Ancient Sumerian Tablets

The Oldest Libraries of the Ancient World

Today my post is dedicated to all the book lovers out there! Bibliophiles will surely know that no amount of hashish can ever match up with the addiction that a book can offer. They deliver on their promise to take you on voyages even when the world is under lockdown. Bibliobibulis like me, who are constantly drunk on books, often wander through this maze of worlds contained in gigantic libraries, hearing and seeing nothing. Have you ever dreamt of waking up in the middle of the world’s biggest and oldest libraries, surrounded by nothing but books?

Oldest Libraries of the Ancient
Image: Pinterest

The idea of doing this write up popped up in my head when I recently read about The Villa of the Papyri, well preserved under layers of solidified magma which erupted from Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD. It’s not the largest library of antiquity, but it’s the only Graeco-Roman library to have survived with over 1000 papyrus scrolls. Looking at its pictures, I was fascinated with the idea of ancient libraries. Who built them ? What kinds of books did they contain ? What were the structures like ? The curiosity led me to find out more about such ancient temples of knowledge. Below is a list of some of the world’s oldest libraries. Hope you enjoy reading about them.

Oldest Libraries in the World

Bookshelves of Ancient Ebla. Image: History Today
Bookshelves of Ancient Ebla. Image: History Today
  • Ebla Library (2500 – 2250 BCE)

The ruins of this Royal Library of the ancient Kingdom of Ebla lie near Mardikh, Syria. It’s not operational but around 2000 clay tablets and around 4700 tablet fragments have survived. It was discovered around 1974-76 by Italian archaeologists from the University of Rome La Sapienza. Evidence suggests that these tablets were intentionally arranged and even classified subject wise. Evidence also suggests early transcription of texts into foreign languages and scripts, categorization and cataloging for easier retrieval, and arrangement by size, form and content.

Today, these tablets are held in museums in the Syrian cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and Idlib. They provide a wealth of information on Syria and Canaan in the Early Bronze Age. The contents of these tablets reveal that Ebla was a major trade centre. They focused mainly on economic records, inventories recording Ebla’s commercial and political relations with other Levantine cities and logs of the city’s import and export activities. The languages used are Sumerian and Eblaite (Sumerian Logograms). You can read more about Ebla here. If you wish to know more about these Sumerian Tablets, you can watch this informational video by Professor Nicholas Postgate, University of Cambridge. For a detailed video on the ancient kingdom of Ebla, watch this video.

  • Ugarit Library, Northern Syria. (1400-1200 BCE)

The Ugarit Tablets. Image: The BAS Library

Archeological evidence highlighting the existence of a rich literary legacy in Syria is suggestive of the fact that ancient Syria was an important centre of its own and not a mere bridge between Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Ugarit Archives were discovered in 1929 and thousands of clay tablets were discovered. These findings revealed that there was not one but multiple libraries at that time, including two private libraries which were uncommon and mostly unheard of around that time. One of those belonged to a diplomat named Rapanu. There was a temple library and a palace library as well. The archives discovered dealt with all aspects of the city’s political, social, economic, and cultural life.

The ruins of Ugarit, today known as Ras Shamra, have managed to survive the erosion of time and fires to preserve these ancient texts, whose alphabet is today known to be the greatest contribution in the evolution of humankind. Developed around 1400 BCE, the Ugaritic alphabet consisted of 30 letters, each corresponding to sounds. Although the letters were similar to other cuneiform signs, they were unique. The Ugaritic alphabet is considered to be the first alphabet in history. Learn more about the Ugaritic Alphabet here. If you wish to read more about Ugarit, you can check out this blog.

  • Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, Iraq (660 BCE)

The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal. Image: Vintage News

Named after Ashurbanipal, the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, this library was earlier believed to be the oldest surviving ancient library in the world. Though presently in ruins, it has managed to preserve around 30000 tablets from the 7th century BCE. The most famous text – which has remained intact – from Ashurbanipal is the Epic of Gilgamesh. This tablet is regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. English writer HG Wells calls it “the most precious source of historical material in the world.”

