writing, and indeed, a large proportion of surviving ancient texts may justly be classified under that heading, consisting as they do of statements by rulers proclaiming their greatness, their achievements, their power and often their ambitions or by religious leaders promulgating their doctrines. A major step was the invention of the alphabet and the replacement of the cumbrous writing systems—cuneiform, hieroglyphs and the like—of the most ancient civilizations. With the advent of the alphabet, writing was no longer a specialized craft or mystery, knowledge of which was confined to a small class of priests and scribes. In contrast to the earlier systems of writing, it could easily be taught and mastered, and could bring the message of a written text to a much wider circle. This was still far short of universal literacy, but it was a great improvement on what went before and significantly eased the task of propagandists of every kind.

Written propaganda goes back to remote antiquity and is attested by hard evidence in the most literal sense—writings on stone and metal, proclaiming the name, authority, achievements and claims of the ruler. From early times, these titles and claims were asserted on coins, which passed through many hands; on inscriptions, clear and visible on city gates, in markets and in other public places, as well as on letters and other documents. To these the nineteenth century added two new vehicles—the banknote and the postage stamp. Modern technology has provided a vast new range of means of communication by which the ruler can bring his name, his titles and the claims that these embody to an ever wider public.

The second major advance in the technology of communication, of comparable magnitude with writing, was the invention of printing, which made possible the easy and inexpensive production, on a large scale, of books and pamphlets, newsletters, newspapers and magazines. Printing of a kind was known in China since at least the ninth century; in the mid-eleventh century a Chinese printer introduced a new device—movable type. These were widely used in the Far East, and by the beginning of the fourteenth century had reached Central Asia. During the first half of the fifteenth century these types, previously made of ceramic or wood, were for the first time cast in metal. Between 1440 and 1450 printing from movable, metal types began in Europe. Whether this was copied from the Chinese example or invented independently is disputed among scholars.

There is an interesting contrast in the dissemination of printing and of the paper which it uses. Both were invented in the Far East; both eventually reached Europe, where they enjoyed an enormous development. But the response of the Islamic Middle East to these two inventions was markedly different—a difference that exemplifies the changes that had taken place in Middle Eastern society during the intervening years.

According to the historians, the Arabs first encountered paper in 751 CE, when they won a victory over a Chinese force east of the Jaxartes River and, among other prisoners, captured some Chinese papermakers. These introduced their craft to the Islamic world. By the reign of Hārūn al-Rashīd (786–809), paper is already attested in Iraq, and thereafter first the use and then the manufacture of paper spread rapidly across the Islamic world and ultimately, via Spain, to Europe. The introduction of paper—a cheap, efficient, readily available writing material—transformed the conduct of government and, more generally, of communication. More relevant to our present theme, it made possible the production and distribution of written material of every kind on a scale undreamt of in the ancient world.

The second great Far Eastern contribution to the technology of writing, the printing press, seems to have bypassed the Middle East. The technology was not entirely unknown. There are some traces of wood-block printing in the Middle East of the Middle Ages and even an unsuccessful attempt in the late thirteenth century by the Mongol rulers of Persia to print paper money. This experiment was not repeated until the first Ottoman government bonds in the mid-eighteenth century. Printing came to the Middle East not from China but from Europe. For a long time it was resisted and was in effect confined to foreigners and to religious minorities. The first printing presses known to have been established in the Islamic Middle East were Jewish and were founded by Jewish refugees from Spain and other Christian countries toward the end of the fifteenth century. The Jews were followed by the Armenians, the Greeks, and the Arabic-speaking Christians in Lebanon, all of whom established printing presses for the production and distribution of books and pamphlets in their own languages and scripts. In authorizing these presses, the Ottoman sultans expressly prohibited Muslims from printing in Arabic characters. The reason usually adduced for the ban on printing in Arabic script is preventing the desecration of the sacred writing of God's holy book in God's holy language and script. Another possible explanation is the resistance of the well-entrenched guilds of scribes and calligraphers. But books in Arabic characters—in Arabic and other languages—were imported from Europe, and finally a Turkish press was authorized and established in Istanbul in 1727. Though it lasted only a few years, it was the first of many. Similarly, in Iran, printing was first introduced and practiced by non-Muslim minorities. Books in Persian were, however, printed in Europe and later in British-controlled India and were imported from both into Iran. The commonly accepted date for the first Persian book printed in Iran is 1817.

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