Discovered around the 1850s, the site today lies near the city of Mosul in Iraq. However, the tablets and archives are present in the British Museum. The texts were principally written in Akkadian in the cuneiform script. The tablets were often organized according to shape: four-sided tablets were for financial transactions, while round tablets recorded agricultural information. They have dealt with a wide array of subjects, including medicine, mythology, magic, science, poetry and geography. The British Museum’s collections database counts 30,943 “tablets” in the entire Nineveh library collection, and the Trustees of the Museum propose to issue an updated catalogue as part of the Ashurbanipal Library Project. You can maybe take a virtual tour of the archives of the British Museum here.

The Ancient Library of Alexandria. Image: Medium

Alexandria Library. Image: Ancient World Magazine

One of the best known and largest libraries of the ancient world, it’s a pity nothing survives of it today. According to some, it was a dream project of Alexander the Great. who apparently was inspired by the Royal library of Ashurbanipal. Post his untimely death, his able general Ptolemy built the great centre of knowledge. According to others, the idea of a universal library in Alexandria may have been proposed by Demetrius of Phalerum, an exiled Athenian statesman living in Alexandria, to Ptolemy I. Whatever be the story behind the genesis, the Library quickly acquired many papyrus scrolls, due largely to the Ptolemaic kings’ aggressive and well-funded policies for procuring texts. It is unknown precisely how many such scrolls were housed at any given time, but estimates range from 40,000 to 400,000 at its height.

Many influential scholars worked in the library over time. Some of the notable names include :  “Zenodotus of Ephesus, who worked towards standardizing the texts of the Homeric poems; Aristophanes of Byzantium, who invented the system of Greek diacritics and was the first to divide poetic texts into lines; Callimachus, writer of the Pinakes, considered to be the world’s first library catalogue; Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who calculated the circumference of the earth within a few hundred kilometers of accuracy; Apollonius of Rhodes, who composed the epic poem the Argonautica;   and Aristarchus of Samothrace, who produced the definitive texts of the Homeric poems as well as extensive commentaries on them.” The library flourished until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE and it was burned down and thousands of scrolls were lost. You can find out more about this ancient centre of learning here.

  • The Library of Pergamum, Turkey (197 BCE)

The Library of Pergamum. Image: History of Information

Constructed by members of the Attalid Dynasty, this ancient library was once home to a treasure trove of approximately 200000 scrolls. Located in the temple of Greek Goddess Athena, this library matched the likes of the legendary library of Alexandria. It continued to flourish until 133 BCE when the Kingdom of Pergamon fell to the Romans and the library grew neglected. According to a legend popularized by Plutarch, Mark Antony seized the collection of 200,000 rolls and presented them as a gift to his new wife Cleopatra in 43 BC, seemingly in an effort to restock the Library of Alexandria, which had been damaged during Julius Caesar’s war in 48 BC. Wondering what’s the enmity between Romans and books !

  • The Villa of the Papyri, Italy

Ancient Library in The Villa of Papyri. Image:

Located in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, this villa is named after its unique library of papyri (or scrolls), discovered in 1750. It was situated on the ancient coastline below the volcano Vesuvius with nothing to obstruct the view of the sea. It was probably owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius. According to a few, Philodemus, a Syrian poet, may have been the owner. In 79 AD, with the eruption of Mt Vesuvius, the town of Herculaneum was submerged under the volcanic material from pyroclastic flows. In the 1750s, during the excavation, the library was discovered and it contained over 1,800 papyrus scrolls, now carbonized by the heat of the eruption, the “Herculaneum papyri”. Many of the finds are displayed in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. The Getty Villa is a reproduction of the Villa of the Papyri. Know more about the Herculaneum papyri here.

  • Imperial Library of Constantinople, Turkey (330-360 AD)

A Marble Bust, probably of Valens.

It was a great library of the Byzantine empire. Founded by Constantius II, it was the last great library of the ancient world. He established the library to preserve the remaining works of Greek literature. The library also comprises the remains of the Library of Alexandria. After Constantius II, Emperor Valens hired calligraphers to make copies of Greek works onto parchment, which lasted longer than papyrus. Nearly all of the Greek classics known today are from the Byzantine copies from the Imperial Library of Constantinople. Unfortunately, not much of it remains today as it was destroyed in 1204. Fall of Constantinople, failure to maintain it, several fires etc. were causes which led to its destruction. Though most of the manuscripts have been destroyed, some managed to survive and were recovered.

  • Saint Catherine’s Monastery Library, Sinai, Egypt (550-565 AD)

The Saint Catherine monastery Library, Sinai. Image: Aleteia

Located at the base of Mt Sinai, it is the oldest operational library in the world. Saint Catherine’s Monastery Library is also the oldest functioning Christian Monasteries in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Due to its age and significance in the Christian world, the monastery’s library has the second largest collection of ancient manuscripts and codices. in terms of collection, its only second to the Vatican City. Among its thousands of ancient parchments are at least 160 palimpsests—manuscripts that bear faint scratches and flecks of ink beneath more recent writing. You can find out more about it here.

  • The House of Wisdom, Baghdad, Iraq (750-780 AD)

The House of Wisdom. image: The Culture Trip

Portrait of Razi polymath, physician and alchemist in his laboratory in Bagdad, Iraq. (Credit: Leemage/Getty Images)

Baghdad was a great centre of learning and culture and the house of wisdom was an integral part of this cultural centre. Established during the reign of the Abbasids, it was centered around an enormous library stocked with Persian, Indian and Greek manuscripts on mathematics, astronomy, science, medicine and philosophy. The House of Wisdom stood as the Islamic world’s intellectual nerve center for several hundred years, but it later met a grim end in 1258, when the Mongols pillaged Baghdad. According to folklore, so many books were thrown into the River Tigris that its waters turned black from ink. Those interested can further watch this documentary on House of Wisdom.

  • Al-Qarawiyyin Library, Morocco (859 AD)

The Al Qarawiyyin Library, Morocco. Image: The Guardian

This ancient is very much operational and a major tourist attraction in Morocco. Al-Qarawiyyin is often believed to be the oldest operational library in the world. It is a part of one of the oldest universities in the world which was founded by a woman named  Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy Tunisian merchant. For several decades the library had been closed to public except for few scholars. However, post renovation, the Government deemed it fit to be open to public 2017 onwards. You can read more about it here and here. Checkout this video on it here.

  • The Librije, Netherlands (16th century)

The Librije - Chained Books on their Lectern. Image: Atlas Obscura

Located in St. Walburga’s Church in the Gelderland province of Netherlands. The church is a relic in itself. The Church itself dates back to the 11th century and the librije is a 16th century relic. The library’s interior and exterior have remained nearly unchanged. Today, much of the book collection is still chained to reading desks.

  • Hereford Cathedral Library, England (11th century)

Home to a large and diverse book collection, it also features some of the finest examples of ancient handwriting. It is the only chained library to have all of the chains, rods, and locks still intact. The library is also home to a preserved antiphonary from the 13th century and features an ancient reliquary of oak.

  • Laurentian Library, Florence, Italy (1571)

The Laurentian Library. Image: The Museum of Florence

The Laurentian library is located in an arcade of the Medicean Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze. Today, it holds more than 11,000 manuscripts and nearly 5,000 books. According to its official website: “It comprises the most lasting cultural inheritance which the Medici family has passed down to the attention, care and admiration of posterity.” Read about the library’s history with the Italian banking family and Michelangelo’s involvement in its design.

The above list was mainly focused on the ancient libraries and though I have touched upon few medieval and modern establishments, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I would surely follow up with a detailed post on some of the most beautiful modern-day libraries where you can actually linger around and lose yourself among the immortalized souls.

Till then, here’s another great read about the great old treasures from some of these ancient libraries, including Codex Sinaiticus, a handwritten version of a Greek Bible, and the oldest surviving version of the complete New Testament. Happy Epeolatry, Scrollmates !!

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